Solidarity Forever

Chapter Eight


The war was not a great shock to the advanced sections of the labour movement. Resolutions of Socialist Conferences anticipated the war with Germany, as did Laidler's humorous remark made at Broken Hill about King Ned and William of Germany.

Anti-German, anti-Kaiser feeling had been engendered by politicians and the press for some years.

Australia's sons rallied to the Allied cause.

In November, 1914, three months after war commenced, thirty ships crowded with troops had been sent to war and a constant stream of reinforcements was kept up for nearly two years.

Were they super-patriots?

No doubt a large number were, but there were other reasons for enlisting.


Unemployment was rife, boys and young men of military age had no hope of getting work. Protestantism was supreme and anti-Catholic feeling strong. The close identity of Catholics with Ireland—a country regarded as a sub rosa ally of Germany, made for more discrimination on the part of the mainly Protestant employers of labour against the Catholic workers.

In addition, "eligibly aged men" were sacked.

Although the progressive Australians of that day can be proud in having defeated conscription, they could not beat economic conscription.


Jingoes and the press conned large numbers into enlisting by publicizing "it will be all over before you get there!" Enlisting was described as a free passage to the other side of the world, a happening not otherwise likely to be open to the majority of recruits.


This was a big factor. Many joined up, not because they personally wanted to do so, but because "everybody else was doing it!" This applied more especially in country towns. Ostracism as a result of failure to enlist would be hard to take.

Reaction in the VSP

The VSP took the news of war very calmly. There were no headlines in their paper. It almost appears as though the paragraphs on the war were incidental news to the ordinary columns of the paper.

News of activities of socialists and peace organisations filtered through, from Europe. Tom Mann made a statement against the war. A pro-neutrality parade was held at Trafalgar Square. German and French socialists planned a general strike.

The Socialist did not come out with any directive for members to take action. Possibly by way of explanation of its negative stand, a paragraph in the August 14th issue reads "nearly three years ago the party torn with strife, dissension and desertion, found it necessary to change its methods and adopt a purely educational policy".

Propaganda meetings were carried on and at its usual Sunday morning meeting in Port Melbourne, speakers Cain and Johnson were arrested and fined £1 each. "The War and its Lessons" title of the Sunday night lecture of 23rd August, speakers A. Frew and R. S. Ross, was hardly evocative.

The previous week the lecturer had been Dr. J. A. Leach, "Birds of Australia".

Norman Rancie

Norman Rancie, one of the early socialist speakers on the War

The police attention in Port Melbourne stirred up a bit of action—speakers were invited into the Port Melbourne Town Hall to carry on their meetings. Cain, Page, Dixon, Earsman and Farrall spoke. Next week, Earsman and Laidler addressed a big meeting at Port Melbourne. Farrall, Laidler and Rancie spoke on the Socialist pitch at another meeting, but be it noted that these were all IWW men. South Melbourne market meetings on Friday night continued and the speakers were all on the subject of the war.

In September censorship struck forcibly.

Censorship was strict and operated by the Military. Sometimes only a few words were left in an article or at other times the original intention of the article was distorted to mean its opposite.

Incensed by the distortion of a speech by the Premier of Queensland, T. J. Ryan, a great anti-conscriptionist, some members of Parliament made an organised attack on censorship in the Legislative Assembly which was published in Hansard No. 37. Hughes was so annoyed he ordered Federal officers to seize from the Queensland Government Printers all copies. However, many thousands had already been distributed as propaganda.

Frank Anstey and Alf Foster came out strongly against the censorship in articles in Labor Call, Socialist and Worker; and in speeches. One of Anstey's articles was titled "Vultures of Empire".

Socialist of January 8th, 1915 reports "many were glad to see our ex-secretary, Percy Laidler, in the chair at the Bijou on December 27th".

In March Dr. Leach spoke on "The Mosquito, a Bloodthirsty Enemy of Man".

In September the Peace Alliance met at the Society of Friends and at the end of October the unemployed marched to the Yarra Bank. It was estimated there were 10,000 unemployed in Melbourne.

Where the ALP and VSP gave no lead against the war, the almost one-man Anarchist Federation and the IWW did take definite attitudes.

J. W. Fleming at the Port Melbourne Town Hall spoke on "The Rich Man's War and the Poor Man's Fight". Fleming received plenty of police attention. In July, he was again charged with using insulting words. He was defended by the "brilliant work" of socialist solicitor, Marshall Lyle, and the charge withdrawn. Witnesses prepared to give evidence for the anarchist were Miss John, Women's Peace Army; Jack Curtin, Timber-workers' Federation; Percy Laidler and R. S. Ross. Fleming was again charged with "discouraging recruiting". It was alleged he called Alfred Deakin a parasite. He was also alleged to have said, "Why should you go and fight? Would you be any worse off if the Germans were in power than with the rotters you have to put up with at present?" Fleming had a proud war record, was frequently arrested, gaoled, threatened with being thrown into the river and on at least one occasion thrown in. In early times he had been grateful to Tom Mann for saving him from the river, and during the war he was grateful to Laidler for saving him.


The IWW was the only party of any size to come straight out and give virile, fearless leadership. It exposed the war and set out to sabotage it physically, as well as denounce it. The IWW's prestige was raised and it became numerically strong and wielded very wide influence. Testimony to its effectiveness was, that this was the party the authorities outlawed.


Early in the 1914-18 War the Labor Party was in power in the Senate, House of Representatives and all States with the exception of Victoria. Until the issue of conscription arose the Labor Governments showed themselves to be thorough war Governments. Andrew Fisher as Prime Minister promised "the last man and the last shilling" in support of the war.

At the end of 1915 Fisher was made High Commissioner for the Commonwealth in London, and William Morris Hughes supplanted him as Prime Minister. It seems Fisher was "kicked upstairs" because he was against conscription.

On March 6th, 1916, four days after England began to enforce conscription, Hughes arrived in England and attended the War Conference in London. His fervour for the war increased. He addressed patriotic meetings around the country and was feted.

