Centenary of the 1916 Conscription Referendum

During the First World War the Australian government in 1916 and again in 1917 asked the Australian people to approve the introduction of military conscription for overseas service. On each occasion the Australian people by a narrow margin said no. The first referendum was held on 28 October 1916, just six months after the Easter rising in Dublin. It soon became the orthodox view that the Irish Catholic vote was decisive and that the Easter rising and the British government’s response to it were major factors influencing Australian Catholics of Irish descent to oppose conscription.

Soon after the result was known, the Australian prime minister, William Morris Hughes, claimed in a letter to the leader of the British Conservative Party that ‘the selfish vote, and shirker vote and the Irish vote were too much for us’. In August 1917 Hughes wrote to his British counterpart David Lloyd George, ‘The [Catholic] Church is secretly against recruiting. Its influence killed conscription’. But it was not only supporters of conscription who regarded the vote of Australian Catholics of Irish descent as decisive. The Catholic Press, which had opposed conscription, declared soon after the vote, ‘It would be futile to deny that the continuance of martial law in Ireland was perhaps the strongest factor in swelling the “no-conscription” returns’. Labor’s Frank Anstey wrote, ‘[I]f there had been no Easter Week in Ireland … there would have been no hope of defeating conscription in Australia’.

Many historians agreed. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter rising Ken Inglis wrote, ‘Had it not been for the Sinn Feiners and Sir John Maxwell [military governor in Ireland], Australian conscripts would have gone to France.’ However, subsequent research has questioned the significance of the vote of Catholics of Irish descent and the influence which the Easter rising and its aftermath had on their voting intentions.

 In a paper I gave to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 16 October 2016 (published in the Society’s journal), I discussed Catholic attitudes to conscription in 1916-17 and examined whether it was the Catholic Church which killed conscription, as Hughes claimed, and to what extent events in Ireland influenced the result.

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