In early March 1917 (2/3/17), the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published the mesage that Birdwood had sent to all members of the AIF immediately prior to the first referendum conscription, 4 months earlier. In the letter, included here in full, Birdwood is obviously calling for a Yes vote from the men.
To members of the A.I.F.- As General Officer Commanding the Australian Force, it is not for me to interfere in any political matters or to influence the voting of our men on the coming Referendum.
I know well that in any case all will vote as seems to them necessary in the best interests of Australia and the Great Empire to which we belong, whose freedom has been, and still is, in danger of being turned into slavery by Germany. I feel, however, that I can inform you all of how really essential it is that we should get all the men available to keep these magnificent Australian forces, which are now in the field, and whose name is renowned throughout the Empire, up to their strength.
Every single man would, I am sure, bitterly resent and regret it if we had to reduce a single battalion, battery or company, every one of which has now made history, and established a tradition which we all hope will last as long as the British flag flies over our world-wide Empire. But it is, I think, probable that all ranks do not know as well as I do the absolute necessity of keeping our reinforcements right up to strength, and the present system is not doing this. I feel sure all know the great feelings of regard and pride which I have for every man of this force who has up to now come forward of his own free-will and after great sacrifice.
Many brave men have given their lives for the sake of our Empire and the freedom of the world – lives which have been uselessly sacrificed if we relax our efforts in any way until we have the Germans right down on their knees. Remember, too, boys, that the word freedom does not only mean for ourselves, but what is far more important, freedom for our children and our children’s children. For them, I know no sacrifice can be too great.
In the magnificent manifesto, which our Prime Minister, Mr. Hughes, has sent us, he has fully shown what exemptions there will be when universal service is adopted. It will be seen from this that members of families, some of whom have already come forward, will be fully safeguarded, and no man need fear that there is danger of, we will say, the brother who has been left behind to look after the affairs of the family, being ordered to come out. The shirker, however, will be caught, and made to do his share, instead of staying at home as he has done up to now, not only evading his duties, but getting into soft jobs which we want to see kept for our boys here when they return, or for the representatives of their families who have been left in Australia.
I have nothing more to say, boys, except to point out to you as strongly as I can that the necessity does exist, and I hope that after these two years, during which we have been soldiers together, we know each other well enough to realise that I would not say this without good reason. Having said it, I leave it to you to act according to your conscience, for the good of our King and country, the honour of our people, and the safety of our wives and children.
W. R. Birdwood
Lieut. General G.O.C., A. I F.
October 16th. 1916
The copy of the letter, the paper explained, had been provided by B P Johnson who had obtained it from his brother. [Johnson’s brother was Sergeant Norman C Johnson who had enlisted – 4 LHR – in August 1914 and who had been repatriated to Australia in April 1916 after having been wounded at Gallipoli.]
The publication of the letter suggests that while the referendum had been defeated, Imperial Loyalists in the local community – like Johnson and Rossiter, the editor – were still steadfastly commited to conscription. Voluntary enlistments had not picked up after the referendum, and, in the minds of people like Johnson and Rossiter, the arguments for conscription remained as valid as at the time of the referendum. The publication of Birdwood’s message to his ‘boys’ reminded everyone of the apparently indisputable logic for conscription. As Rossiter wrote in his introduction to the piece, it was … a powerful appeal for the “Yes” vote. Moreover, the case for conscription was reinforced by the claim that the AIF had in fact voted Yes in the referendum.
Specifically in terms of the soldiers’ vote, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire reported as early as 20/12/16 that the majority had supported conscription. On that occasion, Hughes was reported as stating in federal parliament that … a majority of soldiers of the A.I.F. abroad was substantially in favor of the referendum. When he was pressed for the exact numbers, Hughes declared that he could not divulge them because … the desire of the military authorities in England precluded that [possibility]. The pressure on Hughes to release the precise numbers continued and, finally, at a speech in Bendigo on 27/3/17, he claimed that the number “For” was 72,000 and the number “Against” was 58,000: a majority of 14,000. The numbers were reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire on 30/3/17. [The figures given in the Official History were 72,399 Yes and 58,894 No: a majority of 13,505.]
