Recruitment and Conscription in World War One

Recruitment Advertisement in Moorabbin News, June 12, 1915.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 the Australian Government committed the nation to supporting Britain and its allies in the defeat of the German aggressor. To meet this obligation the Australian army required rapid expansion and did this by calling for volunteers. Men flocked to enlist, but initially entry requirements were strict. The plan was to have half the contingent made up of men with experience, either already serving in the army, trained militiamen or those with previous war service. The rest of the force was to be made up of physically fit volunteers between the ages of eighteen and thirty five years who were five feet six inches and above. However, enlistments began to decline. With the news of the Gallipoli campaign there was again an upsurge in enlistments and meetings were held to encourage men to volunteer. The physical requirements were relaxed. 1916 again saw a slackening off of enlistments. After the disastrous Somme offensives in France with its high casualty rate and the huge loss of life, the Australian Government agreed to supply more troops. Pressure was put on men to enlist. They were told it was their duty to join up. Eloquent and stirring addresses were given throughout Victoria with speakers maintaining that Australians were compelled to go to war in view of the German objective of world domination. Moreover, it was a righteous cause to avenge the atrocities committed by the Germans in their march through Belgium and the execution of Nurse Cavell.

Local residents at the time were not unanimous about Australia’s involvement in the war but strong emotional forces were rampant in the community. Anti-German feeling was strong amongst many people. The Shire of Moorabbin was congratulated, by one person, for reprimanding an employee for expressing views that were considered pro-German. [1] Leo Gamble reports an occurrence where three young Mentone residents threw rocks through the flimsy walls of the home of Oscar Wetzel, a German immigrant of some years standing. Living near the pier in Naples Road Wetzel often looked across the bay with a telescope and allowed others to do so for a penny fee. He was accused of spying on ship movements. The three men were charged for the crime but received minimal fines. [2]

Emotive words such as ‘shirkers’, ‘wasters’, and ‘disloyal’ were used to describe those who expressed anti war thoughts, those individuals who declined to volunteer, and those parents who failed to urge there eligible sons to enlist. As the war progressed the language became more defamatory. Pro Patria from Mentone complained that the expression of pro-German sentiments was an atrocious act in that it reinforced the behaviour of ‘healthy young shirkers who hang around the township propped up against verandah posts. [3] Too Old from Cheltenham believed any man who refused to allow a son to enlist should be marked for his disloyalty and refused public office. Moreover, people should refuse to do business with him. The consequence of a refusal by young single and eligible men to join the army was to place an unfair financial burden on the community, it was claimed. Married men with wives and dependents would be required to fill the recruitment gaps, and should they be killed their families would have to be maintained by the country. [4]

Too Old No2 was writing to the paper the next week supporting the view of Too Old. For him, pursuing a ‘gentle boycott’ of those tradesmen, etc, who were retaining employees instead of helping them to enlist might be ‘a means of waking somebody up’. [5] Too Old No 2 went on to imply that relations of community leaders were not enlisting and members of the militia who were willing to wear kakhi for parade purposes were not equally prepared to get it soiled in the trenches. While there was no lack of leaders when it came to football or cricket, he deplored the lack of leadership in the greatest game of all, fighting for freedom. Surely, he argued, the young single men must accept their responsibilities and not leave it to the married men, and called upon the government to institute conscription. “Any amount of lads will go then without a grumble for the simple reason, they know it’s their duty, but unfortunately they haven’t got the moral backbone to make the sacrifice themselves, but I have heard they say they’ll go, when they are made to go.”

The issue of conscription became the focus of attention of meetings held right throughout the district and beyond; meetings which received extensive coverage in local newspapers. At Aspendale one participant expressed the view that any man who was not ready to take his place in the defence of his country did not merit the name of citizen. The voluntary system had failed and conscription would allow the selection of the fit men for service at the front. Conscription, according to another speaker, was the democratic and national way of dealing with the national question of finding the promised 300,000 reinforcements for the war in Europe. At that time it was the men of character, grit, determination and loyalty who went and served now while the waiter and parasite of the community stayed home. [6] A lone man chose to speak against the prevailing view of the meeting believing people were like lambs being led by goats. Thousands were supporting conscription without understanding its ramification, he suggested. What would wives of young men like himself with young families get?

