Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

WW1 and the fight against conscription in Australia

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In recent years there have been many commemorations to mark the 100-year anniversary of World War One (1914-1918). Very few however have noted the widespread opposition to the war, or the fact that on two occasions the majority of Australians voted against the conscription of men into the armed forces for overseas service.

The war years were a time of social turmoil. Some say that no issue, either before or since, has stirred things up more than the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917. Every level of society was affected by the fight with debates raging everywhere from lounge rooms, pubs and churches, to board rooms, courts and parliaments.

Patriotic wave

At the outbreak of the war the nationalist propaganda of the establishment helped to promote a patriotic wave. Labor came to power just after the war had begun, in September 1914, and at the time Prime Minister Andrew Fisher famously said that “Australia is in the war to the last man and the last shilling”.

Not only Labor, but the bulk of the trade unions supported the war effort in the early days. Many union leaders even suggested that workers should forgo pay rises and overtime rates as a way to show their support for the British Empire.

While the Australian Labor Party was not affiliated to the Second International, it mimicked the approach of most other social democratic parties around the world, who abandoned working class internationalism and opposition to imperialism, and instead backed their respective ruling classes. The only party that really bucked this trend were the Russian Bolsheviks, who stood by their socialist principles.

Workers were falsely told that the war was in defence of “democracy” and “civil liberties” and that it was the “war to end all wars”. Against the backdrop of those lies, and the betrayals of the Labor and trade union leaders, there was widespread confusion and workers initially enrolled in their thousands. At least 53,000 people signed up voluntarily, with 23,000 of them being trade unionists. While many were caught up in the patriotic fervour, others joined under economic duress.

Far from having anything to do with the defence of democratic rights, World War One was a conflict being waged for capitalist interests. The British Empire was in decline, while Germany’s rapid industrialisation meant that it was in need of more colonies to supply it with raw materials. The logic of profit-driven capitalism saw the major imperial powers pitted against each other in a brutal search for new markets to exploit.

Workers were told that the war would be short, but it soon became apparent that this was not to be the case. As the war dragged on inflation increased, and unemployment rose as world trade was severely disrupted.

Living standards began to plummet as the war effort became a major drag on government revenues. Making matters worse employers were taking advantage of the situation and profiteering at the expense of ordinary people. Labor had promised to consider measures aimed at controlling prices but they reneged under pressure from big business.

The patriotic wave soon began to give way to opposition and despair as, alongside hardship at home, the realities of trench warfare set in. The slaughter at the front was unprecedented with altogether some ten million people killed. Another ten million were seriously injured. Only 7,000 of the first 32,000 Australian volunteers returned home.

The attitudes of workers began to change as it became clearer that they were being used as cannon fodder in a war for profits. These changes were reflected within the trade union movement with a series of militant strikes taking place. All up 1.7 million work days were lost in 1916. Workers felt that they were sacrificing enough and they were pushing for the employers to start carrying the burden. Strikes against speed ups, for better wages, and for shorter hours took place, some of which were organised outside of the official union structures.

Issue of conscription

Against the backdrop of these conditions it was becoming much harder for the government to convince people to voluntarily enlist for the armed forces. Similar problems existed in Britain, and, in an attempt to bolster the ranks of the armed forces there, the government had introduced conscription. While some employer associations and patriotic groups like the Australian Defence League had raised the idea of conscription in Australia, the government had hoped that it would not be necessary.

At the end of 1915 Andrew Fisher was made High Commissioner for the Commonwealth and he was replaced as prime minister by Billy Hughes. In March 1916 Hughes went to Britain and also visited the front. While there he was put under pressure by the British government to provide 16,500 troops per month, but by this stage recruitment was in steep decline.

The British promised Hughes that if he could fulfil this quota he would be allotted a spot at the victor’s table when the spoils of war were distributed. While he was previously opposed to conscription, he changed his tune and returned to Australia in late July to wage a campaign for conscription to be introduced.

Hughes had a majority in both houses of parliament, so technically he could have changed the laws to introduce conscription. His problem however was not technical, but political. While he was away the mood in society had changed dramatically, and this was reflected inside the ruling Labor Party and the affiliated unions.