Before leaving Australia he had given no hint of favoring conscription for overseas service—in fact he had said in the House on July 16th, 1915 ". . . In no circumstances would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will."

Excerpts from speeches made by Hughes in London foreshadow Hitler:—

War prevents us from slipping into the abyss of degeneracy and from becoming flabby . . .

War like the glorious beams of the sun has dried up mists of suspicion with which class regarded class . . .

War has purged us, war has saved us from physical and moral degeneracy and decay.

• • •

When Hughes returned to Australia he had no intention of holding a referendum. He first brought forward the question of conscription to the Labor Caucus in the Federal Parliament. Hughes fought for hours, day and night, but the majority opposed the introduction of conscription.

"The Labor Party," wrote Laidler on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the anti-conscription victory of 1916, "up till then had shown itself a thorough-going War Government. The War Precautions Act—an iniquitous, tyrannical piece of legislation curtailing democratic rights—had been passed by it early in the War. Tens of thousands of Australian young men had been sent by the Labor Government to Europe to fight and die in a war between rival capitalist groups. But Mr. Hughes could not persuade a majority of the Labor Party in September, 1916, to endorse conscription."

"This was not due to the fact that the Labor members in large numbers had suddenly lost their jingoistic fervour . . .

"It was due to the fact that while Mr. Hughes was still in England the pressure of Anti-War and Anti-Conscription bodies outside, and individuals inside the Labor Party had borne fruit in that the Easter Conferences of the Australian Labor Party in Victoria and N.S.W. had declared against Conscription.

"This victory for the Anti-War and Anti-Conscription organisations paved the way for a very important move. This move was initiated by Maurice Blackburn and it was carried first by the Victorian ALP Executive and later by the New South Wales ALP Executive—Federal Labor members were written to asking them to pledge themselves to oppose Conscription.

"This, then, is why, when Mr. Hughes arrived with 'Conscription in his bag', he found to his dismay that in his absence the majority of the Party he led had been pledged to resist Conscription.

"The result was a compromise. A referendum was agreed to.

"Had it not been for Maurice Blackburn's proposal the people would not have been consulted and Conscription would undoubtedly have been established in Australia in 1916."

It was decided that the Referendum be held on October 28th.


It was the first and only time that any country in the world was permitted to vote on whether it would conscript its young men for war.

Defeated in the 1916 Plebiscite the Government again called upon the people to vote in 1917 and referring to the Polling Day of 1916 as a black day for Australia, Hughes said, "It was a triumph for the unworthy, the selfish and treacherous in our midst."

Who were the "unworthy", the "selfish" and "treacherous"? From the ranks of those active in the anti-conscription army came many people who were significant in later years. Three became Prime Ministers, twelve became State Premiers, one an Attorney General of the Commonwealth and one a Judge.

Monty Miller

Monty Miller, gaoled at 83

The anti-conscription army was sufficiently diverse to include Archbishop Mannix, the Coadjutor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Melbourne and Eureka veteran Monty Miller, who was gaoled in Western Australia at the age of 83 and struck off the pension. In Melbourne it had the first woman to graduate from the Melbourne University, Mrs. Bella Lavender M.A. (1883) and Vida Goldstein, the first woman to stand for Parliament in the British Empire (1903).

It had the support of soldiers at the front, of whom the Director General of recruiting, Mr. Donald Mackinnon, said:—"I am certain, too, that the attitude of the soldiers who are abroad—as disclosed by their vote—has influenced public opinion, and renders any proposal to resubmit compulsory service to a popular vote impossible."

The Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, commented on seeing ballot boxes brought to Australian troops in the front lines.

The anti-conscriptionists were labelled as shirkers and cowards but they suffered arrest, bashing, gaol sentences, sacking, dousing in the University lake, immersion in the River Yarra, tarring and feathering and deportation.

Never before or since have the people as a whole been stirred to such spontaneous demonstration in Australia. Two mighty armies, one under the NO banner, the other with the weight of the Government and bulk of the Press behind it, under the YES banner, were soon locked in combat.

The Yarra Bank was filled to overflowing Sunday after Sunday, with attendances up to 100,000. The Exhibition Building was crowded with an estimated 50,000 people, addressed by politicians and trade union leaders from ten platforms and attended by 50 police, several detectives and plain-clothes constables.

Country and suburban meetings were held where they were never held before. Many women for the first time left the domestic circle to take part in a political movement.

Men and women who were in the thick of the campaigns comment today that the greatest single feature of the campaigns was the way in which people of the most diverse interests combined together on this special issue. Catholics, Protestants, Atheists, Trade Unionists, Labor Party members, Socialists, Industrial Workers of the World members, Pacifists, some war supporters all worked wholeheartedly for the common goal. Those who believed in refusing to fight in all circumstances (the pure pacifists) were able to work with IWW members and Socialists who believed they might support a different type of war at some future date.

The No Conscription Fellowship, an organisation existing in England and brought into being in Melbourne by Bob Ross had a pledge made by thousands which included the words—"We refuse to take human life". After some months a resolution was carried that this part of the English pledge be struck out. An opposition had grown declaring that the time might come that they felt justified in taking human life.

Boy Conscription

The Australian public was prepared by earlier events for a fight against conscription. By operation of the Defence Act 1903-10, the first army formed under compulsory training in the British Empire was brought into existence. Training covered the ages 12 to 26.

Opposition was widespread and organised mainly by the Society of Friends, especially in South Australia. Twenty-five ministers of religion signed a manifesto against the Act known as Section 125.

Prosecutions for non-compliance averaged 266 per week in 1912/13 and 269 in 1913/14. During the first three years 27,749 were prosecuted.

Reminiscent of the early convict days, lads were put in military fortresses and if in "solitary" for such an offence as refusing to drill, they were on bread and water, slept on the floor with one blanket in a cell to which they were confined for 22 hours per day. This was suffered by lads as young as 15 years.

