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William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge

Video clip synopsis – William Hughes, “The Little Digger”, campaigned twice for national conscription to boost an Australian army decimated by World War One.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 5sec
Tags - Australian History, biography, British Empire, conscription, icons, identity, Prime Ministers, reporting, war, World War 1, see all tags


William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge

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About the Video Clip


William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge is an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, produced in 2007.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures
Award winning cartoonist and yarn spinner, Warren Brown, reveals the emotional lives of Australian Prime Ministers through 10 objects they used every day or even adored – from Robert Menzies’ home movie camera, to Joseph Lyons’ love letters, Harold Holt’s briefcase and Ben Chifley’s pipe. These treasures reveal the nation’s leaders, as you have never seen them before.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with Old Parliament House and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus


Outcome 7

A student thinks critically and interpretively using information, ideas and increasingly complex arguments to respond to and compose texts in a range of contexts.

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information


During World War 1, also known as The Great War, Australian soldiers fought on the Western Front (the border area between France and Belgium) between 1916 and 1918. This was Australia’s main war involvement, far bigger than the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915. Australians fought in the war as fellow members of the British Empire – with the Australian Government not hesitating to consider Australia also at war when Britain declared war on Germany.

In 1916 the Australian Government, under Prime Minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes, called for conscription of Australian men to supply replacements for the war casualties; voluntary recruiting did not seem to be producing sufficient numbers to supply the front line.

“The Little Digger”, as Hughes became known, held a referendum (really a ‘plebiscite’, a popular vote that indicated people’s opinions, but was not able to change the Constitution) in which the people of Australia had to indicate whether they supported or opposed conscription. The referendum caused great divisions in Australian society and within Hughes’ own governing Australian Labor Party.

The referendum was very narrowly defeated.

In December 1917 Hughes, who by this time had been expelled from the Labor Party for his advocacy of conscription and was now the leader of the Nationalist Party, a combination of the pro-conscription Laborites, and the Liberal Party, held a second referendum. A slightly increased majority rejected the proposal, but with great social hostility and disruption being caused by the issue.

The irascible Hughes was a popular and dynamic politician despite a tendency to feud. He worked with 100 secretaries during his term in office, helped found the Labor party, the Nationalist Party, and the United Australia Party and was ousted from all three. He formed the Commonwealth Police Force after a dissenter socked him with an egg during a conscription campaign and the state police force did nothing.

William Hughes (1862 -1952) was Prime Minister of Australia from October 1915 to February 1923, and a member of the Commonwealth Parliament from the first sitting in 1901 until his death in 1952. The 1916 conscription badge is held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Classroom Activities


Writing a biography

One form of communication about a Prime Minister can be through a biography.

A biography of a Prime Minister should tell us about:

  • The person’s background
  • His life before politics — and how that shaped his later life
  • Why the person entered politics
  • How the person became Prime Minister
  • What the person achieved, and failed to achieve, as Prime Minister
  • The influence of others on him in the role
  • His life after the Prime Ministership
  • An assessment or evaluation of the impact of the role on him, and his impact on the nation.

You should research these aspects, and then use the object as a way of focusing on or introducing your biographical story to your readers.

Your presentation can be as:

  • A journalistic article
  • An imaginary memoir
  • A formal biographical article
  • A PowerPoint-supported oral presentation
  • A debate (e.g. that Prime Minister X contributed more to Australia than Prime Minister Y)
  • Or some other format.

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers
Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography