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World War 1 and the Conscription Referenda

Video clip synopsis – Prime Minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes' Conscription Referendum failed twice, in 1916 and 1917.
Year of production - 1916-17
Duration - 2min 9sec
Tags - Australian History, British Empire, conscription, referendum, war, see all tags


World War 1 and the Conscription Referenda

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About the Video Clip


World War 1 and the Conscription Referenda is an excerpt from the film Cavalcade of Australia 1901-1951 (34 mins), produced in 1951.

Cavalcade of Australia 1901-1951: Produced by the Australian National Film Board to celebrate the Jubilee of Federation, Cavalcade of Australia 1901-1951 provides an historical review of the development of the nation between 1901 and 1951. The film opens with the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) to Australia in 1901 to open the first Commonwealth Parliament. Through the use of historical footage, the film not only covers notable events in the Commonwealth story but also social development, fashions and economic growth over the period.

Cavalcade of Australia 1901-1951 was produced by the Department of the Interior.

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 casualties; voluntary recruiting did not seem to be producing sufficient numbers to supply the front line.

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

The war ended in late 1918, but by 1919 a shortage of transport ships meant that many Australian troops were still waiting to be returned to Australia.

Classroom Activities

  1. The clip begins with upbeat music and yet we know that many men were traumatised by their WWI experience in the trenches. The soldier narrator in the clip doesn’t speak of death but mentions aspects of the war like ‘we got to know France really well – down in the mud’. Some people argue that a soldier who has lived through the horror of war cannot or will not explain those experiences, but must ‘sanitise’ them to stay sane. Does this video clip give a similar representation of war, one that has ‘sanitised’ the experience? Give reasons for your answer.
  2. Conscription was a very passionate and divisive issue in Australian society in 1916 and again in 1917. How is the issue presented in the video clip?
    Investigate the varying views on conscription and those that supported and opposed it.
    In the video clip is either a pro-conscription, anti-conscription or neutral stance taken? Give reasons for your answer.
  3. The narrator mentions that in 1918 ‘the King came out and gave the boss his KCB’. Who was “The King’, and what was a KCB? Investigate on the internet more about ‘the boss’ – Major General Sir John Monash and his role in the Gallipoli campaign and in France.
  4. How would you rate this video clip as a WWI historical source? Explain

Further Resources

  • From the Digger History website: an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Services. Biographical information about Major General Sir John Monash KCB, VD, one of Australia’s most distinguished soldiers during the First World War.