The Churches During the War

There was an entirely different situation in the religious community from that existing today. The Protestant ministers who protested on this issue could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Their congregations were conservative—only the courageous followers of Christ opposed them and they were likely to lose their living for their efforts. The Rev. Charles Strong of the Australian Church, whose activities inspired many, was one who lost his living. The Rev. Fred Sinclaire belonged to a small progressive Church, "Free Religious Fellowship", and had the support of most of his congregation in his stand against conscription.

The Anglican Synod and Protestant Churches of all kinds declared for conscription. The Society of Friends being a notable exception. It was claimed by some churchmen that God was on their side. They said God was a conscriptionist because He gave His only Begotten Son.

Dr. Mannix

It was a different story with the Catholics. There was a strong Irish vein in the Church smarting from the brutal treatment meted out by the English in Ireland during the Easter Rebellion of that year.

Archbishop Mannix, as the spokesman of the Catholics, played a sterling part in the campaigns. He did not speak on political platforms but whilst performing the ordinary offices of the Church, opening bazaars and laying foundation stones, he made his own attitude clear.

His first statement was made when opening a bazaar in the Albert Hall at Clifton Hill on Saturday, September 16th, 1916:—

I am as anxious as anyone can be for a successful issue and for an honourable peace. I hope and I believe that that peace can be secured without conscription. (Applause.) For conscription is a hateful thing, and it is almost certain to bring evil in its train. (Applause.)

I have been under the impression, and I still retain the conviction, that Australia has done her full share—I am inclined to say more than her full share—in the war. (Applause.) . . . Australians, brave as they have proved themselves to be in the field, are a peace loving people. They will not easily give conscription a foothold in this country (applause) . . . We can only give both sides a patient hearing, and then vote according to our judgment. There will be differences among Catholics, for Catholics do not think or vote in platoons (applause) and on most questions there is room for divergence of opinion.

But, for myself, it will take a good deal to convince me that conscription in Australia would not cause more evil than it would avert (applause) . . . And I incline to believe that those who propose it have misjudged the temper of the Australian people in the mass and their passionate love for freedom. (Loud applause.)

On another occasion the Archbishop said that it was a war to protect small nations, or so he had been told. Well, then, they could start with Ireland. He would not favour the sending of troops overseas as long as the causes and purposes of the war were suspect.

The Archbishop roused the ire of the Protestant Churches, the Press and all forces for conscription.

An Editorial in the Argus of September 19th, 1916 referring to the statement of Dr. Mannix that Australia was doing more than its share, said the burning words upon that point delivered by the Prime Minister should put the Archbishop to shame and compel him to at least be silent during the campaign.

Archbishop Hindley of the Church of England said in a speech "If ever we had the misfortune to have an archbishop whose loyalty could be seriously questioned, we would send him back to England (hear hear) . . . or we would send him back to Ireland." (Laughter and applause.) Other Catholic Bishops were neutral but Archbishop Clune of Perth was a bitter opponent of Dr. Mannix.

There is no doubt that Dr. Mannix played a big part in the campaign. Refused the Exhibition Building as venue for a meeting he spoke at the Melbourne Town Hall on October 23rd, 1917—20,000 people were turned away. Wren owned the Richmond Racecourse and gave it free of charge for a great rally on the 5th November, 1917—100,000 people attended to hear Dr. Mannix.

Trade Unions

The Trade Union Congress in Melbourne in May, 1916, convened to determine the attitude of organised Labor in Australia towards conscription for overseas service, recorded its uncompromising hostility to any attempt to foist conscription upon the people. The Congress issued a Manifesto and Report. In an attempt to suppress this document military squads raided the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and the Labor Call printery and seized all printed matter and type related to the anti-conscription Congress.


Ted Holloway, Trades Hall Council Secretary, was prominent in the anti-conscription campaign.

E. J. Holloway, then Secretary of the T.H.C., was awakened from his bed by a Lieutenant in charge of the raiding party and taken to the Trades Hall so that printed literature could be confiscated. Nonetheless a quantity was circulated.

John Curtin, who became Australia's wartime Prime Minister in the 2nd World War, was engaged by the Melbourne Trades Hall Council as a full-time secretary to concentrate upon the conscription fight.

A one-day stop work meeting was called for October 4th, 1916. The Herald estimated there were 40,000 present at the Bank and the Socialist claimed 50,000. It was showery and the people stood in the rain from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. listening to speakers at eight platforms. Speakers were plentiful. At a signal from Dr. Maloney at midday, a resolution was carried at all platforms asserting that the Governmental Proclamation was an infringement of the Defence Act. The Unions which came out were the Wharf Laborers, Pt. Phillip Stevedores, Carpenters, Builders' Laborers, Rubber Workers and Glass Bottle makers. A well-known confectioners told its employees they could go to the meeting. The Wonthaggi miners were out. Immense demonstrations were held in Brisbane, Sydney and Broken Hill.

Anti-conscription stop work leaflet

Leaflet for the anti-conscription stop work meeting, October 1916.

The Politicians

Frank Anstey

Frank Anstey, a parliamentarian who spoke out about the War.

A splendid part was played by many of the Labor politicians—Senators, M.H.R.s, M.L.A.s, and others later to win seats. In Victoria, country members Alf Ozanne (Corio) and Dave McGrath (Ballarat) who were in the AIF opposed conscription. Dr. William Maloney did not oppose the war but played a leading part in the anti-conscription campaigns. Special mention must be made of Frank Anstey. He was a splendid and fearless orator and a man of great influence. His books Money Power and Red Europe were widely read after the war, and helped many people assess the war. Frank Brennan (later Commonwealth Attorney-General) was called "a pigeon-livered man" by W. Watt M.H.R., one of the most bitter conscriptionists, for saying he was not a fighting man and that if warlike people can do the business of war, we peaceful people can attend to other questions. Watt picked the wrong man. Brennan called his bluff and challenged him by saying he would join up if Watt did too. He named a date and time but Watt did not turn up to the recruiting depot. The challenge repeated, Watt still failed to show up. The important role of Maurice Blackburn is referred to elsewhere. Naturally there were other types of politicians, to some of whom the anti-conscription campaigns were a godsend, because they could put their energies into it and shelter from the fight against war. The struggle against the war ran independently of the anti-conscription campaigns.

