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Conscription : Conscription during World War One

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, volunteers initially flocked to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for overseas service. By 1916 there were insufficient new volunteers to cover the AIF's massive casualties and to meet the British authorities' requests for reinforcements. The Prime Minister, WM Hughes, appealed directly to all eligible men to volunteer. His plea was supported by the work of patriotic organisations, and a campaign of propaganda posters, to raise more volunteers.

When it appeared that the recruitment targets would not be met, the government sought approval, by way of a referendum on October 1916, to require men conscripted into militia training to also undertake overseas service. The referendum of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:

Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?

As there were 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against the referendum failed. Of the Australians who voted, 57.6 per cent of South Australians opposed conscription; only New South Wales recorded a stronger 'no' vote.

The conscription issue was fiercely debated and created bitter divisions between supporters and opponents. The flavour of the disputes is given in letters written to relatives by two South Australians convalescing in England after active service.

Jack Jensen, in a letter to his Aunt Hannah dated August 1915, wrote,

I would not like to be sent back to Australia before the war is over. You see so many going about who will not enlist & the excuses they give would make your hair turn grey. One young chap who was asked to join said what had he got to join for. He had no wife no children & no parents depending on him so why should he fight let those fight who had something to fight for. These sort of men make you feel ashamed & you want to get away to your own men again. Of course the prospect of getting wounded again or killed is not very pleasant but I have seen some of my best mates killed & they died like men & if I can do the same I will be quite satisfied to go now. We all know we must die some time. If I am wounded again I will be able to bear it as I did the last time & if I am crippled I shall have to bear it as many another young chap is doing & I shall know at least that I have done my duty to the country which I have got my living in.

The letter of Victor Voules Brown, written much later on 19 May 1917, gives a contrasting view,

Last time you wrote you wanted to know why it was the troops in France did not vote for conscription. I told you as short as I could perhaps it was censored so will tell you again. To cut it short the boys in France have had such a doing of it, that they consider it murder (or near enough to it) to compel anymore to come from Aussie. And then again they consider once conscription is brought in it is the end of a free Australia (No doubt about it John Australia is the finest country in the world to my idea. When the vote for conscrip took place I was in Codford & I voted yes, but dinkum I am like the rest now I have seen it, & wouldn't compel anyone (barring the few rotters of single chaps that wont come. And of course to get them one would have to get a lot of others, so under the circumstances let them stop at home It is no good for a peaceful life over there & I can tell you I am not looking forward to the next dose.

The Library's archival collections contain detailed information about the unsuccessful attempts of two brothers, Llewellyn and John Jarman of Kingston in the south-east, to be exempted from the military service. Records include the brothers' personal papers, court applications, legal advice, newspaper articles and letters to the editor.

A decisive defeat of the second referendum on 20 December 1917, which proposed, 'Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?' ended the issue of conscription for the remainder of the First World War.

"...Only the brave deserve the fair": postcard
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"Remember ANZAC!" : World War 1 recruiting poster
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Application for renewal of Certificate of Exemption fro
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Australia's answer to Kaiser Bill
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Britain's strong arm and yours will carry us through. E
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Conscription and the proposed referendum
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Coo-ee! : World War 1 recruiting poster
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Enlist! Enlist!
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Fifty points against conscription : the case in brief
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Final letter about volunteering for active duty in the
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Follow up letter about volunteering for active duty in
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Letter about Jarman brothers' appeal
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