A small but enthusiastic meeting in the Shire Hall at Moorabbin was equally pro-conscription with many speakers lauding the notion of compulsory military service. While the voluntary system had done well, the voluntary spirit was exhausted, was the view put by O R Snowball, a local parliamentarian. The pledge of troops from Australia had to be honoured he suggested, and as everyone knew it was neither money nor stores that was required but men and more men. [7]

O R Snowball was also a main speaker at a Cheltenham meeting held some weeks after the Moorabbin event but this time the meeting was more disorderly. While the object of the meeting was “to consider the question of forming local committees to work for the success of the conscription campaign,” the question was not touched upon. [8] The newspaper report suggests the uproarious tone of the meeting was probably the cause of the omission, and blames the presence of visitors from other districts for the disturbance. The audience had difficulty hearing Mr Snowball and other speakers because of the interjections that became more persistent and vociferous as the meeting advanced, although there was a momentary lull when he referred to the fact that three of his sons had volunteered, one of whom had returned from the front, maimed probably for life. The second speaker showered praise upon himself for his devotion to the Labor movement but irritated sections of the audience resulting in an increasing number of objections. The chairman called for order and sought the assistance of the police at the rear of the hall, but they failed to heed the call. Mr W Miles, the secretary of the Henty Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee endeavoured to speak from his seat in the hall but the audience did not want to hear him. Angry voices, more forceful than polite, ordered him to sit down. He did this reluctantly. However his boisterous supporters continued to harangue the speaker who announced he would continue to speak until quarter to twelve leaving no time for the opponents to present their case. On receiving this information the group rose and left the hall enabling the speaker to finish his presentation before the audience stood to sing the national anthem to conclude the meeting. [9]

The next week the local paper published a letter from Henry Ealy of Mentone, an opponent of conscription,. and a member of the audience at the Cheltenham meeting. He deplored the fact that the anti conscription message was not heard. For people to be able to judge the issue all the relevant information should be available and every facility should be given to allow them to be heard. Ealy wrote that the anti-conscription proponents had the “Government, Censor, Pulpit, Press, the monied interests, and last, but not least, hysterical sentiment to fight; but we ‘cowards’ are not afraid. We subscribe our shillings and work and think sincerely and earnestly for what we believe the true interests of the country we live in, which to my mind, is the truest form of patriotism.” [10]

Almost simultaneously with the debate about compulsory military service overseas and an impending referendum on the issue, the government made a proclamation at the beginning of October 1916 declaring all unmarried able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 35 were to undertake military training leading to the possibility of service within the Commonwealth. All men meeting those criteria had to enrol at enrolment centres where they were assessed for suitability. However, there was a procedure whereby men classified as suitable could appeal and be granted exception from service.

This call up caused resentment among some sections of the community. Pearson has suggested three main reasons for this resentment. [11] First, attendance at camp, often at short notice, disrupted employment, especially for those engaged in farming. While leave of absence from camp could be granted to men “who prior to their enlistment, were engaged or employed in seasonal occupations, such as growing cereals, fruit and sugar cane,” this concession was of little assistance to those employed in non-seasonal rural employment such as dairying. This left farmers short of labour. Secondly, while the call up was for service within Australia, it was widely believed “that the men who were being compelled to go into camp would soon find themselves on the Western Front whether they liked it or not.” [12] Thirdly, the decisions of exemption courts caused hardship for some families as the basis for exemption was clearly the number of brothers who had enlisted for overseas service.

Pleas for exemption from the compulsory service were heard at the Dandenong and Cheltenham Police Courts before a magistrate and a representative of the Defence Department. At Dandenong in one day of a total of 99 cases listed, 33 were successful in their plea for exemption, 33 were refused, 12 were adjourned, four were granted conditional exemption, while nine gained a temporary respite and two were referred to a medical board. Six failed to appear. [13] At Cheltenham the hearings proceeded with little excitement and without a great deal of discussion on the objections raised.

