‘No place for rail sitters’: the conscription debate in Queensland during the First World War

This blog post is part of a series of essays commissioned by Queensland State Archives and written by historian Dr Judith McKay.

The number of men enlisting for active service at the outbreak of the First World War was high. However, by late 1915, as casualties rose and enlistments fell, the AIF faced a shortage of men. Increasingly, it was thought that voluntary enlistment had reached its limit and should be replaced by conscription.[i] Labor Prime Minister W M (Billy) Hughes, a firm advocate of conscription, feared the proposal would be rejected if presented to Parliament, so decided to put it to the Australian people in a referendum.

Held on 28 October 1916, the referendum was narrowly defeated and led to Hughes’ expulsion from his own party to form the breakaway Nationalist Party. The following year, as casualties rose in the battles of Bullecourt, Messines and Ypres – and military leaders called for reinforcements – conscription became more urgent. Hughes, buoyed by the Nationalist victory in the recent federal election, ordered another referendum. It was held on 20 December 1917 – only to be defeated by a larger majority. The debate surrounding conscription, seen as ‘the most momentous issue’ ever to come before Australians,[ii] divided the nation. This was particularly evident in Queensland where the Labor government of T J Ryan stood alone in opposing conscription.

Report from Sub-inspector Brosnan, Maryborough District about a public meeting to advocate conscription, 12 October 1916
Report from Sub-inspector Brosnan, Maryborough District about a public meeting to advocate conscription, 12 October 1916

In June 1916, upon visiting Queensland troops at the Western Front, Ryan pledged his support for the war effort but remained ambivalent on conscription. Three months later the Queensland Labor Party came out strongly against conscription and Billy Hughes’ stand, forcing Ryan to adopt a harder line and his conscriptionist colleague John Adamson to resign from both Cabinet and the party. Opinion on the issue was divided into two main camps which generally followed class, religious and ethnic lines. Conscriptionists were mostly middle-class, Protestant and of English or Scottish background; they were generally supported by serving and returned soldiers. Anti-conscriptionists, by contrast, were mostly working-class, Catholic and of Irish or German descent. Voluntarists and pacifists with moral objections to military compulsion and war were also part of the anti-conscriptionist camp. While this unlikely allianceopposed militarism (also known as Prussianism)[iii] and contended that wealth should be conscripted before human life,[iv] they embraced many agendas.

Workers held that conscription would weaken the power of unionism and played on traditional racial fears by raising the spectre of cheap foreign labour replacing them should they beconscripted, and of women falling prey to foreigners.[v] The most radical opponents, the outlawed International Workers of the World (Wobblies), saw war as exploiting workers, and so aimed for industrial chaos.[vi] Sectarianism also entered the conscription debate, with local Catholics supporting their Irish compatriots in the struggle for independence from Britain,[vii]though under Archbishop James Duhig‘s moderate leadership the issue was not as burning as it was for Victorian Catholics under Daniel Mannix. Government Minister John Fihelly, an Irish Catholic and vehement anti-conscriptionist, was more outspoken on the Irish issue. His ‘disloyal utterances’ at a Queensland Irish Association meeting of 2 September 1916 caused such outrage that the Governor threatened to suspend him from Cabinet and Protestant churches voiced their disapproval.[viii] For Protestant patriots, the term ‘Fihellyism’ became synonymous with disloyalty.

The campaigns leading up to the conscription referenda divided the community as opposing groups presented their views in public meetings, marches, sermons, pamphlets and the press. Opinion was so divided that there were differences even among patriots. For instance, inAugust 1916 when the Queensland War Council undertook a confidential survey of local recruiting committees on conscription, some committees – including those at Allora and Laidley – were opposed.[ix] Conscriptionists claimed the moral high ground, stigmatising all others as ‘disloyal’, ‘pro-German’ or ‘treacherous’: as the Brisbane Courier of 24 November 1917 stated, there was ‘no place for rail sitters’.[x] Local communities were awash with rumour and suspicion as teachers at Richmond Hill, Charters Towers found in October 1916 when they held a mock referendum among their pupils to demonstrate the referendum process; they were accused of being partisan even though the conscription issue was not mentioned.[xi]

Despite the efforts of police to avoid clashes between opponents, conscription ‘disturbances’ were reported across the state – in one case, at Kingaroy, resulting in a man’s death.[xii] The worst clashes occurred at Rockhampton and Bundaberg where angry crowds threatened speakers and interjectors.[xiii] Women, though previously absent from public life, joined in the fray and lent their support to both sides. This was demonstrated by a riot at the Brisbane School of Arts on 9 July 1917 when a meeting of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League was interrupted by well-known pacifist, Margaret Thorp, representing the Women’s Peace Army. Knocked down and expelled by the loyalists, she managed to return by another door.[xiv] Another disturbance involved Prime Minister Hughes. While addressing a crowd in Warwick on 29 November 1917 he was pelted with eggs, dislodging his hat.[xv] The so-called ‘Warwick incident’ was reported widely and resulted in Hughes establishing a Commonwealth police force in Queensland to combat such hooliganism.

Tensions between the State and Commonwealth regarding their respective powers reached a climax over military censorship and led to brawls between Ryan and Hughes. On 22 November 1917, Ryan and his Treasurer, Ted Theodore, attempted to counter a series of provocative actions by Brisbane’s censor, J J Stable, by reading out the suppressed anti-conscriptionmaterial in the Queensland Parliament. Hughes retaliated on 26 November by ordering a military raid on the Government Printing Office to seize copies of Hansard no. 37 containing the offending material. The next day, Ryan’s Cabinet held an emergency meeting to endorse a policy of ‘direct confrontation’ with the Commonwealth and Hansard was replaced on the presses by a Government Gazette Extraordinary outlining an ‘intolerable’ system of censorship. Meanwhile, police were posted at the printery[xvi] and Minister Fihelly soughttrade union cooperation to resist any further intervention. The explosive situation in Brisbane was finally diffused on 28 November when one of Stable’s staff was quietly let into the building to confirm that no more Hansards had been printed.[xvii]

But that was not the end of the saga as Hughes accused Ryan and others of conspiracy inpublishing the censored material and took them to trial.[xviii] During the trial, Hughes released a vitriolic telegram sent to Ryan accusing him of ‘publishing lying statements’ and being ‘an out-and-out Sinn Feiner’; this was published in the Argus on 5 December along with other allegations. Ryan responded with contempt of court charges. The first case was dismissed and in 1919 Ryan also won the case against the Argus.[xix] His courageous stand against conscription – and in particular his defence of free speech – brought messages of support from across Australia.[xx]

The results of the conscription referenda indicate the level of contention on the issue. The referendum of 1916 was lost in three states, including by a majority of 13,851 votes in Queensland. The succeeding referendum of 1917 was lost in four states, including by a much larger margin of 36,104 votes in Queensland, though the Lilley electorate north of Brisbane voted with a ‘Yes’ majority.[xxi] Ironically, both sides blamed women for unduly influencing the vote, accusing them of being prone to fear and sentimentality.[xxii] According to Queensland’s governor, Goold-Adams, it was the fear of industrial upheaval should conscription be carried that influenced many moderates.[xxiii]

The anti-conscriptionist victories failed to solve the problem of war commitment and heightened the divisions between opposing groups. Australia and South Africa remained the only participating countries not to introduce conscription.

Dr Judith Mckay
May 2014

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For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

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