Centenary of the First Conscription Referendum
Talks / Lecture
Reflect on the deep divisions this referendum imposed, and its long-term effects on Australian society, with Professor Joan Beaumont, Dr John Connor, Dr Michael McKernan and Professor Peter Stanley.
Transcript of ‘Centenary of the First Conscription Referendum’
Speakers: Peter Stanley (PS), Joan Beaumont (JB), John Connor (JC), Michael McKernan (MM), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
PS: Okay, thank you. Well good evening friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. Can you all see me? If not stand up. Welcome the third and I’m pretty sure it’s the final gathering of the Estaminet for 2016. My name’s Peter Stanley, I’m a member of the Organising Soviet of the Estaminet and it’s my privilege to chair this evening's panel discussion and I’ll introduce members of the panel presently.
Now first can I acknowledge the original custodians of the land on which we gather and let me mention several other things. First of all for those of you who don’t know what the Estaminet is it’s shorthand for Canberra Great War Studies Group which was formed in 2010 to advance discussion of the First World War in Canberra and indeed beyond. Now is there anyone who’s coming to an Estaminet event for the first time? Please wave. Oh goodness me, that’s great, isn’t it? That’s wonderful. Now the reason is that so many are here is not just because of the importance of the event that we meet to discuss but thanks to the National Library of Australia which provides the venue, which promotes the event as you would have heard no doubt from the National Library leaflet or its website or its message and also because of the energy and assistance of Stuart Baines who’s a great friend of the Estaminet and we very much appreciate the National Library’s ... providing the venue, promoting it and generally assisting historical discussion in Canberra. And I’m very pleased to report that this year we had three Estaminet meetings here, next year we’re planning to hold six so obviously 1917 is a big year and we’ll recognise that by a series of meetings.
Now the next thing to note is that because it’s a meeting of an organisation, although it’s a pretty pathetic organisation, it’s the ... I’ll pass the membership book around so if you wouldn’t mind just writing your name or your email address if you’d like to get advice in future. It’s for your own good but one day the attendance books of the Estaminet will be presented to the National Library and you will form part of the nation’s record so ... now I do my own organisation down because it actually isn’t much of an organisation because it exists only through this kind of activity. We have no membership lists, we have ... we only have a mailing list, we have no subscriptions and the Estaminet exists in order to foster discussion and debate and that’s what we’ll get this evening. Can I ask you to turn your mobile phones off ‘cause I haven’t? But it’ll happen.
Now down to business, today, the 28th of October 2016, is of course the centenary of the first referendum on conscription and I think the anniversary’s at least as important as the anniversary of any battle when Australian voters narrowly but decisively rejected conscription for the overseas service for the first time. To discuss and ponder on that event and its continuing importance and certainly its lasting importance we’ve invited three distinguished historians who happen to live in Canberra and I’ll introduce them as they go. Each speaker will talk for about 10 minutes ... Michael has obviously already begun his talk ... and then we will enjoy discussion between them and then we’ll all enjoy discussion between you and them. I’m just the chairperson. I’ll introduce them in the order in which they speak. Is there anything you’d like to say before I kick off the formality? No? Don’t feel cowed but there will be an opportunity.
I’ll introduce them in alphabetical order so to my immediate right, your left, Professor Joan Beaumont of ANU. Joan’s well known both nationally and internationally as an historian of war and the memory of war and she published in 2014 Broken Nation which is the first synoptic study of Australia’s great war for many years, probably since the last synoptic study of Australia’s great war that Joan published. And Broken Nation was a very, very handsome and distinguished volume and it won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History so we’re very privileged to have Joan here today. As I said in my review of Joan’s book for The Canberra Times reading Joan’s account of the conscription referenda I understood Billy Hughes’ motivations and personality for the first time so we’re privileged to have Joan. She’ll talk for 10 or 12 minutes about any aspect of the conscription referendum that she chooses and then her ... our colleagues here will engage her in discussion and then we’ll move on. Is everybody clear? Great. Thanks Joan.
JB: Well thank you very much, Peter. As Peter said we’ve had pretty much carte blanche and I thought I would talk about something that’s been interesting me recently which is ... and it seems a very obvious question but I don’t think we actually talk much about it ... why did Billy Hughes lose? I think in retrospect we sometimes think events unfold in a kind of inevitable manner but of course it was not necessarily the case that the no vote would succeed particularly because Australia was one of the very few belligerents in the British Empire that failed to adopt conscription. In early 1916 Britain and New Zealand both had and Canada adopted conscription in 1917. Now there was of course immense debate particularly in Canada about conscription and it was introduced at the expense of alienating the Quebecois any more than they were already alienated but still conscription was introduced and so the question really is what makes Australia different or as one scholar’s put it recently, unique?
