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Conscription in Australia, or mandatory military service also known as national service, has a controversial history dating back to the first years of nationhood. Australia currently has no conscription.

Boyhood conscription

The government of prime minister Alfred Deakin and other non-Labor governments had introduced a form of conscription for boys from 12 to 14 years of age and for youths from 18 to 20 years of age between 1905 and 1909.

An Australian Labor Party government instituted a system of compulsory military training for all males aged between 12 and 26 from 1 January 1911.

John Barrett, in his study of boy conscription, Falling In, noted:

"In 1911 there were approximately 350,000 boys of an age (10–17 years) to register for compulsory training up to the end of 1915. Since 'universal' was a misnomer, about half that number were exempted from training, or perhaps never registered, reducing the group to 175,000."[1]

There was also extensive opposition to boyhood conscription resulting in, by July 1915, some 34,000 prosecutions and 7,000 detentions of trainees, parents, employers or other persons required to register.

World War I

Supporters of conscription campaigning at Mingenew, Western Australia in 1917

Industrial Workers of the World anti-conscription poster, 1916

Under Labor prime minister Billy Hughes, full conscription was attempted during WWI through two referenda.

The first plebiscite was held on 28 October 1916 and narrowly rejected conscription with a margin of 49% for and 51% against.[2] The plebiscite of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:
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?

A second plebiscite was held on 20 December 1917, and was defeated by a greater margin. The question put to Australians was:
"Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?"

After the failure of the first plebiscite, Billy Hughes left the Australian Labor Party parliamentary caucus, taking with him most of the Parliamentary party's talent.[3] He promptly crossed the floor with about half of the parliamentary party, creating a new National Labor Party and surviving as Prime Minister by forming a conservative Nationalist government dependent for support on the Commonwealth Liberal Party.[4] The remainder of the Labor Party, under their new leader Frank Tudor, then expelled Hughes and all who had followed him.[5] Following the split, Labor stayed out of office for ten years.

Cartoons such as this one, by artist Norman Lindsay, were used both for recruitment and to promote conscription.

After the first plebiscite the government used the War Precautions Act and the Unlawful Associations Act to arrest and prosecute anti-conscriptionists such as Tom Barker, editor of Direct Action and many other members of the Industrial Workers of the World and E. H. Coombe (who had three sons at the front) of the Daily Herald. The young John Curtin, at the time a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, was also arrested. Anti-conscriptionist publications (in one case, even when read into Hansard), were seized by government censors in police raids.[6]

1917 Handbill – The Blood Vote

Other notable opponents to Conscription included the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix, the Queensland Labor Premier Thomas Ryan, Vida Goldstein and the Women's Peace Army. Most trade unions actively opposed conscription. The County Cork born Archbishop Mannix stated that Ireland had been more wronged by Great Britain than Belgium had been by Germany.[7]

Many people thought positively of conscription as a sign of loyalty to Britain and thought that it would also support those men who were already fighting. However, trade unions feared that their members might be replaced by cheaper foreign or female labour and opposed conscription. Some groups argued that the whole war was immoral, and it was unjust to force people to fight.

Divided Nation

The conscription issue deeply divided Australia with large meetings held both for and against. The Women's vote was seen as important with large women's meetings and campaign information from both sides aimed at women voters. The campaigning for the first plebiscite was launched by Hughes at a huge overflow meeting at the Sydney Town Hall where he outlined the Government's proposals.[8] This was followed by a huge pro-conscription meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall on 21 September.[9]

Anti-conscriptionists, especially in Melbourne, were also able to mobilise large crowds with a meeting filling the Exhibition Building on 20 September;[10] 30,000 people on the Yarra bank on Sunday 15 October,[11] and 25,000 the following week;[12] a "parade of women promoted by the United Women's No-Conscription Committee – an immense crowd of about 60,000 people gathered at Swanston St between Guild Hall and Princes Bridge, and for upwards of an hour the street was a surging area of humanity".[12] An anti-conscription stop work meeting called by five trade unions held on the Yarra Bank mid-week on 4 October attracted 15,000 people.[13]

It was passed on 21 September 1916,[9] and mandatory registration and enrolment commenced while the first plebiscite campaign was underway. By 5 October The Age reported that of 11607 men examined, 4581 were found fit, approximately 40 per cent.[13]

The Age noted, in an article Influence of the IWW, that "the great bulk of the opposition to conscription is centred in Victoria.".[14] Many meetings in inner Melbourne and Sydney were disrupted by anti-conscriptionists with speakers being howled down from the audience in what The Age described as "disgraceful exhibition" and "disorderly scenes".[15]

The issue deeply divided the Labor party, with ministers such as Hughes and George Pearce, vigorously arguing the need for conscription for Australia to help the Allies win the war. They were supported by many within the party, including Labor's first prime minister, Chris Watson and NSW Labor Premier William Holman. Hughes denounced anti-conscriptionists as traitors, and a climate of bitter sectarianism (with most Catholics opposing conscription and most Protestants supporting it) developed.

