Opposition on the home front: Strikes, conscription and the First World War

Solidarity examines the campaign against conscription and opposition to the First World War in Australia

Over the next year we will hear endlessly of the heroic efforts young Australians made during the First World War. Thousands voluntarily gave up their lives for the cause, in the young nation’s coming of age, we are told.

The story of the anti-conscription campaign punctuates this national myth.

The real history of the First World War shows that, on the home front, far from unity behind the troops, opposition to the war grew steadily.

Australia’s ruling class happily sacrificed tens of thousands of ordinary people on the shores of Gallipoli and the fields of the Somme in order to defend the British Empire. At home they were happy to profiteer off the war effort while thousands of people went hungry and lost their jobs.

The anti-conscription campaign in Australia shows how working people refused to accept the war in Europe or at home. As we’re thrown into Anzac commemorations their struggle is useful antidote.

The war at home

Initially the war was popular in Australia. The government did not even need to start a recruitment drive until a year after it began, because voluntary enlistment provided enough new soldiers to fight overseas.

It was not until word of the carnage on the front reached home that enthusiasm for the war in Europe began to wane.

The Labor party under Andrew Fisher won government in 1914 just after the outbreak of war, throwing its full support behind the war effort. Fisher famously pledged that Australia would fight “to the last man and the last shilling.”

Overwhelmingly the general population supported the war.

But even at the outbreak of war in 1914, the union movement was more sceptical. The Worker, published by the right-wing Australian Workers Union, wrote prophetically:

“This is not a war for which a single extenuating reason can be given on either side… Australia will suffer much in the struggle that seems ahead…Thousands of unemployed will be created; unscrupulous greed will seize the opportunity to raise the necessaries of life to famine prices”.

Only a day after war was declared, the Sydney Morning Herald similarly told readers that they would have to accept wage cuts and economic turmoil.

The war indeed plunged the Australian economy into deep trouble. Previously Germany had been a huge importer of Australia’s metals. When they became an enemy government this threw metal production, and workers in those industries, into turmoil. At the same time Britain, a major colonial trading partner, began to restructure its economy for war-related production and bought less Australian export goods.

This had a flow-on effect especially for maritime and coal mine workers, whose livelihoods depended on those exports. Thousands were thrown out of work, with unemployment reaching 9.3 per cent in 1915.

Prices also rose dramatically—by between 60 and 70 per cent during the four years of the war, fuelled by big business profiteering.

Yet wages remained at pre-war levels until 1916 when some workers won a significant wage increase. Workers at home were being forced to accept cuts to their living standards as a consequence of the war. But far from patriotic acceptance of sacrifice to support the war effort, this produced increasing class bitterness and opposition.

Billy Hughes replaced Fisher as Labor Prime Minister in 1915. Due to pressure from the unions the party had pledged to hold a referendum to give the federal government the power to fix prices and reduce the cost of living. One of Hughes’ first acts as Prime Minister was to abandon the referendum proposal under pressure from big business.

This drew anger and resentment from the unions and the working class. As labour historian Gordon Childe wrote: “the tendency of Ministers to ‘go slow’ with social reform on the pretext of winning the war…engendered a widespread feeling of suspicion” towards the Labor government amongst unions and party members.

The initial war-fuelled patriotism declined. Workers grew tired of the decline in living standards and began to take the issue into their own hands.

A major strike wave began in 1916 after miners in Broken Hill won shorter working hours. This followed a seven month campaign where miners simply refused to work afternoon shifts and were then locked out. According to historian Robert Bollard, in the first year, “A bewildering variety of workers were involved: bakers and joiners, iron-moulders and storemen, shearers and bricklayers, metal workers and tramway drivers.”

Workers were, predictably, attacked as disloyal and even “agents of the enemy” for striking during war time, which only increased their hostility to the war effort.

There was also significant Irish opposition to the war, due to the poverty and suffering in Ireland as a product of control by the British Empire.

This intensified following the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916, which was brutally repressed by the British army. Irish Catholic leaders like Archbishop Daniel Mannix became prominent in the campaign against conscription.

The increasing confidence amongst the workers’ movement as a product of the strike wave increased tensions between the unions and the Labor Party leaders.

What had previously been minor opposition to Hughes within the party developed into a majority.

Hughes’ announcement of a referendum to introduce conscription was the final straw. It brought into the open deep divisions with the Labor Party over the war and who should pay for it.


Since 1911 compulsory military training and service had been a Labor policy, but Hughes sought to extend conscription to include overseas service.

In 1915 the Allied armies wanted to break through the impasse on the Western Front. New Zealand, Canada and Britain all debated introducing conscription at this time. They needed a constant supply of people to drag to the front and sacrifice for the war effort.

The need for recruits was compounded by waning enthusiasm for the war in Australia. As reports of the scale of casualties at Gallipoli and on the Western Front emerged in late 1915 and 1916, voluntary enlistment declined.

In July 1915 36,575 enlisted following the immediate enthusiasm produced by the first jingoistic reports about Gallipoli. But a year later the monthly recruitment total had dropped to only 6170.

In 1915 Hughes launched a war census that found that 600,000 men were “fit” for service.

Following this, Hughes announced plans to send another 50,000 troops overseas immediately, in addition to the monthly replenishment of 9500 required to replace those killed and wounded.

But it became increasingly clear that these targets could not be met by voluntary enlistment. Hughes’ war census raised deep suspicions inside the union movement, as it looked like a stepping-stone towards introducing conscription. This gave momentum to the burgeoning anti-conscription campaign.