At the end of March 1917, as far as Hughes and his supporters were concerned, the arguments for conscription had always been – and still remained – beyond dispute; and they had the support of the highest levels of the AIF command. Further, the soldiers themselves voted for conscription by a clear majority. Therefore, the logic ran, the men overseas had been betrayed by the No vote back in Australia.
However, there was a very different version of the story of soldiers’ vote which, at the time, was concealed. Hughes had his way with his version of the truth and the episode reveals just how comprehensively the Government was able to manipulate the narrative of the War.
The alternative version comes, ironically, from the personal diaries of CEW Bean, the Official War Historian. Bean was certainly an advocate of conscription and indeed he did his best to ensure that the soldiers’ vote was Yes. But at the same time, his personal diaries expose the deceit and manipulation that characterised Hughes’ desperate attempt first to win over the soldiers’ vote, and then, when it did not suit him, effectively bury it.
Hughes’ intention was to have the AIF vote held before the vote back in Australia so that the assumed strong Yes from the soldiers would influence the national vote. However, as the vote neared he was informed by his supporters in England, including Murdoch, that the soldiers’ vote was not guaranteed. At this point Bean became involved. He was given the task of contacting Birdwood and encouraging him to make a representation to the soldiers urging them to vote Yes. This is all set out in detail in the following extracts from Bean’s personal diaries. Bean’s role in all this is very apparent. He was most definitely a key participant in the history he came to write. Bean wrote in a form of shorthand but for present purposes, I have written the diary notes in full prose, without changing any of the content.
On Sunday 15 October 1916, Bean wrote in his diary:
Last night [Sa 14/10/16] White told Bazley not to let me go on any account without seeing him.
[CBB White, Brigadier General, General Staff, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Working under Birdwood but generally regarded as the real power in the AIF in France at the time]
[AW Bazley, nominal ‘batman’ to Bean but really a colleague]
Hughes had sent a cable to Birdwood from Burnie in Tasmania. It said that the opposition to conscription in Australia was due to the formidable intrigues of the ultra-socialists and the Fenians; and that everything depended on the lead which the vote of our own force in France gave to Australia. He called on Birdwood, with all the earnestness he could put into the cable, to put aside precedent and to use his great influence with the troops to get them to carry conscription by a big majority and give a lead to the people.
White wanted me to see Birdwood and urge him to do a really big thing for the Empire, and take this step. At the moment we both took it that what Hughes wanted was a message to the Australian people.
I hesitated a moment. Perhaps I am weak. I knew that White’s decision, whichever way it was, would have settled me in mine. But I have a very great fear of anyone in Birdwood’s position – a military servant of the State using his influence in a big question at the polls. I should have taken a few minutes to think. I wasn’t sure which way White was. Then he told me he “wants the little man to play the man – and to take a big opportunity of doing a great thing for the Empire.” The loss of this measure would be a terrible smack in the face of the Empire. It would count enormously. It seemed to me that Birdwood might very well tell the Australian people what the military necessity was for reinforcements, as their chief military adviser. It would have enormous effect. White added: “Yes, and get him to point out that every effort that we have made up to the present would go for nothing- would be utterly wasted – if this were lost.” White means, I think, that it would lose us the good name which our energy and public spirit have so far won.
When I got to London I started to search for Birdwood. … After a fair hunt, I heard of Birdie at the Charles Buckleys, where his daughter often stays. Birdie was at Clifton and would not get back till 8.20. I decided to miss the train and stay and see him. Fortunately I found out that the train left at 11.15. [PM]
Birdie, who hated the idea of being made to give evidence at the Dardanelles Commission during the war, had got away quietly to Lincoln and only went to Clifton on his last day.