In May 1916 the trade unions held an All-Australia Trade Union Anti-Conscription Conference at Trades Hall in Melbourne. This conference brought together delegates from over 200 unions and it issued a strong statement against conscription. Important sections of the union movement were beginning to see conscription as a class measure, whereby labour was being compulsorily acquired but no such action was being taken against capital.

As a means of pressuring the government, the unions also demanded that any proposal for conscription be put to a plebiscite, or a public vote, rather than a parliamentary vote. This exacerbated the tensions that were already present within the government.

While Hughes was vigorously campaigning to win people to the idea of conscription, the state executives of his own party in Victoria, NSW and Queensland demanded that Labor MPs sign anti-conscription pledges. A number of Labor Party state conferences also came out against conscription in defiance of their leader. The public mood was such that any Labor MP seen to be supporting conscription would have risked being punished at the ballot box. In the end two thirds of all Labor MPs came out against conscription.

Putting a vote to the parliament would have exposed the deep divisions in Labor’s ranks and led to the party imploding. Instead Hughes opted to put the matter to a plebiscite. He had hoped that a public campaign supported by the bulk of the political establishment, the employers, the capitalist press, and the patriotic groups like the Australian Defence League would be enough to resolve the matter and re-establish his authority.

He set the date for October 28, 1916 and while Labor MPs would be free to campaign for whichever side they chose, once the vote was resolved all MPs would have to adhere to caucus discipline. A hugely polarising campaign began to get underway.

IWW pioneers


At the start of the war the only groups who stood unashamedly opposed were a handful of small socialist organisations and the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, or Wobblies as they were known, were central to laying to the foundations of the anti-conscription campaign. Most importantly they also injected the movement with a working class and internationalist content.

For example, one poster the IWW published said: “Let those who own Australia do the fighting – Put the wealthiest in the front ranks; the middle class next; follow these with politicians, lawyers, sky pilots and judges. Answer the declaration of war with the call for a General Strike … Don’t go to Hell in order to give the plutocratic parasites a bigger slice of Heaven. – Workers of the World, Unite! Don’t become Hired Murderers! Don’t Join the Army or Navy!”

For this poster the editor of the IWW paper ‘Direct Action’ was arrested and jailed as the material was allegedly “prejudicial to recruiting”. During the war years the message of the IWW struck a chord with many and the organisation grew to several thousand members. Their paper had a circulation of around 15,000 per edition.

When the issue of conscription reared its head the movement began to draw in a much wider variety of groups. The Wobblies, and other pioneers like the Victorian Socialist Party, combined with women’s groups, peace organisations, trade unions and many Labor Party members to campaign for a ‘No’ vote. In many cities and towns united front organisations were formed, and this strengthened the ‘No’ campaign immensely.

Even big sections of the Catholic Church came out in favour of a ‘No’ vote. In fact, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, became a well-known opponent of the war, denouncing the conflict as a “sordid trade war”. The attitude of many Irish Catholics hardened further after British troops crushed the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin. In the wake of the defeat the British killed some of the leaders of the uprising, including the socialist James Connolly. This further incensed people from an Irish background, who made up a significant 25% of voters in Australia.

Violence, repression and censorship

In its drive to win a ‘Yes’ vote the government did all it could to make things difficult for the anti-conscription forces. Violence, repression and censorship were all used to try and hamper and demoralise the ‘No’ campaign.

As well as being financed by big business, and receiving sympathetic coverage in most of the capitalist press, groups campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote received benefits such as the free use of public halls. Alongside Hughes, the ‘Yes’ campaign was supported by the opposition Liberal Party and the Protestant churches. The ‘No’ campaign had to fight to get a hearing every step of the way.

All those who campaigned against the war, and against conscription, were labelled shirkers, cowards and traitors. Anti-conscription meetings were regularly broken up by patriotic thugs, police and soldiers. Anti-war activists were routinely bashed. Encouraged by the establishment, there were incidents where ‘No’ campaigners were tied up and thrown into rivers while at least one anti-war activist was tarred and feathered. In some cases, workers were forced to organise their own defence units to protect the movement from the violent thugs.