Stephen Murphy, a market gardener of Heatherton, as the only son and sole support of his father and mother was granted exemption. An identical outcome was achieved for Charles Cochrane of Clayton who had two brothers on active service. Charles Le Bon, a market gardener of Heatherton, was given a temporary respite until November 6th as his case was adjourned. He provided the sole support for his parents and a younger brother incapable of doing work. His eldest brother was serving overseas. George Free of Clayton case was also adjourned until November. His two brothers were at the front in France. Ernest Rendell of Keysborough failed in his plea despite the fact that he had already served twelve years in the British Army and had been discharged a ‘free man’. J Dixon of Clayton’s application also failed. He was a part owner of a chaff-cutting plant and he claimed all his work and expenditure would go for nothing if not granted an exemption. The brother of Charles Follett, of Braeside, had already been accepted for service so if both brothers went into camp the crops would spoil. He was granted an exemption until the end of December. Richard Somerville, a farm labourer of Clayton, claimed exemption on the ground of “conscientious scruples.” When the magistrate asked how long he held these views he replied, “Six years.” And went on to state that “the war was an unclean thing and he would not touch it.” The magistrate ruled that Somerville must serve as a non-combatant despite his protests. [14] At Cheltenham A Allnutt, J Buck, H Besant, W Cambridge, E Le Page, W Rose and T Liddell were amongst those granted exemptions. Individuals whose claims were dismissed included, A Biehl, P Penny, and A Bumpstead. [15]

Because of the need for troops and the lack of sufficient volunteers the Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes, called for a referendum on the question of whether the government could compulsory call men up, to conscript them, for service overseas. This referendum was set for the end of 1916.

The proprietors of local newspapers were pro conscription and this was reflected in their coverage of local events. Meetings supporting conscription held at Mentone and Aspendale received detailed coverage. This contrasted with the report of an ‘anti-meeting’ at Cheltenham which rated a short paragraph in which the writer scorned the predominately anti conscription audience, largely made up of members of the ‘eligible class’ who readily accepted the specious arguments put forward by the speaker. [16] At the Mentone meeting which was uncomfortably overcrowded Cr Scudds was fiery in his condemnation of those who would vote ‘No’ on polling day, branding them as traitors. Politicians, with their access to greater knowledge, who joined the anti conscription party could be called something worse he said. [17] The ‘News’ reporter was confident that the ‘Yes” vote would win but warned those of that view had a responsibility beyond the attendance at meetings or discussing the issue on street corners. “A systematic canvass is necessary, which must be carried on persistently before and on polling day. [18]

On October 28, 1916 voters were asked to indicate their answer to the question, “Are you in favour of the Government having in this grave emergency the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth.” The outcome of the referendum was a narrow national victory for the ‘No’ vote. Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Federal Territories had small majorities in favour of conscription but these were offset by a majority of voters living in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia indicating their opposition to the proposal. [19]

At a dinner at the Melbourne Town Hall, the Prime Minister, Mr Hughes, acknowledged that the vote on conscription had gone against him and that the government accepted the verdict of the Australian people. As for the men in training under the compulsory service scheme, the Prime Minister intimated that the men would be sent home after they completed their one month of training. However, those who had been granted temporary exemptions would still be required to meet their obligation. [20]

The problem the government faced was how to raise the 16,500 men per month required to reinforce the troops already at the front in France. Initially the Defence Department was reluctant to discontinue the compulsory training scheme for service within the Commonwealth as it also produced some men willing to serve overseas. However, towards the end of November 1916 the Federal Cabinet decided to repeal the proclamation calling upon men to enlist for compulsory home service. Instead the government launched a further appeal for volunteers. [21] They adopted an approach used in England where a personal letter was sent to all eligible men calling upon them to come forward and take their share of the fighting. The Age noted that this strategy would test the sincerity of those opposed to conscription and were staunch advocates of the voluntary system. [22] In addition to the letters, recruitment meetings were held in the various towns.

