Against the Odds: The Victory Over Conscription During WW1
A film by Madeleine Martiniello, produced by the Australian Living Peace Museum and the Brunswick Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign.Contributors
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.Copyright
Australian Living Peace Museum
Against the Odds tells the story of the campaign against conscription in Australia during World War One, as seen from the northern Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg.
[Voice of Narrator:]
Even the biggest events of history unfold on a local scale.
And so it was, that one of Australia’s most important political struggles played out on the streets of Melbourne’s inner north.
The end result was a win against the odds: the victory over conscription during World War One.
Here is a place where change was made.
[Title on Screen: Against the Odds: The victory over conscription in WW1]
[Sounds of trams and traffic]
[Sounds of horse and carriage]
[Stuart Macintyre:] In 1914, Brunswick was an area of factories, of brickyards and quarries and iron-foundries and textiles works, but lots of Coburg consisted of paddocks. And together they had a population of about 60,000, which as a proportion of the population is quite significant.
[Voice of Val Noone:] In this area, many, many families had seen their sons, brothers or lovers go off to the war.
[Stuart Macintyre:] Certainly, when enlistment opened there was a keen response here. And the local council made a fuss of the first soldiers. Before they left, they were entertained at a council social, and there was considerable pride and support for them.
[Val Noone:] By 1916, by two years later, people were changed. There are people begging on the steps of Flinders Street Station, armless and legless returned soldiers. People can see the cost of the war.
[Stuart Macintyre:] After the losses suffered at Gallipoli, it became necessary to launch recruiting campaigns.
[Val Noone:] By 1916, the Prime Minister wasn’t getting enough volunteers.
[Barry Jones:] So when Hughes responded to the appeal from Britain to say that Australia needed to send more troops to the front and that would require conscription to get them there, he knew that he couldn’t get the legislation through the senate.
[Barry Jones:] So somebody came up with the bright idea that there ought to be a referendum. Hughes assumed he would win his referendum easily, in fact, he didn’t.
[Joy Damousi:] The “YES” campaign assumed they were going to win, they just assumed they had it in the bag, they just assumed that everyone was pro-empire and pro-war.
[Stuart Macintyre:] So this is a victory that in a sense, it’s against the odds.
[Voice of Narrator:]
A huge groundswell of opposition rose up against conscription, uniting disparate groups across Australia.
One of the most organised of these groups was the union movement, and a number of its key players were Brunswick residents.
[Stuart Macintyre:] Frank Anstey, who was the federal member for this area was one of the very early critics of the war. And a group of younger men whom he’d strongly influenced, John Curtin, I suppose, would be the best known of them.
[Barry Jones:] Who had been active in local sporting teams and so on. Of course, later on he became Prime Minister.
[Stuart Macintyre:] But he was then a young trade union official, and his friend, Frank Hyett, who was the secretary of the railways union, were very prominent in criticising conscription, and the trade unions decided to set up an anti-conscription committee, and Curtin was the Secretary of that campaign. It was possible for this group of people, to draw on local support, with a degree of acceptance that was unlikely in more prosperous suburbs.
[Voice of Narrator:]
Despite popular support for the anti-conscription movement, the authorities were eager to quell dissent, storming meetings and union-run printers supporting the “NO” vote.
Print media was a crucial influence during the campaign, and Curtin authorised one of the most famous pieces of the time: The Blood Vote.
[Joy Damousi:] It’s written in a way that appeals directly to a mother. It’s about the moral and ethical issues at stake in actually condemning a man to death. But the campaign was very much about women thinking independently; voting as mothers, voting as sisters, voting as other identities, separate to men. So you see women on the public stage in a very high profile way for I think the first time, really, in Australian history.
[Voice of Narrator]
Alongside prominent women such as Vida Goldstein and Cecilia John, was Brunswick school teacher Bella Lavender.
[Joy Damousi:] And she was so very progressive and ahead of her day. And she was very active in anti-conscription and was very progressive in the women’s movement as well. Because you’ve got to remember that many of these women were also concerned about women workers, women’s rights, equal pay, a whole host of conditions to support women. It’s really important to remember that at this time there are no women in parliament. The only way they can get their view across is down at the Yarra or here outside Brunswick Town Hall or in the streets of Carlton and so on.
[Jeannie Marsh:] It would have been very difficult for women to get out of the family environment, to leave their children and their husband, and get out the door and say: “Well, bye, I’m off the a demo.” We can think it’s easy but to do that now but at the time it was very, very brave.
[Barry Jones:] The first referendum was defeated in 1916, the 28th of October. Hughes has lost the referendum, but nevertheless, when he went to the following election, he was re-elected by the voters. So then, ultimately, he said: “Well we’ll go back, and we’ll have a second referendum.”
[Joy Damousi:] They lost in 1916, the “YES” vote is convinced they’re going to win in ’17, and that ups the ante. They get more and more intense. The whole campaign becomes more and more intense and more violent actually.
[Val Noone:] What happens is that a very big surprise comes to those who are active when the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, xame out and support the “NO” case. You can imagine the activists sitting around reading the morning people and saying: ‘Hey, somebody from the top end of town has come out and supported us.’ So that changed things, and it really changes things very dramatically in the beginning of 1917, in January, when not far from where we are sitting now in the Brunswick Town Hall, just about 200 yards away, there was the opening of a new Christian Brothers school for boys. And Daniel Mannix made a speech there, in which he named the war as a “trade war.”