Women in the Campaign

Women in Australia had never before participated in large numbers in any social movement. Many of those who took part in the campaigns were inspired by the efforts of the suffragettes in England.

Three days after the war began the Women's Peace Army was formed, its slogan "We war against war". It ranged itself in the anti-conscription campaign. Vida Goldstein, with electioneering experience (she stood for the Senate in the first election after Federation and was Editor of The Woman Voter), was President, Adela Pankhurst (of the famous suffragette family) was Secretary and Cecilia John was Organiser.

The Women's Army had a flag of its own—purple, white and green. Purple for the royalty of international justice, white for the purity of international life, green for the springing hope of international peace. Cecilia John defended this flag by turning a fire hose on soldiers who tried to wrest it away. A splendid contralto, she would sing at meetings, "I didn't Raise my Son to be a Soldier", one of the many songs of the campaign.

On one occasion Vida Goldstein prevented a riot at the Bijou Theatre in Bourke Street, when soldiers were breaking up a meeting.

Another famous woman was Eleanor M. Moore, Secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an organisation active before the war and active today.

Mounted peace demonstrator

At a peace march around 1917, May Boquest, later Callard.

The Labor Women's anti-conscription committee (Mesdames Gill, E. F. Russell, Miss Sampson) arranged cottage and factory meetings which were addressed by Mrs. Maurice Blackburn in Essendon, Mrs. Titford in Balaclava and Mrs. Mick Killury, Mrs. A. K. Wallace, Miss S. Lewis, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. T. P. Walsh in other localities. Other women well respected in the labor movement for their active role were Jennie Baines, Jean Daley, Muriel Heagney, Adela Pankhurst Walsh and May Francis.

On the 21st October, a week prior to the first referendum, a march and pageant of women was held—the opposition ran a counter-march the same day.

In August 1917 Melbourne women raided Parliament House, in a war against "food exploitation", after a march of several thousand had taken place through the city streets. This resulted in the arrest of Adela Pankhurst Walsh and Mrs. A. K. Wallace (fined 40/- each). It achieved the release of some hard-to-get food products, i.e. rabbits and butter, from storage.

Geelong a Battle Ground

The capitals were not the only storm centres. Geelong, possibly, had more intense campaigns than other towns in Victoria. When the Clerks' Union was deprived of the use of the West Park Theatre at the behest of the Geelong West Council and when the same Council banned Sunday meetings at Cannon Hill, S. A. Gerson of the Clerks' Union spoke to a crowd whilst standing in a boat anchored a few feet from the shore of the bay.

A big scandal in Geelong occurred when its sitting Labor Party M.H.R., A. T. Ozanne, who had volunteered for the AIF at the beginning of the war and was despatched to England, was ill in hospital and unable to go with his regiment to France. Back here probably the greatest campaign of vilification ever waged in Australia took place. Ozanne was labelled a coward, traitor, deserter, shirker, pro-German, and etc., etc. Alf Ozanne had aroused the ire of Billy Hughes because when urged to make a pro-conscription statement in England he made anti-conscription statements. He lost his seat to a recruiting sergeant. The facts were that he was the first M.H.R. to volunteer and was rejected on health grounds. Despite this, he tried again and was accepted. Finally he was discharged as completely medically unfit. Dr. Maloney and Parker Moloney did their best to get a Royal Commission held in order to vindicate Ozanne but the men who appear to have been the chief organisers of the slander campaign, Hughes and Pearce, were the chief opponents of a Royal Commission.


IWW antiwar poster

The recruitment poster that earned a gaol sentence for its creator, Tom Barker of the IWW. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

There was, of course, no television, no radio, no amplifiers at meetings and little use of film in this period. The written and spoken word in its simplest form was relied upon by the anti-conscriptionists to wage the propaganda war.

The small gummed sticker slogans were popular. They could be easily handled and were pasted up everywhere.

Thousands of buttons with "VOTE NO" on them did effective work. A poster—"TO ARMS! Capitalists, parsons, politicians, landlords, newspaper editors and other stay-at-home patriots, your country needs you in the trenches! Workers, follow your masters", got out by the I.W.W. leader in Sydney, Tom Barker, resulted in a six months' sentence or fine of 50.

E. J. Holloway in his pamphlet "The Australian Victory over Conscription in 1916-17" says "I still feel that the most effective single piece of propaganda for our side, which decided the votes of perhaps tens of thousands of women, was W. R. Winspear's poem, illustrated by Claude Marquet, entitled THE BLOOD VOTE."

The Blood Vote

"The Blood Vote", the poem credited with influencing many votes in the conscription referendum. (Reproduced from the back cover of Bertha Walker's pamphlet "How to Defeat Conscription: a Story of the 1916 and 1917 Campaigns in Victoria", published by the Anti Conscription Jubilee Committee in 1968.)

There is no doubt this type of propaganda was influential for an analysis of the results of the two referenda shows that in conservative flag-waving areas where practically no one would openly declare opposition to conscription a large vote was recorded against it. Many in doubt just could not bring themselves to drop a ballot paper in the box that could condemn a boy to death.

Whilst the conscriptionists had ranged with them by far the majority of the daily, weekly and monthly papers, the anti-conscriptionists had the Evening Echo Ballarat, the Barrier Daily Truth Broken Hill, the Daily Post Hobart, Daily Standard Brisbane and Daily Herald Adelaide, supporting their case.

Ballarat Evening Echo

This paper had on its Board of Directors James Scullin, later to become a Prime Minister. As the only daily in Victoria against conscription it was rushed to Melbourne each day and sold on the streets to the number of 60,000 copies.

The members of the Australian Railways Union carried the paper (some say hidden under the coal in the tender), dropped it off at Dudley Street, from where it was taken to a stable in North Melbourne and there the work of distribution would be carried out. Under the leadership of Bert Walkinshaw about a dozen men shared the stable with several munching and sleeping horses. If they came out smelling of the stable they thought it worthwhile.

