The Conscription Debate

Unlike the European Nations and Britain, who were directly affected by the war, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was made up of enlisted soldiers who had volunteered to fight. Observers such as journalist and official war historian C.E.W. Bean remarked that volunteerism was the foundation of the Australian soldier’s attitude towards authority and their professionalism, as well as the morale of the various battalions. Armies that had pressed men into fighting were much more affected by desertion. By 1916, however, it became apparent that the war would last for some time to come, and that more soldiers would be needed to support and replace those at the front in Europe.

In Australia, Labor Prime Minster W. M. Hughes led the debate for conscription, and against the wishes of his party initiated not one, but two, referenda on the issue, in 1916 and 1917 respectively. Hughes faced stiff opposition from outside his party as well, with the voices against conscription led by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. The 'No' case won both referenda narrowly.  

Gathering Information

  1. In your groups or individually, view the excerpts from the films and visit the websites listed below which provide an overview of the Conscription debate.
  2. Use a Plus, Minus and Interesting Chart to record the reasons for and against the issue of Conscription. 

Analysing Information

Visit the website The Conscription Debate at Old Parliament House   

  1. Have half your group listen again to the arguments in favour of conscription and half to those against.
  2. Record and group the important arguments for conscription under broad headings (eg 'Earning Respect for Australia – National Pride', 'Individual Obligation', 'Mateship', 'Freedom', 'Loyalty'). Be sure to inform the other group of any additional headings.
  3. Now fishbowl your information and observe how the different sides of the debate address the issues of National Pride; Freedom; Loyalty; Obligation etc.    

Working with your findings  

 The conscription debate: 'Freedom’s just another word…'  

  1. Host a class debate about whether Australia should ever introduce conscription, with reference to its national identity, values and principles.


For the teacher | Background | Introductory activity | The origins of the First World War | Convincing Australians | Forging an identity | The conscription debate | ANZAC in contemporary Australia