Australians on the Western Front: Call-up divides nation

CALL TO ARMS: Prime Minister Billy Hughes campaigns for conscription before a crowd in Sydney's Martin Place in 1916.  Photo: AWM A03376
CALL TO ARMS: Prime Minister Billy Hughes campaigns for conscription before a crowd in Sydney's Martin Place in 1916. Photo: AWM A03376

As casualty lists soared on the Western Front in the Great War, Australians twice voted to reject the introduction of conscription.

From 1914, enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was restricted to volunteers but from mid-1916 encouraging enough eligible recruits became increasingly difficult. 

Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes came under sustained pressure from Britain’s War Council to follow Britain and New Zealand in introducing conscription.

In August 1916, Hughes said voluntary recruiting could no longer be relied upon to maintain Australian forces at the required level of strength.

Appealing to “the patriotism of Australian manhood”, Hughes said: “The great offensive … has cost a fearful price, yet it must be pressed forward with implacable resolution.

“To falter now is to make the great sacrifice of lives of no avail.”

The eight-week conscription campaign created a bitter debate and split communities.

It was conducted during the Battle of the Somme in France, which historian Joan Beaumont said infused the debate “with the passion and hysteria of mass grief”.

The first referendum on October 28, 1916, saw conscription narrowly defeated with 1,087,557 in favour (48.4%) and 1,160,033 against (51.6%).

In 1917, as the carnage in France and Belgium grew, and the US and Canada introduced conscription, Hughes called another vote for December 20, claiming 7000 recruits a month were needed.

By this time, Hughes had controversially walked out on the Labor Party, joined forces with the Liberals to form the Nationalist Party, won a May election and incurred the wrath of the working class by smashing a national strike.

The second referendum, held amid tightened censorship, was again divisive politically and socially with Melbourne’s Irish-born Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix a vehement “no” campaigner.

In December, Australia voted “no” again, by a wider margin of 94,000 votes.

Soldiers were split too, 103,789 voting “yes” and 93,910 voting “no” .

The AIF remained a voluntary force and Beaumont said this fuelled the myth of the Australian soldier as the citizen in arms – “not a professional soldier but a natural fighter”.  

By war’s end, about 420,000 Australians had enlisted - 38.7% of males aged between 18 and 44.

Initially, eligible men had to be 19 to 38 years of age, and at least 5ft 6in (168cm) to enlist.  

A third of all volunteers were rejected in the first year, many with defective teeth.

As the war progressed, and the need for new recruits increased, recruitment standards relaxed.

By June 1915, they could be aged 18 to 45 and by 1917, the minimum height had fallen to just 5ft (152cm).

The 1st-4th AIF battalions were raised in NSW and the 5th-8th battalions from Victoria within a fortnight of the declaration of war.

The 9th came from Queensland, the 10th from SA, the 11th from WA and the 12th was largely Tasmanian.

All up, 60 AIF battalions were raised and saw active service.

Later in the war, 16 new battalions were created comprising veterans of severely-depleted battalions and newly-arrived recruits.

Once the reports of losses at Gallipoli hit home, 152 Victorians enlisted as “The Fair Dinkums” and sailed away in August, 1915.

By December 1915, 52% of the Australian Army had enlisted.

Spurred on by recruitment posters, some from artist Norman Lindsay, a series of nine “snowball” marches from late in 1915 gathered men along country roads to recruitment camps.

In NSW, they included the Coo-ees from Gilgandra, the Wallabies from Walgett, the Men from Snowy River from Delegate, the Waratahs from Nowra and the Kangaroos from Wagga Wagga. Queensland’s Dungarees marched 270km from Warwick to Brisbane.

Military historian Dr Peter Stanley said: “The snowball marches have been celebrated… as the epitome of voluntarism. In fact, they represented the failure of voluntary enlistment.”

In cities and country towns alike, pro-enlistment urging was blunt.

A huge sign trumpeting “Enlist The Empire Calls” in Sydney’s George Street was unavoidable, while volunteers leaving Tumut passed by a banner held by women that read “If you won’t go we will”.

Author John McQuilton said irresistible pressure was brought to bear on “eligibles” in north-eastern Victoria, but once rural communities “were satisfied that their eligibles had gone, they resisted any further attempts to force the remaining men to enlist”.

A 1977 survey of veterans found motives for joining up ranged from patriotism, a sense of duty, social pressure, spirit of adventure, self-interest and “hatred of the Hun”.   

Heartbreak as tanks crumble at Bullecourt

British General Hubert Gough’s plan for the Battle of Bullecourt in 1917 had Australian 4th Division soldiers advancing behind a dozen tanks across “no man’s land” towards the Germans’ heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line.

Rather than wait until he had sufficient artillery resources he chose tanks to lead the troops through the enemy’s barbed-wire.

It was a hastily-prepared attack, planned as a diversion for the British Army’s offensive at nearby Arras.

Heavy casualties: Troops billeted in a sunken road near Bullecourt on May 19, 1917. Photo: AWM E02021

Heavy casualties: Troops billeted in a sunken road near Bullecourt on May 19, 1917. Photo: AWM E02021

In fact, the reality of the attack in northern France was an embarrassing disaster and a heartbreaking result for the Australians.

Set for April 10, the Australian troops were ordered to withdraw from the battlefield when the tanks, caught in a blizzard, failed to arrive.

With the Germans forewarned and reinforced, and the Australians exhausted and frustrated by the bungling, Gough rescheduled the attack across the snow-blanketed fields for a day later, April 11.

Despite their crews’ bravery, the primitive, slow-moving tanks performed poorly and either broke down or were quickly destroyed.

Fighting desperately, and advancing across a battlefield overlooked on three sides by German positions, the Australian infantry managed to gain a brief hold on the German line but fierce counter-attacks forced a retreat.  

Facing walls of barbed wire 30m thick in some places, the 4th Division suffered 3300 casualties and 1170 Australians were taken prisoner - the largest number captured in a single engagement during World War I.

Captain David Dunworth, who was wounded and captured in the attack, said: “Tanks we knew nothing of – we had never seen one in action.”

There were also problems with supplies and equipment. Dunworth again: “At one point 36,000 Mills bombs (hand grenades) were moved to the forward area without their detonaters.”

From May 3-17, the Australians were made to attack over the same ground.

This second attempt took the small village of Bullecourt and the Australians penetrated the Hindenburg Line, before again meeting ferocious German counter-attacks.

No important strategic advantage was gained and Australian Imperial Force casualties totalled another 7482 in the Second Battle of Bullecourt.

While junior officers such as Captains Harry Murray and Albert Jacka enhanced their stellar reputations, elements of leadership at the top of the Australian command do not stand up too well to scrutiny, according to Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness.

Jacka, bravest of the brave

At the 1916 Battle of Pozieres, Albert Jacka won the Military Cross for recapturing a section of trench, freeing a group of captured Australians and forcing 50 Germans to surrender.

It has been called, "the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF”.  

He was the first Australian Victoria Cross winner demonstrating “unparalleled courage” at Gallipolli in May 1915.

After the disaster at Bullecourt in 1917, where he was further decorated, Jacka wrote a report critical of the tank operation.

The report, along with disputes with senior officers, curtailed his promotion to higher ranks and later recognition for his bravery at Polygon Wood.

Captain Jacka  was wounded and gassed in May 1918. Returning home in 1919, he ran an electrical goods company and worked tirelessly for the unemployed as Mayor of St Kilda.

Eight VC winners carried his coffin when he died aged 39 in 1932.

The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

This story Road to Remembrance part 2: Call-up divides nation first appeared on The Inverell Times.