The Worker

A great power all over Australia was the Worker, organ of the A.W.U. Edited by a great man, Henry Boote, it attracted the best in intellectual talent—cartoonists, writers, poets—W. R. Winspear, Claude Marquet, Marie Pitt, Bernard O'Dowd, J. K. McDougall, E. J. Brady, Sid Nicholls, Mick Paull, Dick Ovenden, R. J. Cassidy, Francis Ahern and Dick Long, to name a few.

Sales of the paper rose tremendously and the censored bits were immense. Many of Boote's statements were reprinted in other working class papers. He said, "What a tremendous expeditionary force could be made up from those who do nothing but advise others to go."

A whole series of cartoons and propaganda arose around what was known as the "Would to God Brigade", that is the old men who said, "Would to God I was young", and the women who said "Would to God I was a man", the allegedly sick who said "Would to God I was healthy", and others, of similar ilk.

The Worker office alone printed five million pamphlets and leaflets, 400,000 "Protests" against conscription, over 100,000 extra copies of the Worker, 500,000 "How to Vote" cards, 250,000 stickers, 50,000 Worker Specials and 25,000 referendum posters. In all this work the office had to submit to frequent raids and censorship.

Another influential journal was edited by Henry Stead and was known as Stead's Review.

Seamen carried literature interstate in their ships.


The very night the press announced Hughes' statement that a referendum would be taken the No Conscription Fellowship made an early ending to a meeting being held under its auspices in the Guild Hall in Swanston Street and hundreds of people carrying banners marched down Swanston Street and up Bourke Street to Parliament House.

As the procession moved along an immense crowd followed. When the marchers reached the top block of Bourke Street the police began vigorous action. There then took place round the steps of Federal Parliament House and down to Exhibition Street a riotous scene in which military patrols assisted a large body of police to prevent the demonstration reaching the doors of the House.

Processionists and onlookers were batoned mercilessly and a number of arrests were made.

Federal Parliament then met in the State Parliament House building in Spring Street, where it met until it moved to Canberra in 1927.

In effect Melbourne was the Capital City. It was also the headquarters of the military forces and the demonstration therefore was of extreme importance in letting the whole of Australia know that there was considerable and vigorous opposition to conscription. It played a part of major importance in setting the "NO" army in motion.

Soldiers have been mentioned in connection with most of the violence of the campaign. It was the soldier who had never been in battle, the new volunteer and the headquarters' seatwarmer, who were chief volunteers for active service on the home front.

As a procession was going past the Soldiers' Club in Swanston Street the soldiers would rush out and bash into the march. They attended the Yarra Bank and suburban meetings and generally behaved as larrikins.

Two men were tarred and feathered by soldiers. Fred Katz, Assistant Secretary of the Clerks' Union, was attacked in Little Collins Street and suffered this treatment.

J. K. McDougall, Poet (author of two published books of verse) and Member of Parliament for Wannon, lived at Naroona. He was set upon by 21 soldiers, bound, gagged and taken to Ararat where he was tarred and feathered, then flung out on the pavement and left, still bound and gagged.

An attempt was made to lynch a man near Port Fairy.

Platforms were set on fire. Speakers were thrown into the Yarra; one always had his boots unlaced in case he had to swim for it.

Guido Baracchi, son of the Government Astronomer, was thrown into the University Lake.

White feathers were handed out, to which the recipients often replied, "And did you get yours in the Boer War?" The Boer War was only fourteen years past and many of the jingoes had been eligible but restrained themselves from enlisting.

At the top of the stairs in the Socialist Hall Fred Riley stood guard over a large heap of blue metal which was kept as ammunition for defence against pursuing soldiers.

To defend speakers, Broken Hill formed "Labor's Volunteer Army" and later Melbourne formed its "Anti Conscription Army". These armies both used white handkerchiefs tied around the arm to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. Many a speaker was sound in body and limb purely because of the energetic presence of these armies.

In Broken Hill, 2,500 joined this army whereas the call-up by Hughes in October brought forward only 206 of whom 75 were passed as fit and sworn in.

Soldiers for 'No'

The anti-conscriptionists pursued the policy of having one Returned man speak on each platform and at the biggest of the Yarra Bank rallies one platform was entirely manned by Returned men. Naturally there were more back home during the 1917 campaign and they were a valuable asset.

At attempt was made to use the name of Lt. Albert (Bert) Jacka, V.C. (Australia's first V.C. winner) as a conscription supporter. William (Bill) Jacka, Albert's brother, relates that Prime Minister Hughes met Albert whilst in England. Hughes told him it could be arranged for him to come to Australia and speak on the YES platform. According to Bill Jacka, Albert listened and then "stuck his nose in the air" and said, "Look, Mr. Prime Minister, you can go to sweet buggery". The father of Albert and Bill spoke from NO platforms and repudiated statements circulating that his son supported conscription. Bill Jacka, also at the front, opposed conscription too.

Albert Jacka became a Captain and added the Military Cross and Bar to his name. His promotions and decorations were strictly for bravery as he had much opposition from high circles. He died in 1932 as a result of his unstinting work for the needy during the depression, and no doubt the six wounds suffered at the battle of Pozieres on the Somme had some effect.

Eve of Poll

On the eve of the poll in 1916 the authorities brought before the Courts in Sydney twelve I.W.W. men on charges of treason. The I.W.W. was the only party uncompromisingly against the war itself. During the last days of the campaign much use was made of evidence which later—after the twelve had served four years of their sentences of 5, 10 and 15 years—was proved to be framed evidence and the victims were released. The gaoling removed twelve valuable men from the campaign itself.