On 1 November 1929, the mandatory provisions of the Defence Act were suspended and after 18 years conscription had come to an end.[16]

World War II

In 1939, at the start of World War II all unmarried men aged 21 were to be called up for three months’ Militia training. These men could serve only in Australia or its territories. Conscription was effectively introduced in mid-1942, when all men 18–35, and single men aged 35–45, were required to join the Citizens Military Forces (CMF). Volunteers with the Australian Army scorned CMF conscripts as "chocolate soldiers", or "chockos", because they were believed to melt under the conditions of battle. However, CMF Militia units fought under difficult conditions and suffered extremely high casualties during 1942, in slowing the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. New Guinea was then an Australian territory.

By 1943, Australia had been bombed; 20,000 Australians were prisoners of war. The Commonwealth Government changed the Defence Act to extend the definition of areas to which conscripted servicemen could be sent to include now all areas south of the Equator in South-East Asia under the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act (1943). This included all major war zones in the Pacific area. In effect, Australian conscripts could now for the first time be sent overseas to fight in the same areas as volunteers. Despite the act, no conscripts were sent outside Australian territory except for CMF units in Dutch New Guinea.[17] Compulsory military service ended in 1945, and most Australian personnel had been demobilised by the end of November 1946.

National Service in the 1950s


National Service training at Puckapunyal during the 1950s.

In 1951, during the Korean War, National service was introduced under the National Service Act (1951). All Australian males aged 18 had to register for 176 days training (ninety-nine days full-time) and two years in the CMF. Later the obligation was 140 days of training (seventy-seven days full-time) and three years of service in the CMF. The regular military forces were kept as voluntary. In 1957 the system was changed to emphasise skill rather than numbers. The system was ended in 1959.[18]

National Service from the 1960s

Vietnam War

In 1964 compulsory National Service for 20-year-old males was introduced under the National Service Act (1964). The selection of conscripts was made by a sortition or lottery draw based on date of birth, and conscripts were obligated to give two years’ continuous full-time service, followed by a further three years on the active reserve list. The full-time service requirement was reduced to eighteen months in 1971.[19]

The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that National Servicemen could be obliged to serve overseas, a provision that had been applied only once before—during World War II. In March 1966, the Government announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army and for secondment to American forces. Men who wished to avoid National Service could join the Citizen Military Forces and serve only inside Australia, claim a student deferment, or attempt a conscientious objection application. To be exempted on the basis of conscientious objection, an applicant needed to demonstrate his/her moral objection to 'all' wars in court and be legalized as a pacifist. This meant that the rate of success for conscientious objection applications was generally low.

During the late 1960s, domestic opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription grew in Australia. In 1965 a group of concerned Australian women formed the anti-conscription organisation Save Our Sons, which was established in Sydney, with other branches later formed in Wollongong, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle and Adelaide. The movement protested against conscription of Australians to fight in the Vietnam War and made the plight of men under 21 (who were not eligible to vote at that time) a focus of their campaign. In 1970, five Save-Our-Sons women were jailed in Melbourne for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets whilst on government property. The group, which included Jean Maclean, Irene Miller and Jo Maclaine-Ross, was dubbed The Fairlea Five, after Fairlea women's prison in which they were incarcerated.[20] Barbara Miller is understood to be related to the decorated conscript Simon Anderson who mysteriously disappeared in 1970.[citation needed]

Five national servicemen assigned to the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment shortly before they and the battalion were deployed to South Vietnam in 1966

Young men who were subject to the conscription lottery also formed their own anti-conscription organisation, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription. Like Save Our Sons, it spread to other states – New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. It was the YCAC that imported the concept of draft-card burning from the United States, and ushered in a new form of resistance to conscription – active non-compliance. Instead of merely not registering (passive non-compliance with the National Service Scheme), these young conscripts actively demonstrated their distaste for the government's actions by destroying their registration cards. Unlike in the United States, this was not an illegal act, so its importance remained symbolic.

There were several high-profile controversies caused by the government's heavy-handed treatment of conscientious objectors, including William White and Simon Townsend (who later became a well-known TV personality). In 1969 the Gorton administration was severely embarrassed by a renowned This Day Tonight story in which a conscientious objector, who had been on the run from police for several months, was interviewed live in the studio by journalist Richard Carleton, who then posed awkward questions to the Army minister about why TDT had been able to locate the man within hours and bring him to the studio when the federal police had been unable to capture him, and the event was made even more embarrassing for the government because the man was able to leave the studio before police arrived to arrest him.