He came in to the Buckleys with his pretty daughter, the little Harefield nurse, at about 8.45. We had a long talk in Mrs Buckleys sitting room, by ourselves; Mrs Buckley had been exceedingly kind in telephoning all over London for me to find out if he had returned.
Birdie pointed out at once that what Hughes wanted was, clearly, for him [Birdwood] to give a lead to the soldiers. He never hesitated a moment. I too could see at once a reason for this. If the soldiers voted No – that would kill the question, the people at home would never vote Yes if their army here voted No. The Australian vote was to be later, after the result of the A.I.F.’s vote was known. I fancy Hughes had arranged this thinking that the A.I.F would be certain to vote Yes. Anyway, it was no use Birdie sending a message to Australia if the A.I.F. voted No. The thing to do was to get the army to vote Yes.
Birdie told me that he had seen Lloyd George. While he was there Murdoch asked if he might come in. Murdoch wanted Birdwood to send a message to Australia. Lloyd George agreed, too, that B. [Birdwood] should do this, until Birdwood pointed out that if he did, it might be said by opportunists that he was ordering the soldiers how to vote. L. George agreed, and it was decided not to do this; but Murdoch got letters of introduction to Haig and Joffre and started for France to get messages from each of them if possible.
This shows how Ll. George hangs on the Australian attitude – how important he thinks it. Birdwood didn’t hesitate. He got me to sit down and write, to his dictation, a message to the men saying that he wanted them to vote by their consciences and not to influence them in any way. But he added that he probably knew better than they did, the need for reinforcements. He was sure they would not like to see any of the units, with all their traditions and history, broken up. There was a need for men. If the effort of Australia were relaxed now, all the brave lives sacrificed before would have been sacrificed in vain. The Govt has told them what exemptions were to be – they need not fear that the brother left at home to mind the business would be called to enlist; the men it would especially get were the shirkers who were at present filling all the nice fat billets which we wanted to see our men in on their return, or their relations at home.
The poll was to be tomorrow [Mo 16/10/16]. I urged that if possible this [Birdwood’s statement] ought to and could be wired tonight. But the A.I.F Headquarters said it couldn’t. I think it still could. However, Col. Wright said not. So B. asked if the poll could be put off a day or two. Wright, who is under Anderson (who is managing the business of getting the vote taken) said it could. So B. asked them to wire postponing it.
I don’t know one bit the effect of these steps. They are very risky I am sure. I should have tried every way I could to have got the wire across without postponing the poll, but I didn’t put my reasons strongly enough though B. could see that I wanted it.
There it is. I hope it does the business. For I am sure conscription is right.
Bean’s diary entry is striking at many levels. The tone is anecdotal and free-flowing. He places himself at the very centre of the action. He claims close familiarity with the leading political and military figures. He is a confidant and trusted messenger.
The actors seem caught up in the moment of a ‘good idea’ or a ‘desperate plea’ from Hughes and no one is prepared to step back and apply any sort of critical thinking. Bean talks about the unprecedented act of having a military commander intervene in an obviously political situation but there is no evidence of any deep reflection from anyone on just how significant the matter was. The narrative appears to be on the lines of a select group of powerful individuals determining, on the run, that despite the risks something had to be done.
Essentially, all the key characters involved were attempting to influence the soldiers’ vote – despite all the transparently false qualifications Birdwood included in his message – and Birdwood, acting on Hughes’ request, was using his military status and reputation to intervene directly in a critically important political matter. Moreover, the delay to the voting schedule, so that Birdwood’s message would have the chance to influence the outcome, was obviously intended to manipulate the voting process.
Subsequent entries in Bean’s diary reveal that the political intervention did not achieve the desired outcome. In fact, it probably had the opposite effect. The following entry was dated 21/10/16, immediately after the troops had voted, and it points to an additional strategy which Hughes was keen to employ. Separate from the actual soldiers’ vote on the referendum, Hughes wanted a series of resolutions in favour of conscription passed by public meetings of the soldiers in France. He intended to use such resolutions to promote the Yes vote back in Australia.