The first of these meetings in the Shire of Moorabbin was held in the Mentone Recreation Hall on January 19, 1917. Once again eloquent speakers summarised the current position, drew upon their knowledge of the economic position of Germany, and stressed the necessity of victory if Australia was to remain a white continent. One speaker, Mr Forbes, gave lengthy quotes from Shakespeare which at least a few people saw as being irrelevant to the occasion. Before the meeting concluded with the singing of the National Anthem the motion that, “This meeting of citizens of Mentone, realising the inestimable value of the work and voluntary efforts of our brave boys at the front, and being fully cognisant of the absolute necessity to furnish them forthwith with ample reinforcements, especially urges every available man in the district to volunteer at once for active service.” [23]

Crowd gathered outside Mentone Skating Rink for a recruitment meeting, 1917. Courtesy of Mordialloc and District Historical Society.

Prior to a meeting at Cheltenham the Langwarrin military band paraded up and down local streets playing martial music and later played in the hall itself. The Cheltenham meeting was addressed by O Snowball MLA a month after the Mentone gathering. While he noted there was no compulsion to enlist he “trembled for the fathers and mothers who were holding their boys back.” The call was being made to each individual and no one should shirk the call, he said. He understood that in the Cheltenham district there were still one hundred and eleven men eligible for active service. Before the conclusion of the meeting six men joined the speakers on the platform for the purpose of volunteering, accompanied by extended applause from the audience. [24] The six individuals concerned were H C Basten, C H Hodson, H G Hodson, William Solcom, Edward Carsohn, Allister Wilson]

O. R. Snowball, MLA.

At a meeting in the Shire Hall at Moorabbin there was a mixed audience with men, women and children present. A large number of eligible young men were listening to the address from outside the various doors leading to the hall. During the course of the meeting it was announced there were eighty three eligible young men in the district, but none volunteered on this occasion. [25]

The meeting at Mordialloc drew a very poor attendance. Cr D White who was chairman noted that “…a great majority of residents preferred going to picture shows or some other entertainment than attending to the country’s business, which is really their own.” The meeting followed the format of other meetings held in the shire and as at the Moorabbin meeting no men came forward to volunteer. [26]

Cr D. White.

National recruitment remained at a low level and five months after local meetings eligible young men were urged in the press “not to blacken our history in this critical period by failing to put Australia in a position in which she will be able to do her proper share towards winning the war.” [27] This and similar pleas failed to produce the number of recruits necessary so a second referendum was called for December 20, 1917 but once again it failed to get the support needed for it to become law.

Efforts to stimulate recruitment in 1918 failed. The army continued to rely upon volunteers coming forward to provide the reinforcements necessary to fill the gaps created by those wounded or killed at the Front. It was not until November 11, 1918 when Germany surrendered that the problem of finding recruits passed. [28]


  1. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, November 1915.
  2. Gamble, Leo, Mentone Through the Years, 2003, page 92.
  3. Seaside News, November 13, 1915.
  4. Seaside News, February 16, 1916.
  5. Seaside News, February 16, 1916.
  6. Seaside News, May 13, 1916.
  7. Seaside News, June 3, 1916.
  8. Seaside News, October 14, 1916.
  9. Seaside News, October 14, 1916.
  10. Seaside News, October 21, 1916.
  11. Pearson, John, Duty Nobly Done: Great War Enlistments from the Shire of Morwell,1992.
  12. Robson L L The First AIF, 1982.
  13. Seaside News, October 28, 1916.
  14. Seaside News, October 28, 1916.
  15. Seaside News, November 4, 1916.
  16. Seaside News, October 21, 1916.
  17. Seaside News, October 21, 1916.
  18. Moorabbin News, October 28, 1916.
  19. The Argus, November 5, 1916.
  20. The Age, November 10, 1916.
  21. The Age, November 23, 1916.
  22. The Age, November 23, 1916.
  23. Seaside News, January 20, 1917.
  24. Seaside News, February 24, 1917.
  25. Seaside News, February 24, 1917.
  26. Seaside News, February 24, 1917.
  27. Seaside News, July 28, 1917.
  28. On November 11, 1918 when World War One ended of the 416809 Australians who had enlisted 59,258 died and 226,073 were wounded. All were volunteers. At the time Australia’s population was 5 million.
27 June 2018
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