And I think the point we have to start with is the self-evident fact almost that the Australian Labor Party was in government and it had a majority in both the lower and upper houses. Now as I’m sure Mr Turnbull will tell us having a parliamentary majority is an advantage for most governments but in the case of conscription having a Labor majority was actually a liability because along with liberals who had a ... generally an ideological objection to violating the citizen’s freedoms and rights the industrial Labor movement was I think a natural constituency against conscription.
So ironically the very strength of Hughes’ political base was a barrier to his doing what other imperial leaders did which was to try and introduce conscription through legislation because he knew that if he tried to push legislation through the houses of parliament ... legislation was required to amend the Defence Act ... it might get through the lower house with the help of the Liberal opposition but almost certainly it would fail to get through the Senate where there was a Labor majority. And he’d also been told very early in the debate about conscription that to try and push it through parliament would be to split the political Labor party into fragments. So he seems to have decided to go to the people in order to secure a popular mandate with which he could then essentially outflank his party’s ... his opponents within his own party and it’s important to remember that he was the only imperial leader who did that, had to do that which was to bypass parliament and go to a direct popular vote.
Now obviously Hughes thought when he took that risk that he would win because when he came home from a long visit in London of which I’ll speak more in a moment he received a rapturous welcome because he had emerged as a prominent imperial leader and he also prided himself on his political campaigning skills. But I think we need only to look to Brexit earlier on this year to see that referenda campaigns acquire a life of their own and if the debates that precede them are long ... and let us remember that the 1916 conscription debate was about two months’ long ... they slip out of the control of the politicians who initiate them and instead they provide a stage on which a plethora of grievances and protests that are not necessarily directly related to the specific issue under debate, can be articulated. And so it was in 1916, the campaign that Hughes unleashed turned out not just to be about whether it was militarily essential to have conscription, and there was much debate about that, but the campaign allowed the venting of much wider grievances particularly within the working classes about their declining standard of living, it exposed the depth of Protestant, Catholic sectarianism in Australia and most importantly, and I think this has been re ... emphasised in recent scholarship ... it revealed a deep clash of ideas and values and principles between different sections of the Australian political culture.
Now I think Hughes’ changes of prevailing in this context were compromised firstly by the timing of the campaign. I think it’s significant that both the British and New Zealand parliaments debated the matter of conscription before the battle of the Somme began and they did so immediately ... almost immediately after they had made great efforts to prove that voluntarism as it was called, that is, allowing men to volunteer themselves, was dead because they’d launched in Britain a national register and so-called Derby’s Scheme which tried to flush out those remaining eligible volunteers then a similar movement in New Zealand and indeed there was also in Australia in late 1915 the so-called war census and call to arms which tried to essentially shame people into volunteering. But it’s interesting that Hughes failed to capitalise on whatever momentum that he might have gained through the call to arms and the war census and instead he went off for some six critical months to London where he as I said spent a lot of ... had a lot of fun being an imperial statesman but they were months in which I think very significantly the Easter uprising occurred in Dublin and of course as I’ve mentioned the battle of the Somme began.
So the Australian public was being asked to vote on conscription against the backdrop of the battle of the Somme and the huge casualties particularly at Fromelles and Pozieres were of course the military justification in the eyes of the yes campaign for conscription but I believe they invested the debate in Australia with the hysteria of mass grief and despair really about the way in which the war seemed to be slipping beyond the control of any politician or military commander. And those emotions about grief and despair and frustration we see deflected passionately against political opponents at home and I do wonder, though I’m not prone to counterfactual history, what would have been the result of the conscription referendum had Hughes held it before the battle of the Somme in the second ... in the first half of 1916?
But of course even if he had he would have had to contend with what most historians agree was a critical factor in Australia which was the strength of the Australian labour movement. The trade unions had a membership of over half a million in 1914 and of course they had a dynamic and articulate press, they had a capacity to mobilise protests on the streets and most significantly they were able to influence in many electorates preselection for Labor candidates who were threatened with failing to have a future endorsement if they supported conscription. And even as soon as the conscription campaign began the Cabinet started to split and people started falling away from Hughes. And Hughes himself of course was quite soon ... quite early expelled from his own trade union movement so you got a very unusual situation I think in the empire where you’ve got ... the leader is campaigning without the support ... well majority support of his own party.