Even producing written material was extremely difficult due to strict censorship and laws such as the War Precautions Act, which gave the government special powers. Any statement likely to “prejudice recruiting” was deemed illegal. The government used its powers to prosecute more than 3400 people during the war years. An estimated 2500 were issued jail terms. On numerous occasions print shops were raided and material deemed illegal was confiscated. The offices of unions and socialist groups were regularly targeted in an attempt to disrupt propaganda efforts.

As the fight became sharper the police and the military were increasingly used to repress anti-conscription events. On the night that Hughes announced that the plebiscite would go ahead, people spontaneously marched to Parliament House in Melbourne. They were met with large numbers of police and troops, who bashed and arrested many of the protesters.

Alongside the hundreds of individuals arrested for things like speaking out in public and handing out anti-war propaganda, the state cracked down hard on the IWW, making the organisation illegal. People could be jailed for six months just for being a member! In addition, twelve IWW members were charged with treason. They subsequently received jail terms of between five and fifteen years. The allegation was that the IWW intended to use arson as a form of sabotage and burn down parts of Sydney. A number of other IWW members were unceremoniously deported.

In the aftermath of the jailing of the twelve IWW members, it became apparent that they had been framed. They were eventually freed in 1920 after an impressive labour movement campaign but there is no doubt that, alongside sidelining the group, the state had intended to try and link the anti-conscription cause with criminality.

In many ways the crackdown on basic freedoms during this time backfired on the government. Workers were repulsed at being told that they were needed to fight abroad to in order to defend “democracy” while democratic rights and freedoms were being stripped left, right and centre at home. They responded by defying the government and engaging in an impressive number of mass actions.

Mass action

Across the country thousands of anti-conscription meetings took place in working class suburbs. Mass speak-outs were organised at the Sydney Domain and on the Yarra banks in Melbourne. In many workplaces stop work meetings were organised and in some cases, like on the Sydney waterfront, they were mass events attended by thousands of workers. In many instances workers voted to take strike action in support of the anti-conscription cause.

Most impressively mass rallies were held in all the major centres. Tens of thousands marched through the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, while big rallies were held in other locations. Trade unions held a one-day strike and organised their own 50,000-strong rally on October 4.

In a pre-emptive move, Hughes started calling up single men to be drafted into military camps in the month leading up to the vote. He had hoped that this would give the impression that the ‘Yes’ vote was certain to win and that preparations for conscription were already underway. But this act of arrogance backfired and it provoked more people to mobilise in favour of a ‘No’ vote.

At the same time Hughes had organised for the votes of soldiers already serving abroad to be taken first. He had hoped that amongst the war weary troops there would be a big ‘Yes’ vote and that this would boost his campaign at home. It was clear however that when voting started big sections of the troops were against conscripting their brothers into the bloodbath.

The government decided not to publish the troop’s voting results at the time. Even when the figures were released months later, they were not complete, therefore giving a skewed result. A number of historians suggest that, if the results were accurately tallied, they would have shown a majority of troops voted against conscription.

When the full results of the plebiscite were announced after the October 28 poll they showed that, against all odds, a majority of the population had voted against conscription. 1,160,033 people voted ‘No’, while 1,087,557 voted ‘Yes’ – a 72,476 majority for the ‘No’ campaign.

That the ‘No’ campaign was able to win a majority was a huge blow to the establishment, and particularly to Hughes. The Prime Minister snidely described the defeat as “…a triumph for the unworthy, the selfish and treacherous in our midst.” Most ordinary people however correctly saw it as a big victory.

Labor’s first great crisis


The result threw Labor into a deep crisis. Hughes had actually been expelled by the NSW branch of the party just prior to the poll, but he was admitted into the first Labor caucus meeting after the plebiscite was held. At this meeting a motion of no confidence was moved against him. Hughes walked out before the vote was taken, along with 24 of his supporters. The remaining 40 stayed and carried the motion.

The majority within Labor were compelled to take action against Hughes. If they had not acted to remove him, the party would have been disgraced in front of its working class voter base, the bulk of who had just voted against the advice of the Prime Minister.