Hughes made the incredible blunder of causing a proclamation to be issued on September 29 calling up single men and drafting them into camps in anticipation of a "Yes" victory. His purpose was to make people think the result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion—it had the effect of mobilising people to vote "NO" on October 28. Many thousands refused to obey the call-up. Those who obeyed were dressed in blue dungarees and were called the "Hugheseliers" and the "Bluebirds". In Sydney the day before the poll a battalion of these boys were marching through the city and made themselves known by chanting together "VOTE NO NO NO".

Hughes threatened that eligible single men who went to vote would be challenged at the booths. This was hastily withdrawn in view of the storm it caused.

The Verdict of the People

State For Conscription Against Conscription
New South Wales 356,805 474,544
Victoria 353,930 328,216
Queensland 144,200 158,051
South Australia 87,924 119,236
Western Australia 94,069 40,884
Tasmania 48,493 37,833
Federal Territories 2,136 1,269
TOTALS 1,087,557 1,160,033

Hughes in his Proper Place

At a Caucus meeting on November 14th, 1916, after the Referendum, a motion was put that Mr. Hughes no longer possessed the confidence of the Party. Hughes did not wait for his defeat but asked all those who supported him to follow him out of the room. Over a score of members followed him and formed the National Labor Party, and became the Government with the support of the former Opposition.

A few months later a fusion took place between the National Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Shortly afterward a special conference of the Australian Labor Party, held in Melbourne, expelled all Federal members who had supported conscription and who were members of any other political party. A split occurred in all States.

The Soldier Vote a Revelation

Hughes had great plans for the soldier vote to be taken early, and anticipating a good result, use it to influence the home vote. Voting in the trenches was to begin on October 16h.

General Birdwood, Commanding Officer of the Australian and New Zealand forces, who was in London, had been pressed by Keith Murdoch and Lloyd George to send a cable to the Australian people supporting conscription in the name of the soldiers. Birdwood refused. He thought it might be regarded in Australia as being an order to his men. Lloyd George agreed.

In a special statement the Prime Minister concluded, "Soldiers of Australia, your fellow citizens, confronted with the greatest crisis in their history, look to you for a lead. Your votes are being taken first. I appeal to you who have gone to fight our battles, who have covered the name of Australia with glory, to lift up your voices and send one mighty shout across the leagues of ocean, bidding your fellow citizens to do their duty to Australia, to the Empire, to its Allies, and to the cause of liberty and vote 'YES'."

At the same time he cabled Birdwood.

Burnie, Tasmania. 14th October, 1916.

General Birdwood,

Headquarters, A.I.F. France

Secret and Personal.

It is absolutely imperative in imperial interest as well as Australian interests that the referendum should be carried by a large majority. Opposition to it here still very strong owing to wilful misrepresentation disseminated by certain sections which include Syndicalists, Sinn Fein and Shirkers.

The first and last, and the second have contrived to capture Labour organisations and consequently hundreds of thousands of loyal patriotic men and women seem likely to vote NO. The overwhelming majority of the Irish votes in Australia, which represent very nearly 25 per cent of the total votes, has been swung over by the Sinn Feins, and are going to vote NO in order to strike a severe blow at Great Britain. If referendum defeated it would be disastrous, not only dishonouring Australia, but would have far-reaching effects on the cause of Great Britain. and the Allies. What is wanted is a lead from the men at the front. May I ask you to use your very great influence to the very utmost to ensure an overwhelming majority of the Australian soldiers.

I know how dearly you value the reputation, the honor, of Australia. In the present crisis I ask you to act without regard to precedent. Reply urgently required.

HUGHES, Prime Minister.

Birdwood felt unable to resist this patriotic plea and he prepared a message to the troops which asked them to vote according to their own consciences but he also told them of the considerations perhaps better known to him than to them which rendered urgent the needs for reinforcements.

The A.I.F. Headquarters in London informed him that they could not get the message through to France that night and Birdwood then ordered the postponement of the Poll for a few days to enable the men to get his message. However, when this order arrived it was found that some units had already voted. Voting was then broken off.

In the meantime several prominent Australians then in England were allowed by Sir Douglas Haig to go to France and address the men.

Sir Frederick William Young, Agent General of South Australia, addressed part of the 6th Brigade (with no officers present on the orders of Haig), and quite frankly put it to the men that he wanted a message from them to send to Australia, at least for reinforcements to be sent.

Hope of securing the desired resolution soon vanished. The soldiers, who had established themselves as great fighting men, were not prepared to draft their younger brothers into the bloodbath.

On November 3rd, a special regulation under the War Precautions Act was issued stating that the soldiers' votes were to be added to their States of enlistment.

Considerable suspicion surrounds the vote as there is much evidence that the soldiers voted NO.

The Truth?

On January 5th, 1917, the Freeman's Journal in Dublin issued the following statement:—

It is a remarkable fact that the figures of the voting by the Anzac troops in the Australian Referendum on Conscription have never appeared in the British Press, although two months have now elapsed since the referendum was taken. It will be remembered that when the early figures of the voting in Australia itself were published and showed a relatively small majority against conscription the advocates of that policy expressed the confident hope that when the votes of the men actually serving and other Australians resident abroad were counted they would be found to reverse the decision of their fellow countrymen at home. The failure to publish the voting of the troops was itself extremely significant, but we are now in a position to give the figures, which were:

For Conscription 40,000
Against 106,000

Finally, on March 27th, 1917, five months after the poll the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth announced that the soldiers' vote was:

For Conscription 72,399
Against 58,894

Mr. Lawson, Chief Returning Officer for Victoria, admitted under cross-examination that the votes of troops on six transports at sea were not included in the total, and that the votes of all civilian staff in London including nurses and doctors, and those at Rabaul, New Guinea and in Egypt were included.

It would appear that the first polling boxes were counted during the cessation in polling. In The Official History of Australia during the War of 1914-18, Dr. C. E. W. Bean says: (page 891, Vol. 3) in reference to the Birdwood message—"The Australian soldier was, like most others, resentful of any attempt by his officers to interfere with his free judgment as a citizen, and the experiment was therefore dangerous. Probably it turned a few voters either way, but the early polls foreshadowed a ten per cent majority against conscription."