Now the power of the labour movement was particularly evident in the press, a very robust press. We hear a lot about the role played by the charismatic figure of Daniel Mannix in Melbourne but Mannix was not particularly active in the 1916 campaign as opposed to the 1917 one and indeed the Catholic hierarchy was divided and rather silent on the issue in the first campaign. So in some ways as my colleague, Frank Bongiorno, said in a recent book, we have to look to a plethora of people within the labour movement who led the campaign and as far as I’m concerned one of the unsung heroes ... ‘cause obviously I thought the campaign should ended on no ... was Henry Boote of the Australian Worker. And from 1915 on his paper launched a really quite brilliant, relentless and trenchant campaign against Hughes and we can never actually measure what its influence was but I think it has to be given a lot of credit of a mobilising opposition.
So for example the Australian Worker ran a very powerful scare campaign in the first campa ... in 1916 about whether married men would be called up. Now Hughes said that they wouldn’t be called up but there was a wonderful cartoon actually in 1917 which showed a pie with a nice crust and it said Hughes’ promises are like pie crust, always made to be broken. And one of the cartoons the Worker ran you know had a rather desperate-looking mother being asked by her child, why did you vote yes? Because I believed Mr Hughes that he would not take Daddy. And of course that played right into the fact that the British government had originally passed conscription only for single men and within a matter of months had started to call married men up as well.
So I imagine my colleagues might speak about the Irish Catholic movement and the significance of that but I think if you take the Irish Catholic problems into account and the general strength of the labour movement Hughes had been dealt a very difficult hand to play but I can’t but say he also played it rather badly. Everywhere that conscription was introduced across the British Empire, there were as I’ve said fierce debates and they required political leaders who had high-level skills of negotiation, compromise and alas they were not qualities that Billy Hughes possessed in abundance. On the contrary I think we can say that opposition tended to fuel his authoritarian tendencies and increasingly he used his emergency powers under the War Precautions Act to harass his political opponents closing anti ... or forbidding anti-conscriptionist meetings and so on.
And it seems that the very heavy-handed use of executive power on the part of Hughes’ government made some wavering voters shift to opposing conscription particularly when in late 19 ... late September 1916 Hughes made what I think was a major tactical error and used such powers as he did have under the Defence Act to call up men for home defence. He said oh we’re just going to have them in the camps training but everyone thought oh he thinks he’s going to win and he’s just going to have them there ready to go so it was seen as very arrogant and pre-emptive.
And I think there was another weakness in Hughes’ conduct of the campaign that he was very imprecise about what was actually going to happen. Now in contrast the British Conscription Act had made quite a few detailed provisions about conscientious objectors in order to get the support of some Liberals and the bill that Massey in New Zealand put to his parliament had 47 clauses and is generally recognised to have been a quite clever compromise which in fact Hughes then copied in 1917 to some extent. But the question that was put to the Australian public was virtually unintelligible you know it was very opaque and it required a level of trust to vote yes on that which clearly many people simply didn’t have in the case of the Hughes government.
So in conclusion why do I think the vote was lost? Or I might actually sometimes we really should talk about why the vote was won by the labour movement and I think how we answer those questions really depends on the relative weight as historians that we give ... may be theoretical ... to structure as opposed to individual agency. Hughes undoubtedly was dealing with some very severe structural problems, particularly the strength of the Australian labour movement, the failure of the British government to grant home rule for example which Hughes always thought was you know a huge problem for his winning on a conscription in Australia. In 1918 he more or less begged Lloyd George to do something about the Irish home rule question.
But despite those very significant structural issues I think we have to ask well how much was the defeat of conscription attributable to Hughes’ inability to surmount those structural problems? Could a more nuanced politician, more skilled politician, a more accommodating politician have prevailed? And the margin in 1916 for no was estimated to have only been 3.2% of the valid vote cast. Can I just say in passing that recent scholarship has shown that the turnout ... ‘cause this was before compulsory voting ... the turnout was over 82%. Australians were really passionate about this. And it’s possible given the slightness of the margin, particularly in ’16, that the yes campaign was winnable. I don’t think the ’17 campaign was winnable after the ’16 campaign had been lost but we can debate that.
Of course we’ll never know whether the campaign could have been won but I think what we can be sure of is that we’d be telling a very different story about Australian politics if it had been. And the narrative that we call the Anzac legend I suggest would have been very different, taken a very different form if the yes vote had won and conscripts had been introduced because essentially the Anzac legend is a celebration of a citizen in arms and it’s a variant on the very powerful European culture and cult of the volunteer.
PS: Thank you.
