The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, AgoraUnknown.jpeg

The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.

Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.

Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.

John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.

Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.

One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).

This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.

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