The Great War – 14 – 20 December, 1917

…it seems that many battles of 1917 – Bullecourt, Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, perhaps even Passchendaele – elude popular cultural imagination. Ghastly though they were, they lacked the form, drama and sense of place that shape a strong heroic narrative. They presented no scaling of cliffs, no climactic moment like the charge at the Nek. They gave centre stage not to courageous individuals – though there were plenty of these – but to artillery, poison gas, air power and all the other lethal technology of mass industrial warfare. If Peter Weir were to make a sequel to Gallipoli called Broodseinde, we can only wonder what its dramatic climax would be. [1]

While 1917 was our costliest year of the war with more than 76,000 Australian servicemen either killed, wounded or taken prisoner, it was the political rancour at home that drew as much, if not more, attention than events on the battlefields overseas.

The October 1916 conscription referendum had deeply divided the country. Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes, a staunch supporter of the war and the need for conscription to sustain the Australian effort, walked out of the Australian Labor caucus on 14 November 1916 together with 24 of his supporters. With the support of fellow Labor dissident Joseph Cook and his Commonwealth Liberal Party Hughes formed the Nationalist Party on 17 February 1917 with Hughes as leader and Cook as his deputy.

Although the new party comprised predominantly former Liberal Party members there were enough Labor members for it to appeal to all classes and portray itself as a truly unifying nationalist party. Hughes and his Nationalist Party undertook not to force conscription legislation through the Parliament should it be successful at the May 1917 election without first referring the matter to the Australian public through a second referendum. In a campaign speech at Bendigo in March 1917, Hughes said:

The Government accepts the verdict of the electors of October 28th, and appeals to the patriotism of the people to uphold the honour of Australia by maintaining the Australian divisions at their full fighting strength by voluntary enlistment… If, however, national safety demands it, the question will again be referred to the people. That is the policy of the Government on this great question.[2]

The election, held in May 1917 vindicated Hughes’ decision to break away and his Nationalist or “Win the War” Party surged to the biggest electoral victory since federation. Of the 18 Senate seats contested, all were won by Nationalist Party candidates. Instead of the government have a working Senate majority of two, through agreements with independents and disaffected major party members, it now had a majority of 12, and it increased its Lower House majority from 23 to 33, its win the war platform finding favour with the majority of the Australian public.

The election result further disenfranchised rusted-on Labour voters who, before the election, were firmly supportive of the war effort and Australia’s part in it, but then became vehemently opposed to anything the newly elected Nationalist Party government attempted leading to bitter partisanship. As a result enlistments in 1917 continued to decline from more than 4,500 per month in May to 2,247 in December.

Recruiting campaigns attempted to redress the declining numbers. Scarcely a public place was not adorned with recruiting paraphernalia and the extreme efforts of some, such as the ‘one woman, one recruit’ league, targeted individuals. In one instance ‘To the joy of the league, one baker enlisted after “two years of unremitting effort” on the part of a determined woman’.[3]

Following restrictions surrounding the consumption of alcohol in most states, the government went so far as to restrict public sports meetings in September 1917, long an affront to loyalists. Other restrictions were placed on boxing matches and horse races, although football matches in Sydney and Melbourne were left largely untouched.

“The Death Ballot”, a campaign poster for the “No” vote. (State Library of Victoria).

Regardless of their persistence or novelty, the campaigns failed to address the declining number of volunteers. This was against the backdrop of a request from British authorities for the commitment of a sixth Australian Division that the Australian Government assessed would require 7,000 enlistments per month to maintain.

While the Prime Minister could have used his numbers in Parliament to pass conscription legislation, he had made a promise to the Australian people that he would seek their endorsement by way of a referendum before doing so. On 7 November 1917, the Prime Minister announced Cabinet’s decision to hold such a referendum on Thursday, December 20th.

The question to be put to the Australian people was:

Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force overseas?

The question had to be considered against an elaborate scheme that targeted the recruitment of 7,000 men per month between the ages of 20 and 44, selected by a ballot from single men, widowers and divorcees without dependent children. Those exempt would include ministers of religion, justice employees, employees working in vital war industries, as well as the physically unfit. Conscription, a word notably absent from the question, would only be used to bridge the gap between monthly volunteer enlistments and the targeted 7,000.

