A life-and-death question
Prime Minister ‘Billy’ Hughes liked to be known as The little Digger. Hughes was confident Australians would join his crusade for Conscription. He and other politicians were prepared to commit the “last man and the last Penny” for Britain. But they had underestimated public sentiment.
Differences of opinion over conscription divided the nation as never before. As C.E.W Bean in his Official History noted:
Heated political controversy was not strange to public life…But if all the bitterness, abuse, misrepresentation, anger, and hatred pertaining to the whole of these former pursuits could have been pooled, the volume thereof would not perhaps have equaled the fury of the storm which burst upon Australia when the conscription issue was brought before the people for decision.
For it veritably was a life-and-death question.1
Hughes: Europe, drenched in blood.
In July 1915 the War Census Bill was brought before parliament. Its purpose was to gather information on men eligible for military Service. During parliamentary debate Prime Minister Hughes guaranteed that:
In no circumstances would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will.
The Bill passed. Unions and other organizations warned that conscription would follow. So 180,000 people refused to fill in their forms. Their suspicions proved well founded. Just over a year later “Billy” Hughes back-flipped, vowing that he was going to fight for a ‘Yes’ vote,
as though he were fighting for his very life.2
Hughes whipped himself into a lather garnering support. His speeches suggested French collapse was imminent, that Germany was on the brink of victory, and Britain’s manpower shortage was critical.3
Don’t leave the boys in the trenches. Don’t see them butchered. Don’t leave them below their strength or you cover Australia with shame.4
Europe has been drenched in blood, innocent non-combatants foully murdered or subjected to unspeakable outrages… their beloved country ravaged by fire and sword… Our only hope of national safety, of retaining our liberties, lies in decisive victory by Britain and her allies over the hosts of military despotism.5
Unfortunately, Hughes was right about one thing. This war was a titanic struggle to the death. The battle for Europe was about the attrition of resources. Bleeding the enemy dry. To this end a generation faced decimation.
Bean reports: Divisions at the Front
A.I.F. soldiers were given the vote 2 weeks before the Australian electorate. Another ploy by Hughes. C.E.W. Bean wrote:
As one of the chief grounds of appeal in Australia was the supposed call from the troops at the front for reinforcements, an adverse vote in France would gravely imperil the chance of securing a favourable vote in Australia.6
Hughes cabled General Birdwood in London on October 15th. Birdwood
like most other officers, had rigidly refrained from any attempt to influence his men concerning the issue.
Hughes implored that Birdwood:
put aside precedent and to use his great influence with the troops in order to induce them to carry conscription by a large majority, and thus give a lead to the people.
The appeal from the Australian Prime Minister…was couched in terms which no patriot could easily resist. Birdwood at once dictated a message asking the troops to vote according to their consciences, but telling them of the considerations, perhaps better known to him than to them, which rendered urgent the need for reinforcements.7
Journalist Keith Murdoch had also been working behind the scenes. He organised for influential Australians to speak to the troops, with Sir Douglas Haig’s consent. Haig insisted that the officers be kept out of proceedings. Their absence he hoped would make the troops more amenable to voting for conscription.
CEW Bean described how the Agent-General for South Australia addressed some of 6th Brigade:8
…explaining frankly the object of the meeting, and relying largely upon the argument that Australia at present stood first among the dominions in the eyes of the British nation, and that, if she did not adopt conscription as the British had done, she would lose that regard.
The troops made their feelings clear:
[T]hey did not care whether Australia came first in the opinion of Great Britain or not-they desired that a sufficient number of Australians should be left after the war to develop their empty country in accordance with the present character of their nation.
Pte. Allan Allsop: “No Conscription” without hesitation.
W.J.A. Allsop, a clerk from Brierley St, Mosman enlisted in the AIF in July 1915, aged 22. Allan Allsop served as a stretcher bearer and dispatch rider for the 8th Australian Field Ambulance.
His diary entries note how he and his mates were voting:
9th October (Monday)
Estaminets [‘cafés’] closed for 3 days.
