88. Conscription Referendum 1916: the Yes vote

The next few posts will look at the first referendum on conscription held on 28 October 1916. This first post looks at the key groups and institutions in the Shire of Alberton that backed the Yes vote in the referendum. It will be followed by an examination of the key individuals in the local community who backed conscription. There will also be a separate post to look at the far smaller and less organised group of public backers for the No vote. That post will also look at the significance of the private, if not secret, No vote in the local community.

Previous posts have made it clear that in the Shire of Alberton there was widespread support for the introduction of conscription well before Hughes announced the referendum at the end of August (30/8/16). Post 87 showed that in early 1916 the Local Recruiting Committee came to the unanimous position that conscription was necessary. This was evident in the forceful letter that B P Johnson wrote to the Sate Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in late April, 1916. This declaration of support for conscription was doubly significant because the Local Recruiting Committee had been set up as a responsibility of the local council – the chair was the Shire President, its secretary was the Shire Secretary and several local councillors served on it – which meant in effect that the Shire of Alberton itself was seen as pro conscription. As well, Post 85 showed that the local citizens speaking at farewells and welcomes in the district – again, this included local councillors – had been advocating conscription from very early 1916. As argued, the speakers believed that the voluntary system had served its time and that only conscription could deliver the number of recruits required. They were convinced that conscription was ‘fairer’ and more ‘scientific’. It was over the same period, that the Shire of Alberton, along with most other local councils and municipalities in Victoria, supported the resolution of the Warragul Council in favour of conscription (March 1916).

Another key local body which also offered early support for conscription was the Australian Natives’ Association. In May 1916, the local ANA branch at Yarram supported the petition organised – in haste – by the Universal Service League, the key national pro-conscription body which itself had been formed as early as the second half of 1915.

Overall, in the first half of 1916, when Hughes had been in England – and, in theory at least, the issue of conscription was off the political agenda – key groups in the local community were already calling for the introduction of conscription and at every opportunity presented conscription as inevitable. Even at that early point, there was discussion on how Hughes would be able to introduce conscription, given the level of opposition in the Senate.

Once Hughes returned to Australia and publicly committed to conscription at the end of August 1916, local citizens and groups in the Shire of Alberton began to organise to support the Yes vote. As a brief indication of the strength of forces that the Yes vote was able to enlist, the following groups, as a minimum, can be identified as backing the introduction of conscription: the 2 local papers – The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the South Gippsland Chronicle – the Shire of Alberton council, the local recruiting committee, the local branch of the ANA, and the clergy of the local Methodist, Church of England and Presbyterian congregations.

Despite the apparently overwhelming support for the Yes vote, it proved difficult to marshall people’s enthusiasm and support. This problem had been highlighted before. For example, there had been constant criticism in the local press at the small numbers of Yarram townsfolk who attended farewells and welcomes. The regular complaint was that for all their claimed declarations of patriotism, people were not prepared to put themselves out, and all the effort was left to just a handful of true patriots.

The first request to set up a local branch of the Universal Service League – the key, national pro conscription body – came in July 1916. B P Johnson was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (26/7/16) as having been requested by the organising secretary of the Universal Service League to set up a branch in Yarram.  There was also a brief rationale:

The league aims at conscription, because it is fairer to all, and because under the voluntary system we can neither support our men at the front, nor make the tremendous effort necessary in order to secure Australia from the menace of German domination.

However, nothing appeared to come from this early contact because 2 months later the paper reported (22/9/16) that at another public meeting Johnson had again raised the request that a branch of the Universal Service League be set up in Yarram. The matter was by then urgent so it was resolved to hold a public meeting on 25/9/16; but the report in the paper (27/9/16) of the meeting held highlighted, yet again, the lack of support from the townsfolk:

There was a disappointingly small attendance at the shire hall on Monday night

Johnson, who had … expected the hall to be packed and who feared that … some people’s patriotism was at a low ebb, pointed out that the plan was to launch the national campaign for conscription on October 1. Given the urgency, it was decided to adjourn the meeting and call yet another public meeting the very next night, but this time, in the hope of building numbers, it was to run after a scheduled ANA branch meeting.

At the meeting … there were a few more present than at the adjourned meeting. This time a committee was finally formed. However, the committee that was formed did not describe itself as a branch of the Universal Service League. Rather, from that point on, it was generally described as the local Referendum Campaign Committee.

In the month that was then left before the referendum, the committee managed to stage one large public meeting in Yarram and at least one meeting in one of the other towns (Goodwood) of the Shire. There were reports of meetings scheduled for Woodside (16/10/16) and Carrajung (24/10/16) but it is unclear if they went ahead. The meeting in Yarram was held on 10/10/16 and the guest speaker was Sir William Irvine, former premier of Victoria. The meeting was chaired by B P Johnson. It was written up, in detail, in both local papers:  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (11/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle ( 13/10/16). The meeting at Goodwood was held on 11/10/16 and the speakers that night were: Cr Barlow, Cr O’Connor, Rev Walklate and J S Graham. This meeting was also written up in the local papers.

The arguments for conscription presented at the meetings had certainly been well rehearsed. Irvine laboured what he saw as the direct threat Germany posed to Australia. He also claimed that those who had already enlisted had done so in the belief that they would be supported with reinforcements. He insisted that Australians had to honour the promise. Other speakers took up the theme of sacrifice and challenged those who claimed that Australia had already done enough to consider the sacrifices being made by people in the United Kingdom. Rev Walklate, talking about the true level of sacrifice required, sought to reassure the audience at Goodwood that even a high death rate amongst the AIF  could be absorbed. The sacrifice could be borne.

… according to statistics over 50 per cent of the males in this country were under 21, and even allowing for those who would be unfortunate enough to lose their lives, that would be sufficient to breed the proper race of people.