Murdoch tells me that Young (S.A.) O.C. Beale and another have gone across (at his request, by Haig’s leave) to address meetings upon conscription, amongst the men and see if they cannot send some resolution calling on the Australian people to send more men. If the resolution is in favour of conscription, it will be telegraphed to Australia; if against, it will perhaps be telegraphed to Hughes, but he will not publish it. I shall send the results of all these resolutions or none at all, to my papers. Hughes says that Sinn Feiners have sent agents to Australia and that the Irish and I.W.W are against him. I believe the women will carry him through.
Murdoch undoubtedly is a fine strong helper. …
Everybody here exercised [?] about the Referendum. Birdwood’s circular to the troops did little good – rather the reverse. Col. Anderson thinks Hughes is getting as nervous as can be about it. Anything favourable from here will be telegraphed out to give Australia a lead. Anything unfavourable will be suppressed. Sir Newton Moore did not issue Hughes memorandum to his troops at all. Anderson, who is his enemy, hints that this was because Moore would like to see Hughes and Labour out of office as a result of the loss of Referendum, in order that he (Moore) might get some job or position from the Liberal Govt that would follow. But this is absurd.
Anderson is a clever man but a jealous and ambitious one. He has saved a lot of money for Australia, but sometimes his motives are not purely public spirited.
The 2 men that Murdoch had sent to visit the troops in France in an attempt to secure the resolutions in favour of conscription were (Sir) Frederick William Young and Octavius Charles Beale. Young was the South Australian Agent General at the time. He was only 40 yo. Beale was a successful Australian business man living in London at the time. He was much older at 66 yo. Both men were staunch Imperialists. Young was knighted in January 1918 and he was even elected to the UK House of Commons. He effectively lived in England until his death. Beale returned to Australia after the War but he did achieve English honours, including being admitted as ‘freeman of the City of London’ (1918). Beale was obsessed with the fear of ‘racial decay’.
Anderson, was Brigadier-General Robert Anderson who was Commandant, AIF Administrative Headquarters, London. He was credited with improving efficiencies in the AIF. He was also spoken of as a nationalist, in the sense that he stood up for the AIF’s interests vis a vis the British Army. (Sir) N J Moore was at the time Brigadier-General in charge of all the AIF depots and training centres in Britain. He had been Premier of Western Australia. He was also a very successful business man. Moore was yet another significant Imperialist. He was also elected to the UK House of Commons (1918-23).
Bean’s tone is again anecdotal and once again he places himself in the centre of the politics and intrigue. Once again, people’s motivations are represented as fairly pedestrian. Hughes clearly had no intention of allowing any negative news from the soldiers in France to make it back to Australia. If there was no support for conscription from the troops – either via the vote itself or the passing of various ‘resolutions’ in favour of conscription – then all the related news was to be withheld.
Obviously word was coming in by this point as to how the troops had voted and the intelligence was not encouraging. Bean believed that Birdwood’s message had backfired. A last minute attempt was required to get some sort of resolution in favour of conscription, from at least some of the troops. Hughes was desperate.
There is another diary entry for Sunday 22/10/16. In it, Bean talked about the last minute efforts to get support from key military leaders and the then urgent mission of Beale, Young and one additional, unnamed, agent. Bean also revealed the apparent failure of the vote amongs the front-line troops.
In London. Lunched with Murdoch at The Times office. He has seen Joffre, Haig and Pollard and each of them has given him an interview. Haig would only make it a message, stating how much France and the allies needed the troops. Birdwood has promised to send a message on the military need for reinforcements. The vote in France has been taken and (up to the present count) the result is a ten per cent majority against conscription. They are accordingly sending to France O. C Beale, Young, and one other, to address public meetings in favour of [conscription?].