[Rod Quantock, reading Mannix’s speech:] Those who had built up the resource of Australia, who had developed its industries, who had given the lives of their sons in its cause, these had to be provided for just as much as the men who had gone to the front. [Applause] But when all was said, and all concessions made, the war was like most wars, just an ordinary trade war.
[Val Noone:] Mannix was an Irish patriot but when he spoke on conscription he spoke on classic working-class grounds. It was news around the world, and Billy Hughes the Prime Minister tried to put pressure on through Westminster to the Vatican to get him sacked in Melbourne to get him taken off. They were unsuccessful but it’s really important to recognise here that the reason why they were unsuccessful was that the mass support he had.
[Stuart Macintyre:] On this occasion, it was seen to be a vindication of the people, as opposed to those who normally govern them.
[Voice of Narrator:]
However, many of the people who stood against conscription suffered consequences, including jail time.
But their courage has not been forgotten.
One such activist, Adela Pankhurst, has been commemorated in a street opera performed at Pentridge Prison.
[Jeannie Marsh:] So she was in there to keep her quiet, and it sort of worked, but it didn’t work all the time because a mob or 300 of her activist friends came by on the 7th of January 1918 to serenade her, under the cell where she was being imprisoned.
[Actor playing Adela, singing:] But not our parting hymn our greeting hymn. [Applause] [Speaks] Thank you for your glorious serenading tonight, and congratulations for the victory in the second conscription referendum in December! We worked so hard together, but it was worthwhile when Australia voted “NO” for the second time. Bravo!
[Val Noone:] Australia is the only country in the world to have referendums on conscription, and certainly the only to vote twice against conscription for the war. And that is the sort of thing that we should be proud of, it is the sort of thing we should be telling our children and our grandchildren.
[Stuart Macintyre:] And so the fact that this referendum had been taken on such a contentious issue give it a place in historical memory. Places such as Brunswick in a sense produce tangible records of the life of the community here. The football ground on which John Curtin played his football is still there, several of the houses that he lived in are still there, the halls, the street corners, they’re still here.
[Val Noone:] Those of us who lived through the campaign during conscription on Vietnam, I think would share the experiences of those who fought the campaign back in WWI. We know that things can change and I think one of the things that’s most needed in the present time in the face of the current climate on environment and war and hunger and so on is to know that campaigns can succeed. They don’t always succeed, we have to be prepared to work even if we don’t succeed, but the conscription campaign against WWI shows that the people’s voice can be heard and was heard.
Written & Directed by Madeleine Martiniello
Camera & Sound Assist by Alexandra Gaulupeau
Drone Videography by Oscar Ascencio
Narrated by Jude Beaumont
Thank you to Joy Damousi, Barry Jones, Stuart Macintyre, Jeannie Marsh, Val Noone, Nancy Aitken, Rod Quantock, Moreland City Council
Martin Bush, Frances Newell, Michael Hamel-Green, Bob Muntz & Marilyn Moore
Produced by the Australia Living Peace Museum & the Brunswick Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign
This film was created for the Culture Victoria website (cv.vic.gov.au) with the support of the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.
Australia and World War One
Photograph - Send-off to the Brunswick Soldiers
Photograph - Brunswick Town Hall Honour Board
Memorial Plaque - Leonard William Telford
Poster - 'Australia has Promised Britain 50,000 More Men'
Labour Activists of Brunswick and Coburg
Photograph - Frank Anstey
Photograph - John Curtin
Photograph - Frank Hyett
Photograph - Maurice Blackburn
The Trade Unions' Anti-conscription Campaign
Handbill - 'The Blood Vote'
Cartoon - 'The Charge of the Would to God Brigade'
Handbill - Slave Conspiracy
The Women's Movement During the War
Photograph - Vida Goldstein
Photograph - Adela Pankhurst
Handbill - Conscription and Woman's Loyalty
Photograph - 'Women's No Conscription Demonstration'
Bella Lavender - Brunswick Campaigner
Photograph - Bella Lavender
Cartoon - Bella Lavender
Letter - Bella Lavender to Education Department
Photograph - Labor Women's Anti-conscription Committee
Religious Perspectives on Conscription
Handbill - Conscription and Christianity
Handbill - Conscription Questions for Voters
Handbill - How Would Christ Vote?
The Catholic Church and Conscription
Photograph - Daniel Mannix
Article - Cause of the War
Article - Revolt Victims
Cartoon - Australian Workman's Burden
Brunswick and Coburg During the Campaigns
Article - No Anti-conscription Meetings in Brunswick
Handbill - Public Meeting Against Conscription
Advertisement - Recruitment Meeting
Article - Remarkably Quiet Day
The Two Referendums
Handbill - Vote Thus Against Conscription
Article - Military Service Referendum Poll
Article - Conscription. Mr Hughes in Queensland
Article - 'Bourke'
The Soldiers' Votes
Diary - Claude Ewart
Photograph - Jack and Bert Grinton
Handbill - Returned Soldiers' No Conscription League Manifesto
Photograph - Soldiers Voting
Consequences for the Campaigners
Inscription - Police Just Raided
Article - 'Failure to Enrol'
Letter - Adela Pankhurst to Sallie Walsh
Article - 'Serenading Miss Pankhurst'
Story education resources
Education Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Education Resource
The Against The Odds Education Resource provides a stimulating range of activities for students undertaking the compulsory Victorian History Curriculum Level 9/10 unit Australia at war (1914 – 1945). It helps students reflect on the complexities of the conscription debate through a range of analytical, creative and research tasks.
Education Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Walking Map
The Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Walking Map is a map of some of the sites described in the digital story or related to individuals therein. Download the map to use it for a self-guided tour in the area.