10th October (Tuesday)
On Wagons touring round the streets after rubbish. No more souvenirs [shells/shrapnel] from Fritz. Heated arguments against conscription, in our billet till late at night.
The remainder of our unit arrived soon after 6.30 pm and I had to direct them to their respective barns. The people in our Estaminet [lodgings] speak surprisingly good English.
15th October (Sunday)
Good sleep last night. Route march with packs up in morning. In afternoon list of shortages in equipment taken & leaflets issued from Mr. Hughes re conscription. He advises all of us to vote yes but so far as the majority of those I know are concerned it will be a solid “NO”. The evening turned out bitterly cold just after we returned from blackberry picking.
16th October (Monday)
Reveille at 5.30. Breakfast 6 am. Parade with 1 blanket at 7. These are being sent off with the transport. Party of 12 left at 6.30 for Armentieres to load a few wagons there. At 8.30 we were called to the Orderly Room to vote. Mine was “No Conscription” without hesitation. Most of our unit voted likewise. When half way through the voting orders came to stop proceedings but we put all the votes through. The reason for stopping is unknown.
Bean explained why voting stopped. General Birdwood’s message to the troops (pictured above) could not be delivered on time. Birdwood had sent a postponement order. The order arrived after voting in some units had begun. Voting in these units was in Bean’s words, “accordingly broken off.”
Allsop and his comrades ignored the order. Allsop’s diary entries are brief but Bean explains why:
The Australian soldier was, like most others, resentful of any attempt by his officers to interfere with his free judgment as a citizen…
Some were strongly averse to the prospect of having in their regiments men who had avoided voluntary enlistment. Others feared that conscription would mean the introduction of the hated death penalty. Others again would vote as members of the Labour Party, of which the main wing opposed conscription.
The common argument that it would provide rest for their overworked units did not impress them, for they well knew that replenished units were likely to be constantly sent into battle, and weaker ones rested.
But beyond question the most general motive among the soldiers for opposing conscription was one not without nobility. They themselves, when they enlisted, had not known the trials and horrors of war; and, now that they did know, they would not, by their votes, force any other man into those trials against his will.9
Bean gives a breakdown of the polling results:
Practically all the officers, most of the N.C.O’s, and at least half of men, were in favour of conscription… The polling, which had begun on October 16th as the units reached villages behind the line, was quickly completed. The vote of the A.I.F. was found to be in favour of conscription, but only by 72,399 against 58,894; and it was understood that it was the men on transports and in camp, rather than those actually at the front, who were responsible for the excess of the “Yes” vote.10
Billy Hughes was livid, and had the results suppressed. He was forced to release them, but only after the plebiscite had taken place.
Alan Allsop returned to Australia in 1919. His 5 diaries were purchased in 1920 by the State Library of NSW.
Mosman ’14-18 articles relating to this story:
The Blood Vote: Divisions at the Front, and at Home.
The Blood Vote: Mosman votes, YES
The Blood Vote: NO to Conscription, by a nose.
1 Bean, C E W (1941). Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918: Vol. III, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1938. p. 341-2
2 Fitzhardinge, L.F (1979). The Little Digger: A Political Biography of William Morris Hughes. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. p. 189 from Australian plebiscite, 1916 article retrieved online 16/10/16 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_plebiscite,_1916
3 In late July the Battle of Pozières intensified demands for conscription. The AIF lost almost 28,000 in actions on the Somme, most notably at Pozières, Mouquet Farm and Fromelles. Only 7,000 Australians were available in Great Britain to replace them. They needed around 20,000 men at once and 16,500 in the next three months to rebuild the Australian divisions to full strength.
4 Fitzhardinge, L. F. The Little Digger: A Political Biography of William Morris Hughes. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. 1979 p.186
5 1916 ‘Prime Minister’s Manifesto.’, Leader (Orange, NSW : 1899 – 1939), 18 September, p. 2. , viewed 13 Sep 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117814371
6 Bean, Ibid p.341