PS: Well thanks, Joan, for that lucid discussion of the politics of the referendum and indeed the influence of Hughes’ personality in its outcome ... see I didn’t say winning or losing, I said outcome. I’m not tipping my hand. Do you gents have anything to comment? Add? Question? Challenge?
MM: I was going to pick you up on ... you said Hughes was a very skilled campaigner and that raised alarm bells with me but then you covered it beautifully at the end because he wasn't, he was hopeless in the ... in both referendum campaigns. He was bad-tempered, abused his powers, hectored people, it was just terrible so I agree with you entirely.
JB: I think I said that he prided him ... he thought he had good skills ...
MM: Oh prided himself. No but he di ...
JB: And of course in Britain he ... I mean he was a great orator of a particular kind, just what he said was often very outrageous.
PS: John, would you ..?
JC: Do you think the difference ... he’s asking different things from the ’16 and ’17 referendum so if we had the hypothetical where he tries to do 1917 in 1916, would that have made a difference?
JB: Were you going to talk about that? About ’17?
JC: I was just going to talk about it in some general terms and talk about ...
JB: Well what he offered in ’17 was very similar to the New Zealand system and how Massey had persuaded people to support conscription was he gave every section ... every region a target, quota for voluntary recruitment each month and he said I’ll only call up such men are as necessary to top up the gap between how many volunteers we’ve got and how many we need so he didn’t have conscription en masse and he sheeted home the responsibility locally. And Hughes came up with a kind of variant on that, we’ll have a target and if we don’t meet the target we’ll use conscription. It’s ... yeah, might have made a difference because as I said the ’16 question was really carte blanche you know more or less, are you willing in this emergency to give the government such powers as it has in relation to Commonwealth ... and you know I think most people would have had difficulty in even understanding the question.
JC: So do you think if the ... you ... to ask you a hypothetical, if he had gone earlier in 1916 what do you think the outcome would have been?
JB: Oh ...
JC: Before the Somme losses which as you say infused the whole debate with emotion and grief and resentment?
JB: I think he would have had a better chance. I’m not saying he would have won but I think ... depends, I mean grief sort of played out in many different ways, I mean some people in their bereavement seem to have said well my son has died, why shouldn't yours? And other people said my son has died, I think you should keep yours. So we don’t really know but I think the very emotional character of the debate owes much to the fact that the ’16 campaign was fought out against the backdrop of the Somme and the ’17 campaign of course is after Passchendaele, right after Passchendaele and what we often forget is that the worst year of the war in terms of deaths and wounded was ’17 so you know by the end of ’17 people were just saying
MM: Peter, I wouldn’t like you to go too far into hypotheticals because you are editing a book for publication by the National Library in which I have a chapter premised on the fact that conscription won in 1916 and what happened. So just let’s not go there.
PS: No, let’s not, no. But we will in 2017, of course.
PS: Thank you. And you can see why the quality of this panel is such ... why it’s worth coming along today of all days to listen to these people of all people. Can I move on to introduce John Connor? Dr John Connor, my colleague from UNSW Canberra who is the author of ... wave the book around, John, Anzac and Empire, a Biography of George Foster Pearce who of course is Billy Hughes’ colleague and supporter and indeed one of the co-authors of the War at Home, part of the Oxford Centenary History of Australia and the Great War. So John is one of the experts on Australia's wartime politics and indeed represents the up-to-date scholarship that infuses this debate. John has just published an essay in a book that will be launched tomorrow at ANU called the Conscription Conflict and the Great War so this is up to the mark. John, would you like to give us your thoughts on conscription? Your time starts now.
JC: Thank you. Well what I’m wanting to do is pro ... just lead off with the question which I sort of cunningly asked John just that while ago to say looking at the 1916 vote and the 1917 vote in Australia and then looking about what does this say about conscription? But what I think is that when you introduce conscription you’re either doing two things, you’re ... obviously you’re coercing men to join the army but you can either do it to expand an army or you can do it to sustain an army and what I think is one of the things with ... one of the issues ... one of the problems which Hughes had in 1916 was that when he was saying we’re going to introduce conscription there was no idea of how much he was looking to do. And if you look at George Pearce, and I can just point out there is a very good biography of him, is that Pearce who was Defence Minister in Hughes’ government would say that what he was looking to do was he’ll fight the Australian divisions on the western front but this was we need to have another division, that we need to have a sixth division, that if people are serious about the war we need to ... and so it was not saying ... it was saying that if you vote for conscription what you’re going to be voting was to take even more ... more men out of Australian society and expand the army.
