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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, conscription, defence, 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.

Curriculum Focus


This Digital Resource can be used to achieve the following outcomes:
A student
5.1 responds to and composes increasingly sophisticated and sustained texts for understanding, interpretation, critical analysis and pleasure
5.3 selects, uses, describes and explains how different technologies affect and shape meaning
5.6 experiments with different ways of imaginatively and interpretively transforming experience, information and ideas into texts
5.7 thinks critically and interpretively using information, ideas and increasingly complex arguments to respond to and compose texts in a range of contexts
5.9 demonstrates understanding of the ways texts reflect personal and public worlds

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 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. Describe your image of Australian troops in the war known as ‘The Great War’ and their involvement in the battles fought on the Western Front (the border area between France and Belgium) between 1916 and 1918?
    1. List the texts that you have seen and heard that may have contributed to this image.
    2. Describe the image this video clip portrays as an image of World War 1.
    3. Write an analysis of the video clip discussing how the filmmaker has used cinematic techniques including camera shots, voice-over narration, music and editing to portray the image of World War 1 that it does.
  2. Conscription (compulsory enlistment of men for military service) was a very passionate and divisive issue in Australian society in 1916 and again in 1917.
    1. How does the video clip present the issue?
    2. Is the video clip pro-conscription, anti-conscription or neutral? Give reasons for your answer.
  3. 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.
    1. Do you think that the video clip is a similar representation of war, one that has ‘sanitised’ the experience? Give reasons for your answer.
    2. Look at an ANZAC Day commemoration in your community. What is the image of war that ANZAC Day presents? What is stressed and what is minimised or excluded?
    3. The Western Front has been presented in poetry by Wilfred Owen and other World War1 poets. Create and present an oral presentation comparing some of the poetry with the image of war presented in this video clip.
    4. Write a brief reflection on your oral presentation that includes your messages, audience and purpose.

Literacy Activity: Focus= Viewing / Analysing
This film clip and the accompanying soundtrack / commentary are a perfect match.
Find five (5) specific examples of how the images presented match the soundtrack exactly. (5 marks)

Extension – Find pictures of posters used to conscript personnel during WW1. Choose one picture / poster and explain five (5) persuasive techniques used by the military to encourage enlistment. (5 marks)

Further Resources


John Silkin, The Penguin Book of World War 1 Poetry, Penguin, Australia, 1997
The Australian War Memorial
Television Program
John Hughes (director), The Art of War, Film Australia & SBS, 2005