Compulsory military service was not unknown to Australia. In 1911 the Commonwealth Defence Act was passed which introduced compulsory military training for males aged 12 to 60 years old and they were required to perform militia service within Australia. This did not mean however that they were required to participate in the First World War when it broke out.
On the 15th August 1914, after Britain declared war on Germany, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was created. There was a lot of support for the war and the number of men enlisting was so high that recruitment officers were forced to turn people away. Over 50,000 men had signed up by the end of 1914.
The AIF was open to men aged 19-38 who were 5’6” or taller with a chest measurement of 34”. As the number of men enlisting decreased.it was opened up to men aged 18-45 and the height restriction was lowered to 5’2” in 1915 and then to 5’ in 1917. As the war went on, the casualty rates increased and the number of volunteers declined. In 1915 the AIF was recruiting only 6000 men each month. 16,000 men were needed each month to reinforce the front. Of the 380,000 Australian men that fought overseas nearly 200,000 were killed or wounded.
The real discussion regarding conscription did not occur until 1916 when Prime Minster Billy Hughes, the Labour leader, proposed it. The issue divided Australia, with large-scale meetings being held both for and against it. Some saw it as a way to support the Australian troops already fighting overseas, and as a way to prove loyalty to Britain, but trade unions were worried that if they went to war they would be replaced by cheaper foreign labour or women workers. Others viewed the war as immoral or believed that it was up to an individual’s conscience on whether to participate or not.
Despite opposition from his own party, Billy Hughes took the issue of conscription to the public in a referendum, which was held on 28th October The Australian public was asked to vote yes or no to the question;
‘Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regards to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has regard to military service within the Commonwealth?’
By a narrow margin the answer was no.
On the 20th December 1917 the conscription issue was taken to a referendum again. The public was asked to vote yes or no to the question;
‘Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?’
The answer yet again was a resounding “no”.