When Hughes tries conscription again in 1917 he’s asking something very simply and as Joan very sort of well described it, it’s that you have quotas, what you’re doing is just trying to sustain the force that you have. If you look at how this works well is in New Zealand so in New Zealand you have 70,000 volunteers volunteer in the First World War. In 1916 they introduce conscription but the number of conscripts they have, 32,000 so less than half of the number of volunteers. What they do is they say we have an infantry division on the western front, what we will do is we will take people only enough to sustain that unit.
And they tried to make that thing of having these exemptions where you could say this person ... is this person better off being a soldier or is this person better off doing the job they’re doing at home? Now the ... in theory that worked but in reality it didn’t quite work because you had local sort of patriotic committees who were the people who would decide who would go and who wouldn’t to fill that quota which was there set, if there weren’t enough volunteers you’d have conscripts to fill up this quota. And the problem was was that the local patriotic committee would say look, you have to go and then there was a very quaintly New Zealand thing called the National Efficiency Board and the National Efficiency Board actually then did come in and actually have to sort of oversee and say look, this person’s a farmer, maybe this person’s better off staying in New Zealand making butter for Britain. And so they did have that thing but you can see that conscription can come in in different ways.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is to say that conscription was very common, that ... and this is then the interesting thing about why Australia doesn’t have conscription and I think that sort of the points that Joan made are probably the reasons why that’s not but that ... if you see it in the fact that you ended up with ... in Britain, you ended up in New Zealand, you end up with it Canada, you ended up with Newfoundland which then was a separate place to Canada so it’s quite common across the empire. You even have conscription in Jamaica so in 1917 there is introduction of conscription in Jamaica, of actually taking ... and there’s a question about what is this? Is this a fear of uprising in the local population ‘cause the economy’s in trouble? But then what happens is is that they ... they actually ... having trained these people in training camps they actually say well look you know okay, we’re ready to ship these people off to Britain but there’s a ... the ... there’s a shipping shortage and so any ship which can be used to do anything is sailing from Britain to Canada and the United States bringing wheat, bringing munitions and these sorts of things and there’s no ships going to the Caribbean. And so they actually have to say to these Jamaican conscripts, look, sorry, we can’t ship you to the war and I’m sorry to disappoint you but you’re not going to the trenches. And they just get ... and they get ... they just get sent out to camp and they just go back into civilian life.
The other thing about conscription is also about who you conscript and New Zealand and South Africa provide very interesting cases about this. Well actually it’s also a more formally about recruiting to be perfectly exact. In South Africa there was a realisation that you had as you know an Afrikaner-led government but they were Afrikaners who were for the link with Britain and were supporting the war. The Afrikaner majority was against that you know you had the revolt in 1914 of people actually wanting to take advantage of the British declaration of war to expel the British out of South Africa.
What happens is that the ... when it comes to recruiting that ... in the case of South Africa, very few South African soldiers go to the western front. And there’s some interesting correspondence between the Colonial Secretary in Britain and the South African Governor General saying well look, we actually don’t want too many white South Africans going because the ones who are likely to enlist are the people who are pro-British and if they go off and get killed in the trenches that means that the ... post-war, the whites will have the political preponderance ... are the ones who are anti-British. The same thing happens in New Zealand when it comes to the issue of conscription. When conscription is introduced it only is for Pakeha, it’s not for Maori. Why is the reason for that? Is because if you know anything of New Zealand, that the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, you have the Waikato and the other tribes of what they call the King Country who ... they’d set up their Maori king as a balance to the queen ... to Queen Victoria. They’re still, having had their land confiscated in the 1860s, are virulently against the government.
So what would happen if you introduce conscription among Maori? The pro-Maori tribes such as the Arawa and others, you might be able to conscript them so they’d go off and go off to the western front, end up in the trenches, the ... and if they all get ... and then the anti-British Maori, the Waikato and such, they would not, they would refuse. So they realised well if they do that what’s going to happen to Maoridom after the war? All the leaders are going to be coming from the people who oppose the war and all the people who were ... supported the war had gone into the army; they’d get killed in the trenches so it would affect the balance of Maori politics. And in ... when the New Zealand government comes to actually introduce conscription in 1918 what they do is they say okay, we’re introducing conscription but they don’t actually conscript any of the pro-British Maori, they actually go and they conscript from the Waikato and the treatment of them is similar to the things you’ve heard of New Zealand conscious objectors of being sort of imprisoned and these sorts of things, this is the same thing which happens to the Waikato leaders in 1918. So there are these interesting things about conscription.
