How would you have voted in the conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917? The referenda asked whether Australian men, aged between 18 and 44, should be forced to serve in the trenches during the Great War. It was the hottest issue of the day.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes insisted that only conscription could provide sufficient reinforcements to replace Australian soldiers being slaughtered in France and Belgium. The debate was often sectarian, creating bitter divisions which lasted for decades. Some people branded anti-conscriptionists as disloyal traitors who ought to be gaoled or even executed. Nonetheless, up to 15,000 people attended anti-conscription rallies on Hobart’s Domain.
Observers thought that soldiers serving in the trenches would be sure to vote for conscription. The reality was not so certain. Tasmanian soldier James Morris, wounded at Gallipoli and in France, thought that most of his mates on the front line voted ‘No’. Dr William Crowther, also a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, agreed.
Tasmanians voted ‘Yes’ by a small majority, but across Australia both referenda failed and at war’s end the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) remained the only all-volunteer army fighting.
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