When seeking reasons for the soldiers' vote it should be borne in mind that whilst the army was theoretically a "Volunteer" army, in reality, there was a good proportion of conscripts—economic conscripts. The employers pursued a policy of sacking the "eligible man". Anyone of war age was likely to be tossed out in the street, and work was far from plentiful. Naturally prospective employers also boycotted the "eligibles". There was not much choice but to join up and kill to live. There was also conscription by moral suasion, particularly in the small country town. It was a strong man or boy who could stand out against the whole population whose sons were joining.

It was unfortunate for the conscriptionists that their best patriots were mainly at home.


The Hughes Government attempted to turn its 1916 defeat into victory in 1917 by holding a second plebiscite. Instead, the Government was more thoroughly beaten than in 1916.

When P.M. Hughes opened the second campaign on November 12th, 1917, at Bendigo, he said:

October 28th, 1916 (date of first plebiscite) was a black day for Australia. It was a triumph for the unworthy, the selfish and treacherous in our midst . . .

If this were so, then on the Prime Minister's reasoning the results of the referendum showed that the majority of Australians were unworthy, selfish and treacherous.

At the Bendigo meeting Hughes also said, "I tell you plainly that the Government must have this power. It cannot govern the country without it, and will not attempt to do so."

The 1917 campaign was even more intense than the campaign of 1916.

To reverse the Poll result, Hughes tried to make conscription more palatable. He promised to call up single men only, and none under the age of 20, to exempt some members of households which already had a member in the Services, exempt certain industries, and he announced that the total requirement would be less than half the stated requirement in 1916.

He disfranchised many voters. Every naturalised British subject born in an "enemy" country and every person whose father was born in an "enemy" country was disqualified excepting in cases where it could be shown that one-half of the sons in a family, between the ages of 18 and 45, had enlisted or been rejected.

The Poll, on December 20th, was held on a Thursday instead of Saturday, thus making it more difficult for workers to record a vote.

A month before the Poll, Henry E. Boote, editor of the Worker, was arrested for violating the censorship regulations by publishing an article attacking the proposed method of selecting conscripts as THE LOTTERY OF DEATH. As in the I.W.W. trial it was an attempt to silence a very valuable voice.

The result of the poll was a much greater victory for NO supporters.

State For Conscription Against Conscription
New South Wales 341,256 487,774
Victoria 329,772 332,490
Queensland 132,771 168,875
South Australia 86,663 106,634
Western Australia 84,116 46,522
Tasmania 38,881 38,502
Federal Territories 1,700 950
TOTALS 1,015,159 1,181,747

There was a 2% swing in the actual totals of 1,160,033 increased to 1,181,747 of NO voters, that is 22,000 more supporters.

Actually the figure is an understatement because 51,000 fewer people voted, therefore the YES figure was only 93.3% of the 1916 vote whereas the NO figure was 101.8% compared with the 1916 vote.

Victoria played a big part in 1917. It had been a YES State in 1916 with a majority of 25,714 for conscription—this was converted into a 2,718 NO victory with nearly 20,000 less voting.

Hughes had said the Government would not attempt to govern without the power of conscription.

In January 1918 Hughes resigned his office and on the same day reformed his Ministry. NOT A SINGLE ALTERATION in the personnel of the Cabinet resulted from this resignation.

It has been claimed that according to his lights, Hughes was a patriot—and what golden lights! In 1920 he was happy to accept a gift of £25,000 (big money then) from a group of capitalists, as a reward for his war work. There was a public row about it but Mr. Hughes did not donate it to the nation, or for the welfare of Returned men.

White Australia

A factor responsible for some NO votes was the White Australia policy. The idea was spread that as soon as the conscript armies left, the kanakas would be brought in as cheap labour as they were in Queensland until the Federal Government prohibited the traffic in 1904.

Lending credence to this story, a boatload of Maltese anchored off the W.A. coast, the Government being afraid to let them land on the eve of the Poll.

Jack Lang is said to be responsible for a last minute rumour that kanakas had actually landed at some obscure port.

It is not possible to estimate the extent to which White Australia ideology generated NO votes; it must have had some influence. Photographs of demonstrations show banners, "KEEP AUSTRALIA WHITE—VOTE NO!" In Broken Hill, a banner read "VOTE NO AND KEEP YOUR HOMELAND WHITE".

Some Reasons for Victory

Victory could be ascribed to several factors.

1. Good preliminary work before the actual issue arose. The work of the opponents of "Boy" conscription in the compulsory training scheme from 1910 onwards. The calling by The Socialist Party in the first week of the war of a meeting of peace bodies which formed the Australian Peace Alliance.

2. The early work of Maurice Blackburn and the Trades Councils, Unions and Labor Party Branches anticipating Hughes' change of front whilst he was still in London.

3. The participation of women and young people.

4. Individual selflessness and bravery on the part of political and church people and hitherto non-partisan citizens.

The results cannot be overstated in giving a tradition to the labor movement.

The educational effect of the campaigns was indicated in the large numbers who evolved from being simply "anti-conscription" to "anti-war", and the large number of personnel trained to take leadership in union and parliamentary spheres.

It cleansed the labor movement of many weaklings and opportunists.

Above all it showed that UNITY IS STRENGTH.

Australia, One Bright Spot in a Dark World

The Australian campaigns and victories were an inspiration to others, particularly in New Zealand where the Australian example was used in speeches, and quoted in court in sedition trials. A Mr. Brindle put it clearly when he said in court, "Australia today is the one bright spot in a dark world". Robert Semple (born New South Wales: in successive Labour terms in Government, in N.Z., was Minister of Public Works, Transport, National Service and Railways), in a speech made in Auckland on December 3rd, 1916, began with a message of fraternal greetings from the Australian people. He said, "The Australian soldiers who were fighting in the trenches voted against conscription by a large majority." His Worship: "I hope that you don't expect me to accept that? Because—" Semple: "I know from authorities in Australia, who happen to know what the soldiers' vote was, that they voted against conscription. I am in receipt of letters constantly from the trenches and I know all men I have written to, or who have written to me, voted against conscription. I took the platform with Jacka, the father of young Jacka who won the V.C. in Gallipoli and the V.C. in France, and since his return from a London hospital has won another very distinguished medal. This man has two sons at the front. He took the platform with me and put his views against conscription, and also stated to the public of Australia that his sons were opposed to conscription." . . . "Mr. Russell the other day made a statement to the effect that the Australians voted against conscription because they have a convict taint in them. I am Australian born, and the only personal attack I made on any Minister was on Mr. Russell who so far forgot his place as to make such a reckless insult."