After returning from Britain and a tour of the front, Hughes finally announced a referendum on conscription for October 1916.

Pre-existing legislation actually meant the government could have introduced conscription without the referendum. But the problem for Hughes was political.

Hughes hoped the referendum would silence opponents of conscription—especially in the unions and the Labor Party.

Quite the opposite happened. Discontent about the war was growing but fear of nationalist intimidation and lack of organisation made it difficult to mobilise this discontent.

The conscription issue brought thousands onto the street and into stop-work meetings, polarised the discussion about Australia’s involvement in the war, and eventually split the Labor party.

Opposition in the unions

Conscription had always been unpopular in the labour movement. In part this was due to the influence of socialists and other radicals like the International Workers of the World (IWW) and the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP).

But during the First World War military conscripts were also used to break strikes in France, a fact “to be frequently cited by anti-conscriptionists”, according to Robert Bollard. Conscription was potentially a threat to the values of working class solidarity that sustained the union movement.

Early on, angry returned soldiers and new volunteers about to depart for the front disrupted anti-conscription meetings held by the more radical opponents of the war.

The government used all the powers at its disposal under the War Precautions Act to persecute anti-conscription activists and censor union and socialist papers. Tom Barker, editor of IWW’s newspaper was imprisoned in 1916 for 12 months on the charge of “prejudicing recruitment.”

According to Childe, although most workers didn’t share the IWW’s radical anti-war and internationalist positions “they did not like to see any members of the working class gaoled by the Labour Government merely for saying what they thought.”

But once the unions were won to the anti-conscription campaign it developed into a mass movement that the government could no longer silence.

As early as 1915 the NSW Labor Council carried a motion rejecting the conscription of manpower unless there was also a conscription of wealth. Secretary E. J. Kavanagh recalled:

“… the consensus of opinion was that a man should not be compelled to give his life when the stay-at-home capitalist would lend his money to the country only when he was guaranteed a high rate of interest.”

Melbourne Trades Hall was a particular centre for anti-conscription discussion.

In May 1916 they held a national Trade Union Congress with delegates from over 200 unions present. The congress voted unanimously against conscription. There unionists declared their “uncompromising hostility” to conscription and threatened sanctions against any Labor politicians who deviated from this position. A motion calling for a general strike if conscription were introduced was narrowly defeated, with the congress resolving to leave this decision up to individual unions.

In July 1916 acting Prime Minister George Foster Pearce banned the publication of the Trade Union Congress’ anti-conscription manifesto. Pearce raided Melbourne Trades Hall and destroyed all the copies of the manifesto.

But this ruckus actually made the manifesto all the more interesting to the public and probably made its audience much wider than it would have been otherwise.

The manifesto ended up being widely republished, even printed on the other side of the world in a British newspaper, such was the intrigue surrounding Pearce’s attempted censorship.

Even conservative unions like the Australian Workers Union opposed it—expelling their founder and leader W. G. Spence for supporting Hughes on conscription.

In NSW the Wharf Labourers Union had previously been a staunch ally of Hughes’. He had helped organise the union, and been its official secretary since 1899. It held a 3000-strong stopwork meeting in September 1916 and almost unanimously rejected the conscription referendum proposal.

A month later 30,000 people marched to the Yarra riverbank in Melbourne against conscription. The United Women’s No-Conscription Committee led a march down Swanston Street of 60,000. That same month five unions called a mid-week stopwork meeting attended by 15,000 workers.

The crisis in the Labor party

After announcing the referendum Hughes shopped around the labour movement for support on the conscription issue, but he found little hearing.

Mass opposition to conscription grew as popular sentiment about the war shifted, driven partly by the labour movement, and this forced the division in the Labor party to the surface.

Both the Victorian and NSW State Labor conferences had already voted to dis-endorse any MP who supported conscription. State Labor Executives in Victoria, NSW and Queensland demanded anti-conscription pledges from all Labor MPs.

In August the NSW Labor Party held its first anti-conscription rally, attended by between 60,000-100,000 people. In a decisive step, the NSW and Queensland State Executives announced that they would not give candidature to any MP or Senator who voted for the Conscription Referendum Bill.

In defiance of this resolution Hughes continued to defend conscription. The Labor party as a whole had grown to so decisively oppose it that they were prepared to expel their own sitting Prime Minister.

Hughes was expelled from the party by the NSW branch in September 1916, a month before the referendum. This led to a major party split, in which Hughes walked out of Labor’s federal parliamentary caucus with his supporters to form a new party, and later, a coalition government with conservatives.

The conscription referendum in October 1916 was narrowly defeated with a 51 per cent vote against. Hughes held a second referendum in 1917, this time losing even more heavily.

The image we are fed today of a nation united behind the Anzac war effort could not be further from the truth. The war had sharply divided Australia on the home front, with a growing division between the wealthy establishment and the working class. Thousands faced court for speaking out against the war.

One hundred years on, as our rulers once more try to promote nationalist myths about the war effort, the real history is well worth remembering.

Further reading:
Robert Bollard, In the shadow of Gallipoli: The hidden history of Australia in WWI
V. Gordon Chile, How Labor governs


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Unions support Palestine at Sydney 1 May rally

Thousands of workers downed tools to march through Sydney on 1 May, with construction and maritime unions making May Day an annual stop work rally.

NTEU at Sydney Uni backs the academic boycott of Israeli universities

Sydney University staff have passed an unprecedented motion that will push forward the movement in Australia for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel.

Firies, sparkies and pilots fight cost-of-living pain

Read Solidarity's monthly round-up from the frontline of workers' struggle.