The last thing I’d like to say is that because this issue of introducing conscription is not a European issue, in Europe most places have conscript armies, where it is significant is in the British empire, the English-speaking world, the British empire and the United States because these places have a tradition of having volunteer forces. What it means is that you can have what we call a coronat ... sorry, a conscription conversation going ... is going on so when you have the 1916 referendum in Australia then this is something which is being discussed in the United States and in Canada. And some of the timings are very interesting so it was only last night when I was hurriedly or very casually doing my notes about what I was going to say, I realised that the election in Canada which is then the impetus for introducing conscription, happens only three days before the 1917 referendum and it shows you then ... I think one of the other things with this is that this is something which is important in Australia but it was also important in other places and the connections between these different places was something which was obvious to the people at the time and it’s probably something that should be obvious for us when we’re trying to understand what happened a hundred years ago.
PS: Thank you.
PS: Do either of you have anything to offer?
MM: All I’d like to say is I learnt a lot. I certainly like the idea of introducing conscription and then not having any boats to get people off to the front, I think that’s brilliant.
JB: Well that’s what I ...
PS: In fact they should have renamed it, not Jamaica but Ja make him.
MM: Oh that’s terrible.
JB: Yes well I mean there was a lot of debate about exactly how many so-called eligible were out there that could have been rounded up and sent off to the western front because of course there were significant attrition rates through medical examination and so on but John raises a very interesting point about shipping and I was just wondering you know had Hughes managed to bring in conscription how many more men might ... Australians might have got to the western front and by what time because as you say in your recent chapter, I mean sometimes, say Newfoundland, conscription comes in so late that it doesn’t actually make much difference to the battles. Now I think there is no doubt that the failure to introduce conscription did create serious power problems on the western front, not just the failure to produce a sixth division but by September 1918 the five divisions were really, really struggling and they were very ... well something like half strength and in one of the things that my editor didn’t want me to put in the book but I persisted with that obstinacy as some people know I’ve got was to speculate what if the war had ended with an Australian defeat? Would we have had a kind of stab in the back movement in Australia? You know you let us down at home, we didn’t have the men, our divisions were only half strength so don’t know whether you think ... how many we wou ... Pearce would have managed to get across to the western front had ..?
JC: That’s a very interesting thing because as you say that shipping has become a big issue for the British, that ... I’m trying to think of the statistic, it’s a third or a two ... it’s a ... the amount basically ... the amount of ... Britain is an island which cannot feed itself. It has such a large population it has to rely on imported food so what happens is as the war goes on, that it ... well the immediate declaration of war caused a problem for Britain because when they used to import wheat they could import it from Russia and then of course when Turkey joins the war that means you can’t brig stuff through the Dardanelles and this is one thing which is ... one of the reasons why the Dar ... Gallipoli campaign happens is because you’re trying to free that up so that way the Russians can export wheat. But it means then ... but okay, you can get wheat from Canada but those ships take longer to sail than a ship from Russia and so what you end up doing is you’re still able to get stuff but the ships ‘cause they’re sailing longer, actually carrying less because they’re spending so much time in transit.
And what then happens is is that the British say we need to concentrate as many ships as we can on ships coming to Britain and doing the shortest possible route they can and this really affects Australia, Australia's really badly affected by the ... by this shipping crisis, for want of a better word. And I think that’s something again which ... why is it in 1916 that you’ve got the fact that you’ve got shortages, you’ve got price increase, you’ve got these things happening in Australia from an economic point of view and I don’t think ... that’s another thing if you’re looking at why is ... why are say the labour movement and other people upset? Is because of the economic effect of the war and I don’t think ... and Hughes has done thing of trying to get those ships and things but he’s not able to do anything which can really solve the problem of the economics.
PS: That’s right, it’s a global problem. Can I just ask where the membership book’s up to or the address books up to? Oh good so it’s reached the back row, very good, okay. Can I turn to our third speaker ... thank you, John ... can I turn to our third speaker? Author, broadcaster, historian, Dr Michael McKernan who probably needs no introduction to this audience but I’ll do it anyway. He’s written on all sorts of things, sport, social history including a number of books on the great war, Short History of Gallipoli, History of Victoria and the Great War and in the early 1980s he published a wonderful book called The Australian People and the Great War which very rightly was reissued in 2014 ... this is your cue to wave the book ...
MM: Wave the book, yes.
PS: ... to wave the book. It’s called ... what’s it called?
MM: It’s called Australians at Home in World War I.