James Thorn, editor of the Maoriland Worker's country page and secretary of the Longburn Freezers' Union, was charged with making a seditious utterance on December 10, 1916. He also laid stress on the result of the Australian referendum, the facts of which, he said, were suppressed by the New Zealand press. He claimed that more than two to one of the soldiers were against conscription.

Laidler was active throughout the campaign and was at one time arrested on an insulting language charge, as he had referred to the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, as "the blackest scoundrel the working class has ever produced". In Court he refused to apologise but the Magistrate adjourned the case for six months and it was never revived.


Anti-conscription 20th anniversary

At the anti-conscription 20th anniversary celebrations in 1936: Percy Laidler, Texas Green and Maurice Blackburn.

In Melbourne, anniversary celebrations were held but faded out until in 1936 Laidler organised 20th anniversary celebrations. There was a great reunion of the old campaigners. In 1966 Jubilee celebrations were held and it was possible to hold a meeting in the Richmond Town Hall with Arthur Calwell MHR (then leader of the opposition) as main speaker, bold other meetings and a social, and publish two pamphlets. In all, about 150 old campaigners were contacted during the Jubilee.

The Trades Hall Council in November, 1918, decided to erect a plaque "to commemorate the action of the people who voted against the introduction of conscription in Australia". A plaque was erected in the Lygon Street entrance of the trades hall. December 29th, 1917 is wrongly inscribed as the date of the second plebiscite, instead of 20th December, 1917, and has remained in error all these years. In 1967 the Jubilee committee commemorated the second plebiscite with a ceremony at the plaques in the Trades Hall.

• • •

Reactionaries are prone to say Australia's part in the war—the Anzac legend, represents Australia's coming of age. In many respects the anti-conscription campaign was the coming of age of the Australian Labour movement.


The second victory didn't end the struggle against war. Towards the end of 1918 Harry Scott-Bennett wrote an article in the Socialist on the Red Flag, telling of its origin and history. This was the prelude to a series of arrests for the flying of the flag (which was forbidden). First victims were Bob Ross and Dick Long, the poet. Long was a Christian socialist, a fine people's poet, and one of the first conservationists, as he, from the age of 13 years was opposed to landboomer Premier, Thomas Bent, destroying natural sanctuaries where the Longs lived in Sandringham. Dick's sister was superintendent of the Socialist Sunday School for most of its life. He attended Rev. Sinclaire's Christian Fellowship Church at Upwey. Normally a very shy man, he spoke out during the war and became prominent in this campaign, as he was no sooner out of gaol than up in Court on another charge. In gaol, he told the Governor he was an outdoor man and couldn't stand this type of life. He was given a fairly free hand and allowed to build himself a hut in the yard. Meetings and song-singing were arranged outside the gaol to encourage him.

The Women's Socialist League of the VSP was the main organisation to carry on this campaign. First arrested were Mrs. Jane Aarons and Mrs. Jennie Baines, for flying the flag on the Bank. Mrs. Aarons was fined £2, with £3.5.6 costs in default seven days. Mrs. Baines was fined £25 or fourteen days. A demonstration in Court livened it up.

Jennie Baines was re-arrested in January, 1919 together with Mrs. Nellie Rickie and Mrs. Bella Lavender. Convicted early in March were Mrs. Baines, Mrs. Rickie, Harry Smith and Bob Ross. Maurice Blackburn defended Bella Lavender and the charge was withdrawn. Alf Foster defended the others who had the choice of a bond or a month, but Mrs. Baines was sentenced to six months, as also Dick Long had been sentenced. Jennie Baines was a suffragette in England, and served her prison apprenticeship in Holloway Female Prison in London. She announced that she would go on a hunger strike and addressing herself to the magistrate said, "If I do not obtain a speedy release, my death will lie at your door." She was described as "Australia's first hunger striker". After four days' gaol the acting Attorney General ordered her release. Next time she was charged she was fined £5. Mrs. Rickie served a sentence. A Mrs. Violet Clarke was charged and refused to plead, and was sentenced to gaol. The second time she was gaoled she too went on a hunger strike and had her sentence shortened. Mrs. Sarah Hales, an elderly woman, paid her fine. Mrs. Nellie Anderson was sentenced to three days' gaol. Mrs. May Sheppard refused to plead, was sentenced and lost her employment. Whilst two of the women refused to plead, Long on one charge pleaded "deliberately guilty". Mrs. Clarke had four summonses served on her at the one time.

The printers, Fraser & Jenkinson, who had rendered great service during the anti-conscription campaigns, were summoned for aiding and abetting the flag flying by printing a dodger referring to the Red Flag Day. They were defended by Maurice Blackburn. Fraser was discharged and Jenkinson given a bond with 8 guineas costs.

It was generally felt that the campaign was badly let down by the Trades Hall which obediently followed orders and refrained from flying the flag.

At a Socialist picnic at Greensborough, Viv Crisp who had been a leader of the Anti-Conscription Army and one of the gamest fighters for the cause, climbed up one of the highest of the high trees and tied the red flag to a topmost limb. As he came down the one local policeman was waiting for him at the foot of the tree, but the other picnickers successfully milled and thronged around the base enabling Viv to leap clear and race away.

In the USA, progressives were under similar prohibition and when 2,000 celebrated the commutation of Thomas J. Mooney's death sentence to life imprisonment, they had no flags, but wore red caps, socks and ties.

The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.

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