By 1969 public opinion was turning against the war. A Gallup Poll in August showed that 55 per cent of those surveyed favoured bringing Australian troops home, and only 40 per cent favoured them staying. This was the first poll to show less than 50% approval for the government's policy, and all polls after August 1969 were to reveal a majority in favour of bringing the troops home. In October, during his policy speech for the 1969 federal elections, Opposition leader Gough Whitlam declared that, if elected, the ALP would make sure that all Australian troops in Vietnam would be home 'by Christmas'.[21]

At around this time, too, opposition to conscription became more radical. Active non-compliers began to call themselve Draft Resisters. Instead of waiting to be called up, Draft Resisters wrote letters to the Minister for National Service detailing their intention not to comply with conscription. Under law, this immediately rendered them liable for service. A number of these young men formed a Draft Resisters' Union, active in at least two states – New South Wales and Victoria. They included men like Bob Scates and Michael Hamel-Green. They went underground while maintaining a public presence, appearing at protests and being spirited away by the crowd before they could be arrested.

Australian Government Cabinet documents released by Australian National Archives in 2001 show that in 1970 the conservative Government was initially concerned about the growth of conscientious objection and outright opposition to the National Service Act. Federal Cabinet considered instituting an option of alternative civilian work program for conscientious objectors – a 'Siberian labour camp' option, in an attempt to reduce the numbers of objectors going to jail. This was never instituted, but was widely rumoured at the time. Such work would have been menial labouring jobs in remote locations such as north and western Queensland, western New South Wales, and northern South Australia.[22]

In Cabinet Submission Number 200 for 1970, Appendix 1,[23] case studies of 17 men awaiting prosecution for failure to undertake service show a broad spectrum of opposition to conscription including:

  • Religious opposition - for example Methodists and Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Moral opposition to wars
  • Moral opposition to the Vietnam War in particular
  • Opposition based upon the compulsion and authoritarian nature of conscription and its conflict with democratic processes and ideals.

The documents reveal that draft-resistance and draft-dodging never posed a threat to the number of conscripts required, but the public opposition by draft-resisters such as John Zarb, Michael Matteson, and Robert Martin did have an increasingly political effect.

Conscription ended as one of the first acts of the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government and the remaining seven men in Australian prisons for refusing conscription were freed in mid-to-late December 1972.[24][25] About 63,735 National Servicemen served in the military from 1964–1972. Of that number, 19,450 'Nashos' served in Vietnam, all with the Army.

See also


  1. Falling in: Australians and 'boy conscription’, 1911–1915, John Barrett (1979) Hale & Iremonger, ISBN 0-908094-56-6
  2. Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9. 
  3. The Australian Century, Robert Manne
  4. Caucus minutes of 14 November 1916 in A Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement 1850–1975, Brian McKinley, (1979) ISBN 0-909081-29-8
  5. Robert Manne, The Australian Century
  6. Frank Cain, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia (Melbourne: Spectrum Publications, 1993) ISBN 0-86786-339-0
  7. The Argus 9 November 1916 quoted on page 80 Ashton, Paul & Anderson, Mark Australia in the 20th Century: Working Historically Macmillan Education AU, 01/12/2004
  8. The Age, 19 September 1916
  9. 9.0 9.1 The Age, 22 September 1916
  10. The Age, 21 September 1916
  11. The Age, 16 October 1916
  12. 12.0 12.1 The Age, 23 October 1916
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Age, 5 October 1916
  14. "Influence of IWW", The Age, 12 October 1916
  15. "Meeting at Collingwood Town Hall", The Age, 7 October 1916; "Meeting at South Melbourne", The Age, 9 October 1916; "Women's Only Meeting at Fitzroy Town Hall", The Age, 11 October 1916
  16. Stockings, Craig (2007). The Torch and the Sword: A History of the Army Cadet Movement in Australia. UNSW Press. pp. 86. ISBN 0-86840-838-7. 
  17. Black, David. "Biography of John Curtin". John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  18. Fact Sheet 163 – National Service, 1951–59 National Archives of Australia
  19. Encyclopedia Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964–72 by Sue Langford. Australian War Memorial. Accessed 5 May 2007
  20. Save Our Sons Movement (1965–1973) Australian Women's Archive Project.
  22. Cabinet Submission Number 200 for 1970 Appendix 2 – Possible Civilian Employment analysed in Australian Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War – statements by Michael Matteson and Geoff Mullen
  23. Cabinet Submission Number 200 Appendix 1 – Men awaiting prosecution action for failure to undertake service analysed in Australian Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War – statements by Michael Matteson and Geoff Mullen
  24. Freudenberg, Graham (2009). "A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam's Life in Politics". Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-07375-7. 
  25. R. C. S. Trahair (2004). Encyclopedia of Cold War espionage, spies, and secret operations. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 333. ISBN 978-0-313-31955-6. 

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