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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, conscription, historical representations, icons, Prime Ministers, representations of war, 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


By viewing this video clip of an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, students have the opportunity to examine how social and political changes within Australia are connected to the actions of people, such as William Hughes. They will:

  • identify the role of William Hughes in the Conscription issue
  • draw conclusions on the impact of the Conscription Referendum on the Australian community over time
  • reflect on perspectives towards Conscription

For further information please consult Queensland Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Framework’s SOSE Essential Learnings and Standards

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. This video clip presents a focus on an object or artefact from an earlier period of Australian history. Objects and artifacts can tell us about a person or time – but only if we can interrogate them to find out what their story is. To build an understanding of the object or artifact, consider the following:
    1. Describe the object. (size, shape, materials, function)
    2. What does if show? (people, symbols, words)
    3. What is the context? (time, place, cultural group)
    4. Who produced it?
    5. What was it produced for? (purpose)
    6. What/who were the intended audience?
    7. What might it tell us about attitudes and values – that is, those things that people believe and the right way to behave?
    8. What does it tell us about how people lived at the time?
    9. Why do you think the object/artebact is held in a museum?
      Summarise your ideas in a paragraph beginning with: “This object helps me understand that …”
  2. This video clip presents a focus on the issue of Conscription which divided Australian society in 1916–17. To develop an understanding of this issue, consider the following:
    1. Describe what ‘conscription’ is.
    2. At this time only men were conscripted. Suggest why. Do you think it would be different today.
    3. Why did Hughes hold referendums on the issue of ‘conscription’?
    4. Identify arguments presented for and against conscription at the time. Do you think these arguments would be presented today if a referendum on ‘conscription’ was to be held?
    5. What was the outcome of the referendums on conscription?
    6. What effect did the referendums on ‘conscription’ have on the Australian community at the time?
  3. Write a 100 word caption to accompany the display of the1916 Conscription Badge in a museum. Include in the caption a description of the icon and its relationship to the twentieth century Australian history.

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia and do a search on Australian Prime Ministers and the issue of ‘conscription’

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Visit the education section of the Australian War Memorial and do a search on the issue of ‘conscription’

Visit the Old Parliament House website and see the link to the Billy Hughes at War website