The 1917 campaign proved to be more violent than that in 1916. Speakers at rallies were heckled and jostled. ‘At a Brisbane meeting of a newly formed Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League, a young pacifist named Margaret Thorp was “rolled on the floor, kicked and punched and scratched” by a “seething mass of struggling women”.’[4] Fights broke out even between members of the same family.

So concerned about the outcome was the Prime Minister that on the night of 26 November he ordered a raid on the Government Printing Office in Queensland to confiscate copies of the Queensland Government Hansard, where anti-conscription sentiments had been raised, that were to be mailed out to Queensland homes.

And on 29 November 1917 the Warwick egg incident led ultimately to the establishment of the Commonwealth police force – later the Australian Federal Police. Two Australians of Irish descent, Pat and Bart Brosnan, threw eggs at the Prime Minister whose train had stopped at Warwick in Queensland’s Darling Downs. One egg hit the prime minister’s hat, starting a fight as Hughes’s supporters laid into the assailants, who were removed from the station. After order was restored, Hughes began his speech. But Pat had returned and started interjecting. Hughes jumped off the platform and into the crowd shouting: “Arrest that man!” The Queensland Police refused.

While the Warwick egg incident was significant for its downstream effect of the establishment of the AFP, it was more importantly an indication of the deep divisions in Australian society at the time, exacerbated by the hard-fought political campaign over conscription: Irish Australians versus British Australians; Catholics versus Protestants; labour versus capital; empire loyalists versus Australia-first nationalists; the Queensland government versus the federal government.

Both sides offered overstatement, exaggeration, unworthy motives to opponents, and all the customary features of excited political controversy that characterised the campaign. The Reinforcements Referendum Council authorised the publication of a leaflet entitled “The Anti’s Creed” in which it was asserted that those who vote ‘No’ held such beliefs as:

  • I believe that men at the front should be sacrificed
  • I believe it was right to sink the Lusitania
  • I believe in murder on the high seas
  • I believe in the murder of women and baby killing
  • I believe that treachery is a virtue

There were 24 items in this ‘creed’, which can hardly have had the effect of winning the votes of intelligent persons for the “Yes” side.

On December 20th Australia again voted ‘No’ to conscription by an increased margin from the 1916 attempt. Western Australia, Tasmania and the Territories voted Yes, but the overall 54%-46% margin was emphatic. Deployed soldiers and those being deployed, voted yes but only by the relatively small margin of slightly over 1,600. As Charles Bean wrote, ‘…they are disinclined to force anyone into it if he doesn’t want to come’

As 1917 drew to a close, and despite the relative successes in Europe and the Middle East in recent times, war weariness was beginning to take hold.

Result
State On

rolls

Ballots

issued

For Against Informal Result
 %  %
New South Wales 1,055,883 853,894 341,256 41.16% 487,774 58.84% 24,864 No
Victoria 807,331 678,806 329,772 49.79% 332,490 50.21% 16,544 No
Queensland 378,378 310,164 132,771 44.02% 168,875 55.98% 8,518 No
South Australia 261,661 197,970 86,663 44.90% 106,364 55.10% 4,943 No
Western Australia 162,347 135,593 84,116 64.39% 46,522 35.61% 4,955 Yes
Tasmania 106,803 78,792 38,881 50.24% 38,502 49.76% 1,409 Yes
Northern Territory and Federal Capital Territory 4,037 3,002 1,700 58.22% 1,220 41.78% 82 Yes
Total for Commonwealth 2,776,440 2,258,221* 1,015,159 46.21% 1,181,747 53.79% 61,315 No
Obtained majority in three States and an overall minority of 166,588 votes.
Not carried

* Including 199,677 votes by members of the Australian Imperial Force, of which 103,789 were for, 93,910 against, and 1,978 informal.

[1] Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation – Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, NSW, 2013, p. 392
[2] Ernest Scott, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol XI, Australia During the War, Fifth Edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1939, p. 393
[3] Beaumont, op. cit., p. 375
[4] Ibid., p. 384

Caption: A large crowd of spectators in Collins Street during the Conscription Referendum campaign listen to soldiers addressing the gathering from a dais. (December 1917, AWM J00336)