Another common argument was that Australia already had conscription – from 1911 – and the referendum was merely intended to extend the scope of where Australian soldiers could be deployed to protect the national interest. There were also all the accusations against the backers of the No vote. They were represented as German sympathisers or extreme, militant trade unionists who threatened not just the War effort but the state itself. And there were those who were just ‘cowards’ and ‘shirkers’. In the end after much applause, the following resolution was passed unanimously at the Yarram meeting:

“That this meeting of the citizens of Yarram and district pledges its support to the Government in this national crisis to secure an overwhelming majority for “Yes” in the coming referendum.” (Applause.)

Essentially there were no new arguments for conscription being presented. The same arguments had been made for a year at all local farewells and welcomes, and in countless newspaper reports, in both metropolitan and local newspapers. At the same time, the public meetings in October were important because they gave the local community the chance to identify with the cause. Local people in Yarram and across the Shire would definitely have known that, at least publicly, there was strong support for conscription. As will be shown, there was no equivalent level of public support for the No vote.

Support for conscription from the local Protestant churches was strong. The declarations of support were also written up extensively in the local papers. In its edition of 25/10/16, the South Gippsland Chronicle reported that At the Church of England and Methodist Church on Sunday last [22/10/16], strong appeals were made to the congregations to vote “Yes” in the coming referendum. It also reported that at Presbyterian services in the district a letter from the Public Questions Committee of the Church was read out. The letter clearly stated that the Government should be given the power to conscript:

To give the Government this power seems to the Public Questions Committee of our Assembly to be supremely just and necessary in this present life and death struggle, and to be a duty we are bound to face.

As will become apparent in the next post, the question of support from the the local Catholic Church was less clear cut. Bishop Phelan’s position was one of neutrality. Accordingly, he directed that public meetings, either for or against conscription, could not be advertised from the pulpit. In its edition of 20/10/16 the South Gippsland Chronicle reported Phelan’s position:

To my own flock, Catholics of Gippsland, I say the church holds no brief for any secular power, nor does she utter an authoritative voice on the question to be decided by the adults of Australia on the 28th. You are free, then, to vote as individuals, according to the dictates of your conscience. But in exercising that freedom, which the church in no way hampers, ask your conscience how far you are justified in despoiling another of that gift, the gift of human liberty, which you so highly prize.

The qualification in the last sentence introduced the difference between a free vote and one based on conscience. For Phelan, Yes was neither simple nor given; and to the local community of the time, it would have been clear that, unlike the Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church was not publicly declaring itself in favour of conscription.

Local Protestant clergy sought to counter this concern over conscience and human liberty. For example, a sermon by Rev Walklate (Methodist) had been reported at length in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 11/10/16.  Walklate tackled the question directly, … have we the moral right to compel men against their will to risk their lives in human slaughter? He concluded that conscription was morally just. However, his argument relied exclusively on religious – not moral – belief and, specifically, belief in the joy and reward of an after-life:

The sending of men to the front under such circumstances was desirable, even if it meant death, for such was the entrance into life under the principle laid down by our Lord, and to give up this life in the service of humanity was to enter into the widest service.

The role of the local press in supporting the Yes vote was critical. The most significant form of this support came from the extensive reporting of the activities of all those institutions, groups and individuals in the local community who were actively promoting conscription. Moreover, the readers would have seen the support for conscription as flowing seamlessly from the local papers’ earlier support for recruitment and the War effort in general. Conscription was presented as the next natural and inevitable step.

The local papers also made it clear that their editorial position was to support the Yes vote. For example, in the months leading to the referendum the South Gippsland Chronicle included extensive editorial commentary on the forces that were attempting to thwart PM Hughes. It wrote (8/9/16) of labor organisations that had been captured by shirkers, extremsists in the ALP who sympathised with the Hun and anti-conscriptionists who had captured Labor’s party machine.

Immediately prior to the referendum, both papers featured editorials and other material to support the Yes vote. On 27/10/16, the South Gippsland Chronicle under the heading Vote “Yes” for Australia featured a list of direct reasons why people had to vote yes, including the following:

Are you going to scab on the Anzacs?
How would the Kaiser vote on 28th October?
A win for “No” on 28th October would be very popular in Berlin.
Don’t forget that the men fighting in Europe are defending Australia.
A vote unrecorded is a vote given to Germany.
Australia is proud of its roll of honor. We want no roll of dishonor on referendum.

The same article also proudly proclaimed that 75% of the district would vote Yes.

For its part, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the same day (27/10/16), in addition to all the vote Yes material from Hughes and other national bodies, featured the following poem by a local, Thomas Hurley of Woodside. The poem was entitled Awaiting An Answer and it appeared under the headline: Australia Will Be There.  Referendum Tomorrow: Vote “Yes”

Britannia asks her daughter dear
A question fair and square
The way is long, the task is hard,
Say, will you do your share?

Thy sons are brave, their arms are strong
With thoughts to do and dare.
Say, will you fill their tottering ranks,
Or leave them to despair?

And shall Australia’s answer be –
“I think I’ve done my share,
let black or yellow fight for me,
I really do not care.

“Of fighting I have had enough,
In fact I’ve had a scare;
So Mother, dear, fight on alone –
Australia won’t be there!

There is no doubt that there was widespread public support in October 1916 for the Yes vote in the Shire of Alberton. Such support completely eclipsed the level of public support for the No vote. Conscription was presented as the next necessary and natural step in the successful pursuit of the War effort. The referendum itself did not come as a surprise and the arguments in favour of the Yes vote had been rehearsed, extensively, for at least one year prior to the vote. The success of the Yes vote was never questioned. The only issue was how overwhelming the Yes vote victory would be.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

 

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