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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, language, media, media and society, media influence, national interest, politics, Prime Ministers, representations, representations of war, war, war memorials, 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



A student:
5.2 assesses the impact of international events and relationships on Australia’s history
5.4 sequences major historical events to show an understanding of continuity, change and causation
5.5 identifies, comprehends and evaluates historical sources
5.6 uses sources appropriately in an historical inquiry
5.7 explains different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the past
5.10 selects and uses appropriate oral, written and other forms, including ICT, to communicate effectively about the past for different audiences.

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


1. Interrogating objects

History sometimes involves the study of artifacts — often in a museum, as part of a site study. Objects and artifacts can tell you about a person or a time — but only if you can ‘interrogate’ them to find out what their story is.

Here are questions that you can use on museum objects, such as this one about the Prime Minister, to help reveal the meaning and significance of objects.

  • Describe the object. (Size, shape, materials, function etc.)
  • What does it show? — People? Symbols? Words? If so, who or what are they?
  • What is its context? (Time, place, social group etc.)
  • Who produced it?
  • For what possible purpose/s?
  • Who was it meant for? (Just one person, or a whole audience?)
  • What might it tell us about attitudes and values — that is, those things that people believe are the right way to behave?
  • What does it tell us about how people behaved at the time?

Now write a summary sentence beginning:

‘This object helps me understand or realise that . . . ‘

2. Thinking about conscription

  1. What is conscription?
  2. Do you think conscription might unite or divide a society? Why?
  3. To test your answer, go to the Australian War Memorial website, click on Collections, then Collection search, then search Conscription in World War I. Print some of the posters and pamphlets you find there. Discuss:
    1. The arguments that are used on both sides
    2. The images that are used to persuade people
    3. The language that is used.
      Consider what they suggest to you about the impact of the issue on society in 1916 and 1917.
  4. Why do you think a Prime Minister might put a society through such pain?

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Conscription was also an issue in World War II and the Vietnam War. To find out more go to The Homefront