PS: Australians at Home in World War I and it’s on sale downstairs as are all the books that I’ll speak of tonight. Now as I say it’s rightly been reissued. Some people might say it’s a pretty low trick to reissue a book with a different title to people who bought the book 30 years before into thinking they bought a new book. I wouldn’t be one of those people, of course. What Michael has to say about the Great War remains interesting and I invite him to give us the benefit of his thoughts, thank you.
MM: Thank you, Peter. I first published on conscription in 1977, it was the first thing I ever published. That’s 30 years ago, by the way.
PS: It’s shrunk.
MM: It was an article in historical studies called Catholics, Conscription and Archbishop Mannix so I’ve been banging on about conscription for quite a long time and whether I have anything new to say tonight I’m not completely certain.
In that article I argued that the Catholic hierarchy in Australia in 1916 was either neutral on the question or in favour of conscription. The Sydn ... Catholic Sydney Archbishop Michael Kelly was a member of the Universal Service League since its formation in early 1915, he was very strongly in favour of conscription. Archbishop Mannix in 1916 whom Joan has mentioned argued against conscription not on religious grounds but fearing the damage the introduction of conscription would do to the Australian economy and to the Australian people. Workers applauded him in 1916 and Catholic workers, and this is the point I make in the article, Catholic workers dragged a protesting hierarchy into the no camp for the 1917 referendum. And indeed the Apostolic Delegate is seeking to give a blessing to the crowd, the St Patrick’s Day event in 1917, was rudely interrupted because the Catholic people at the occasion were annoyed that William Holman, the Premier of New South Wales and prominent pro-conscriptionist, was on the platform so they booed him and the Apostolic Delegate didn't get to do this blessing.
But this evening I want to move from that global picture to a much more intimate one. Two of my great-uncles were killed on the western front, one in July 1918, one in August 1918. I experienced the lifelong grief this caused to my grandfather who was always known in our family as Barp. Both of his brothers served in the 14th battalion and although nominated themselves Church of England on their enlistment papers the battalion’s chaplain, Frank Rolland, known in the battalion as the cocoa king, officiated at their funerals and he was an excellent chaplain and became a very long-serving headmaster of Geelong College and was the first clergyman in Australia to be knighted.
Having officiated at the funerals he then wrote to the men’s parents, my great-grandparents, about each man’s death. In the second letter after the second death the chaplain seemed genuinely to grieve for the sorrowing parents. He wrote in part that the officers had tries to keep Rupert out of the front line knowing of the recent death of his brother, Claude, but they were unable to do so, and these are Rolland’s words, they were unable to do so because the recent defeat of conscription at home meant the battalion was starved of reinforcements.
Perhaps we might consider briefly the possible impact of this statement on the grieving recipients of the letter. Rupert might be alive, they might have reasoned, but for the traitorous, disloyal, possibly Catholic rabble who voted down conscription. Or worse, the parents, William Edward Thomas and Louisa Thomas, might themselves have voted no in one or both referendums in which case they might have thought of themselves as complicit in their own son’s death.
I’ve long thought it unwise and possibly even cruel of Chaplain Rolland to have referred to the outcome of the referenda in his letter of condolence. I have wondered if he did this commonly in his condolence letters of 1917 and ’18 and sometimes he was spending up to two, three days a week in 1917 and ’18 writing condolence letters so this was no small task and whether if other chaplains used the outcome of the vote to excuse the death of the well-tested men in the front line.
Rolland was not an inexperienced chaplain nor a novice at war, he had enlisted in 1915 and after postings in Egypt and England he was appointed to the 14th battalion. He was awarded the Victor ... the Military Cross for his bravery and devotion to duty. His biographer wrote of him, his concern was for people with a special compassion for the ignorant, the wilful and the disadvantaged, for the private soldier, the settler’s wife, the schoolboy not academically gifted and yet he could write what I thought was a very difficult letter blaming in part at least the outcome of the conscription referenda for the death of their two sons.
Some of you will know of Jugiong, an attractive village in a very beautiful area of Australia dominated by the Murrumbidgee and by the gentle hills that the river has formed over a very long time. I did a book on Jugiong some years ago and I noticed something that is very unusual in any Australian country town or village, or the older Australian suburbs, for that matter. There is no memorial to the men of the First World War in the village of Jugiong, no mournful soldier standing on his plinth, no simple obelisk bearing the names of the men and women who served, with asterisks marking the names of those who had been killed. No memorial avenue of trees, no war memorial of any kind and that is odd. Does this mean that Jugiong played little or no part in that awful war? Not a bit of it. A small village of probably not more than 150 people at the time, Jugiong sent 38 men and one woman to the war, four of whom would be killed at the front. How could the village have felt anything other than great pride at this level of enlistment from its own people?
