The Blood Vote: NO to Conscription, by a nose.

Darragh Christie, 28 October 2016 · # ·

Leaflet bearing a verse by W.R. Winspear and a cartoon by Claude Marquet, featuring an image a deeply worried woman casting a ‘Yes’ vote while Billy Hughes, Australia’s labor prime minister and supporter of conscription, looks on gleefully. It was printed by Fraser & Jenkinson in Melbourne, 1917 and authorised by J. Curtin, Secretary for the ‘National Executive’. Source: ‘Trove’, NLA.

The grim death warrant of doom

The propaganda campaign targeting the hearts and minds of women voters was uncompromising.

‘The Blood Vote’ poster pictures a mother placing a YES into the Ballot box. She has a look of self-doubt – her decision weighs heavily. A gleeful devilish imp or Nosferatu type figure (Billy Hughes?) cowers in the shadows.

The poem completing this nightmarish image is dramatic and compelling (and worth reading in its entirety.)

In brief the pen the mother holds is likened to a dagger, put into her hands by the fiend behind her. She has signed the ballot paper, the grim death warrant condemning an innocent father to death. His widow cries out for him in the night, and his children weep, missing their father. The mother prays for forgiveness to her little son, desperate to wash away the blood-guilt, an indelible stain on her soul.22

The YES campaign poster above reassures mothers that family men would be exempt.(It also, somewhat disingenuously, suggests that if the NO campaign gets up ‘all will go.’)

The NO campaign copied the image and replied: dads will go anyway if you vote YES. This happened in Britain where once the supply of single men had been exhausted, family men were drafted.

The surprise of their lives

Hughes thought that he would give young men the “surprise of their lives on polling day.”

His manipulation of political processes and attempts to intimidate voters, however, backfired.

On Sept.29 Hughes had the Governor General announce a call up and registration of all eligible men. He consulted neither the people nor parliament. Controversially, all men registering were fingerprinted – an activity usually associated with criminals.

On Oct.25 at a meeting of the executive council, Hughes put forth another decree. It was rejected by 3 of the 5 council members present. He re-convened on Oct.27, with the Governor-General attending. (The G.G. was unaware the proposal had been rejected 2 days earlier.) The motion carried.23

This proposal authorized polling officers to question all Males 21 – 35yrs on voting day. They were asked if they had heeded the 29 Sept. call-up and registered for military service. If they answered no, their ballot would not be counted.24

The proclamation of this new regulation was to be delayed until just before the poll. Despite attempts to suppress the edict going to print, it was leaked to the Gazette.
The fallout was immediate. The executive council rejected the last minute proposal and 4 Ministers resigned. The government faced a publicity disaster and complete collapse.

Voting day fallout: ‘NO’, by a nose

On polling day, voters were faced with the following question.

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.

YES or NO?

The wording confused many respondents, but did not change the result.

The NO camp won, in racing terms, by a nose.

Billy Hughes, expelled from the Union movement, and his Labour Party membership revoked, realised his time was up.

He remained defiant to the end. It was everyone else’s fault. Socialist groups, pacifists, the Irish.

I did not leave the Labour Party. The Party left me.25

Hughes took what was left of his political support and joined the Conservatives. He formed a Nationalist Coalition and won the 1917 election. Despite this he lost the 2nd Conscription plebiscite (by a larger majority on the 20th December, 1917.)

Hughes represented Australia at the Paris Peace Treaty in 1919. Never the peacemaker, he vociferously insisted on crippling repayments by Germany, which ultimately led to another war. After 1918 Hughes stridently upheld the ‘White Australia Policy’. At the newly formed League of Nations he voted against an anti-discrimination clause introduced by Japan.

Alan Allsop returned to Australia in 1919. His 5 diaries were purchased in 1920 by the State Library of NSW. They provide an invaluable 1st hand account of his experiences in the ‘war to end all wars.’

A few days after the Oct. 28 plebiscite, 3 year old NZ gelding Sasanof ridden by Wilfred Gatonby Stead won its race in Melbourne. A golden trophy cup was presented for the 1st time. Australians still celebrate ‘the race that stops a nation’,

We have all but forgotten the “blood vote” that divided it, 100 years ago.

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.

Taronga Zoo’s ‘New Exhibits.’

A light on the Hill: The Great Strike, 1917.

Viewing the monkey enclosure: perspectives left and right.


22 Of note the poster is authorised in the bottom right hand corner by J. Curtin who, although against conscription in WW1, as Labour Prime Minister had to introduce conscription for overseas service in WW2.

23 “How the Conscription Fight Developed” The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW : 1913 - 1950) 28 October 1936: 16. Web. 26 Oct 2016

24 Australian plebiscite, 1916 article retrieved online 16/10/16,_1916

25 Fitzhardinge, L.F Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862 – 1952)