The last diary entry was dated 25/10/16. In it Bean discloses the dismal failure of the efforts of Young to secure a resolution in support of conscription from the troops. Bean also defends his actions in pressing Birdwood to issue his message in support of conscription, but he clealry has reservations about the whole episode.
I can see (though he doesn’t say so) that White thinks I made a mess of my errand to Birdwood. He thinks I ought to have got a message to the people of Australia and not to the troops, and that the message to the troops may be interpreted as an attempt at exercising a dangerous influence and that the putting off of the voting for two days was a dangerous matter. Anderson told White he would not have let him [Birdwood] do it and perhaps I ought to have told him [Birdwood] plainly the dangers I saw in it. But there we are. As White says, I don’t know that Anderson would have found it so easy to stop him [Birdwood].
However, he really did nothing which was not perfectly defensible. He had a perfect right to tell the men his opinion on a point so important – and he had no control whatsoever over the voting. As a fact, I suspect he lost votes rather than gained them.
Bazley tells me that Young, Agent General for South Australia and a very able man, came over as arranged and asked the troops at a public meeting to send a resolution to Australia in favour of conscription. Haig had permitted the meeting provided there were no speeches, except Young’s, and no officers were present. Young put it to them that at present Australia stood first among the Dominions in the eyes of the British nation and that they would lose that regard if the country did not vote for compulsory service. The attitude of the men was quite clear. They said that they did not care whether Australia came first or last in the opinion of the British people. They wanted enough Australians left to maintain Australia’s present character after the war. They did not want so many Australians killed off that the population of immigrants flowing in, should alter the characteristics of the country. They could repopulate it by immigrants but they wanted it populated by Australians. They thought Australia had given enough to the war without forcing those who did not wish to come. They knew what it was like, now, and they were not going to ask others to come into it against their will. Young was going to wait till Sunday, but he went away on Saturday. The 23 and 21 Bns, which he saw, were almost unanimously against him.
They are funny beggars, but they have a lot of sense. It can’t be called a selfish attitude, anyway.
The 2 battalions that Young addressed – 21 and 23 Battalion – appear to have then been in their billets at Steenvorde. Both had recently been in the front lines. It is difficult to identify when Young spoke to the men but the most likely date was Friday 20/10/16. This was also the date that 21 Battalion voted in the referendum. The date for 23 Battalion’s vote is not given in the unit’s war diary but it must have been round the same time. The point is that Young was speaking to the men at the time that they were also voting – or had already voted – in the referendum. Consequently, the arguments they gave for not supporting any resolution that Young proposed were the same ones that shaped their vote. The arguments they gave, as represented by Bean, went to the core of Australia’s national, not imperial, identity. Australia had done enough. Young realised he had failed and went back early to Britain..
Historians generally argue that the overall success of the Yes vote in the AIF came not from those on the Western Front – their vote represented the clear rejection of conscription – but from those on the troopships, in the training camps in the UK and serving in the Light Horse in Egypt.
The attitude and votes of the soldiers on the Western Front were effectively hidden. Back in Australia, as was evident in its publication in the local paper, Birdwood’s message to the troops continued to be used as a justification for conscription and, after the defeat of the referendum, Hughes was able to represent the vote of the AIF as being in favour of conscription. However, he was not able to use their vote, as he had intended, to influence the vote back in Australia.
Bean’s diary entries reveal Hughes’ determination to control, absolutely, the politics of the conscription vote. They also point to the human frailty, weakness and ordinariness of many of the key actors of the time who, coincidentally, exercised the power of life and death over their fellow countrymen. In Bean’s account, no one emerges with much integrity – or even intelligence – except for the troops themselves: the funny beggars in Bean’s words.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume XI – Australia During the War, 7th Edition 1941
There are digital versions of Bean’s diaries available from the Australian War Memorial website:
AWM 38: Official History, 1914-18 War: Records of CEW Bean, Official History
Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. (see PP 243-244)
Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, p, 2015, The War At Home, Vol 4 The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne. (see p 113)