Most of you will know that the conscription referendums in Australia in 1916/17 and in which Daniel Mannix played a much more prominent part in 1917 but in 1916 had described conscription as the undignified process of spurring the willing steed. At both referendums Jugiong voted no with greater strength of voice than for Australia as a whole where no won on both occasions with narrow majorities. New South Wales Labor Premier, William Holman, was a strong advocate for conscription and he left the Labor Party and snatched government in New South Wales from the Labor Party over the issue. Holman besides being Premier was also Jugiong’s local member for his electorate of Cootamundra included the village of Jugiong. There was a state election in New South Wales in 1917 and Holman’s opponent in Cootamundra was a loyal Labor man, prominent anti-conscriptionist and prominent Catholic, Patrick Joseph Minehan. Wherever Minehan went throughout the electorate during the campaign he was accompanied by virulent anti-Catholic propaganda. He was told that Rome and the priests directed their people to vote down conscription, that Catholics were disloyal to the empire, to the war effort, disloyal to Australia. Conscription you see had opened wide sectarian divisions in Australia and also in Jugiong.
The village voted strongly for Minehan in the election but elsewhere the vote was for Holman and he retained the seat. Soon enough the war ended and the soldiers started to return home. Of the 39 who had gone to war from Jugiong, of the 35 who would return home, 23 of them were Catholics, just on 60% of Jugiong’s enlistments when overall in Australia the Catholic proportion of men mirrored the Catholic percentage in the general population of just 20%. A war memorial in Jugiong would have put the lie that the self-styled loyalists had been peddling since the loss of the first conscription referendum in 1916 that the Catholics were the disloyalists, that they had not played their part in the war. They had carried Jugiong’s war effort and were the wealthy classes about to build a war memorial to demonstrate that and that is why I think there is no war memorial in Jugiong and I think those two examples that I’ve given you of my great-uncles and the impact of their death on their parents in relation to conscription and the absence of a war memorial in Jugiong show you how profoundly the conscription debates penetrated in Australia and continue to penetrate probably until all the voters had finally died. Thank you.
PS: Thank you, Michael. They’re powerful stories. I’m conscious of the time and I’m very keen to introduce you guys into the discussion so Stuart has a microphone ... thanks, Stuart ... if you’d like to quiz our ... any of our speakers, put your hand up. Yes, there’s a gentleman in the back in the light blue. Please, this is being ... I should say this is being recorded for the National Library’s excellent podcast series so if you want to be famous tell us your name and put your question or comment.
A: I don’t want to be famous but it’s Colin Ingram. Question, you said 60% who went were Catholic. Well what was the percentage of Catholic in the village?
MM: In Jugiong? It was a strongly Catholic village because it was settled by Irish people and it would have been more than 50% so the Catholic enlistment was slightly higher than even the proportion in the village.
PS: Virginia, yes. Thank you.
A: I was just wondering what influence the serving soldiers had on the referendum. ‘Cause there wasn't overwhelming support either way.
JB: No, no.
PS: Joan, you might be the best person.
JB: Yes well Hughes was very confident that the serving soldiers would vote yes. I mean Hughes prided himself on having a strong rapport with the soldiers and you may know his soubriquet was The Little Digger. And he initially planned to have the soldiers vote early and then release the results as a way of encouraging the people ... voters at home to vote yes but then as the campaign progressed in 1916 it became clear that the soldiers’ vote was not guaranteed to be yes and so Hughes went into overdrive with the help of Keith Murdoch who was working in London as Hughes’ public relations officer in effect and tried to influence the soldiers’ vote and ultimately it was a narrow margin for yes. And there’s been a lot of speculation and we don’t really know why that you know what influenced the soldiers’ vote but one of the most famous theories was by Murdoch himself that the soldiers at the front actually in battle didn’t vote yes, it was the men in training and the men in the Middle East in the Palestine where the campaign was much more exotic. But yes, the soldiers did narrowly vote yes but from my own work I looked at a lot of memoirs and diaries and letters and there were a range of opinions, some people saying well we don’t want conscripts over here, others saying well of course they’d bloody well better come and help us so it was quite ambivalent.
PS: John? Michael?
PS: No? Gentleman in green.
A: Yeah, I just wonder what the reaction in the rest of the empire was to the failure of conscription to pass?
PS: The empire expert.
JC: Well yes. In the case of say Canada there was this ... yeah and New Zealand ... New Zealand, the Defence Minister, James Allen, he wrote to the Prime Minister, William Massey, who at that stage was doing one of his trips to London which he liked to do ...
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