After walking out, Hughes and his supporters split from Labor and formed a new cabinet. They established the new ‘National Labor’ party which ruled for a few months with the support of the Liberal opposition. In the early part of 1917 however, National Labor went on to formally fuse with the right wing Liberals and set up the Nationalist Party. Hughes stayed on as prime minister throughout this time. For this act of bastardry, Hughes infamously became known within the labour movement as “The Rat”.

The defeat of the plebiscite gave the working class a much needed boost. On the back of the win, struggle moved to an even higher level, with strikes continuing throughout 1917. The high point of this wave of industrial action was the 1917 general strike that began in the Randwick rail yards in NSW. Ostensibly it was triggered by the introduction of a card system, but in reality the strike was an expression of the widespread discontent that had been created by the war. The strike lasted 82 days and involved close to 100,000 workers. All up, four million work days were lost.

On the back of such a movement it would have been possible to topple the government and to immediately remove Australian troops from the war, but the trade union and Labor Party leaders had no plans to take the strike to its ultimate conclusion. In the absence of a bold strategy, the opportunity was squandered and the union leaders compromised, encouraging workers to return to work, largely on the governments terms.

Despite the loss the strike marked an important development. A major shift to the left was taking place in the trade union movement and in society as a whole. While the IWW had been smashed by this time, the idea of forming “One Big Union” gained pace. In addition, many thousands of workers were enthused upon hearing the news of the successful Russian revolution.

Second plebiscite

The government however decided to use the period after the defeat of the general strike to try and push once more for conscription. More casualties on the Western Front necessitated more troops and the government was determined to fulfil their obligations to Britain. They made arrangements to hold a second plebiscite on December 20, 1917.

Despite their repeated attempts to divide the ‘No’ camp, the second poll was also a failure – this time it was defeated by an even greater margin of 166,588. All up, 1,181,747 voted ‘No’, while 1,015,159 voted yes. It was clear that in the aftermath of the 1917 general strike people were viewing the war and the actions of the government in more clear class terms. This boosted the second ‘No’ campaign.

After the second defeat Hughes took the idea of conscription off the table. He understood that if he had’ve ignored the result, and rammed through conscription, the mood in society was so palpable that an even more thoroughgoing revolt would have broken out. Looking to the revolutionary wave unfolding in Europe he decided it was necessary to pull back in order to try and calm the situation down.

The 1917 Russian revolution helped end the war on the Eastern Front but the conflict dragged on until late in 1918. By that time Australia had lost more than 61,000 men, with another 160,000 returning wounded. If conscription had’ve been introduced these figures would no doubt have been much higher. Thousands of innocent lives were saved thanks to the hard work and commitment of the labour movement.

The years of 1916 and 1917 actually had a profound effect on the political development of the Australian working class. It was becoming apparent to many that working class people were being sacrificed in a war for profits abroad, as well as being exploited at home. From the point of view of the ideas that dominated at the time, the labour movement however was still too immature to grapple with the problem.

The Labor Party they had created was not strictly a worker’s party. As the experience of war showed it was a mixed breed, still very much influenced by capitalist interests at the top. The, albeit brief, ascendancy of the IWW helped to move things in a more positive direction but their syndicalist approach was far too limited to deal with the complex questions that capitalism had thrown up.

The experiences of the war years, coupled with the successful Russian revolution, saw things move to a new level with the establishment of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. Labor too was dragged to the left with the party adopting a socialist objective in 1921.

Rather than workers choosing to back one or another imperialist power there was a need to build organisations that stood uncompromisingly for the interests of the working class. The idea that socialism – a system based on public ownership and the democratic planning of the economy – could offer a viable alternative to the violent struggle for markets to exploit, was very much becoming a mainstream idea.

It is no surprise that the current day political establishment has chosen to ignore these aspects of history as they commemorate the 100-year anniversary of World War One. The idea of working people mobilising en masse to challenge the agenda of capitalism and imperialism is not something they want to be remembered. This however is what happened 100 years ago and it is bound to be repeated in the future.

By Anthony Main



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