Daily Archives: October 24, 2017

‘The Story of Conscription’ by Leslie C. Jauncey


1968 reprint with foreword by Patrick O’Farrell, 1935 original text, 365 p.

Even though I have an ambivalent relationship with the tsunami of commemorative activities related with WWI, there may be a little flurry of book reviews related to the 1916/7 Conscription debates over the next month or so. As part of my work with Heidelberg Historical Society, I write a feature in our newsletter that looks at the Heidelberg-Ivanhoe district a hundred years ago. In December 1917 the second ‘referendum’ about conscription was held, and I’m speaking to our December meeting about how this Australia-wide political event played out at the local level a hundred years ago. Hence, my interest in conscription over the last year or so though historic walks (see here and here), a conference and the books in which I’m immersing myself at the moment.

A year ago I attended the launch of recently-published The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, which I reported here.  I finally started reading it this week (books sit around on my desk for a long time!) In the introduction it was noted that there was little discussion of the conscription conflict as a distinctively Australian experience, and that “there has been no book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, development and sources in 1935″(p.6).  Well, I thought, I don’t know anything of what Jauncey said, so I shut The Conscription Conflict and chased down Jauncey’s book The Story of Conscription in Australia instead. After all, if a book is offering “new interpretations”, perhaps I should know what the old interpretations were first.

Jauncey? Where have I read that name before? Then I remembered that it was a section on the Honest History website, where various authors took on the mantle of blogging as Jauncey.  As well as writing The Story of Conscription, Jauncey also wrote about the Commonwealth Bank, visited Russia, lived in America and was of interest to the FBI as a possible (but unproved) Communist.  What is interesting about this 1935 book is that it was republished with a foreword by Patrick O’Farrell (historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia) in 1968, during the Vietnam war when conscription was again to become so controversial. This foreword, now itself nearly 50 years old, criticizes the book for its one-sidedness (a very valid criticism) but also for its downplaying of factors in 1916/7 that were seen in 1968 to be far more significant than Jauncey suggested: most particularly, the role of the Catholic Church, farmers concerned about their labour supply and the socialist and industrial movements.

I’m not sure that Jauncey dismissed these factors as much as O’Farrell accused him of doing in 1968, but it is certainly true that Jauncey’s approach privileged the religion-based groups who opposed compulsion, both in relation to conscription and to the Compulsory Military Training scheme which preceded it.  As O’Farrell points out, Jauncey draws heavily on a book published in 1919 by J. F. Hills and John P. Fletcher, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers),  called Conscription Under Camouflage. In this post-war book, Hills and Fletcher had compiled newspaper clippings, pamphlets and official materials relating to compulsory military training, which they and the Australian Freedom League (formed 1912) opposed, even before the commencement of WWI.

It is this approach based on document-collection that Jauncey takes up in The Story of Conscription in Australia. As Jauncey writes near the end of the book:

Those people in Australia who have during the past twenty-five years collected valuable data on militarism and suppression should pool their priceless information so that it might be available at a minute’s notice. To-day [i.e in 1935] this material lies scattered all over Australia, being in cellars, lofts, sheds, and other places. Every year some of it is lost. If this data is not soon gathered and catalogued, it will be lost for ever. (p.348)

It’s perhaps no surprise that, as O’Farrell points out, Jauncey’s book could easily be called ‘Selected Documents of the Anti-Conscription Movement’ (p. ix). Many of these pamphlets and letters are reproduced in full, and there is an emphasis on the manifestos and motions passed during meetings of anti-conscription and pacifist groups. There is, as O’Farrell points out, no ‘behind the scenes’ material, and “one is left with a host of questions about motivations and feelings and atmosphere”.(p. xi)

Nonetheless, even if this book is, as O’Farrell says, “a chronology of what happened rather than a detailed analysis of why”(p.xi), then it has to be said that it does the ‘what happened’ well. It is organized chronologically, taking its starting point from the introduction of Compulsory Military Training and the Defence Acts of 1903-1912. Pacifist groups opposed the compulsory nature of this training from the start, but their critique was muted in the early days of World War I, when there was almost unanimous support for the war. During the early days of publicity for the first conscription ‘referendum’ (a technically incorrect term, but in general usage), the ‘yes’ side was ascendant, but Hughes’ decision to issue a ‘call to the colours’ for all men of fighting age just prior to the actual vote shifted the sentiment, leading to a narrow over-all ‘no’ result.  Because of the closeness of the result, and  the pro-conscription Hughes’ election victory soon after the referendum, it was not surprising that a second referendum was foisted on the people in December 1917. In explaining the increased ‘no’ vote in this second referendum, Jauncey emphasizes the influence of the pacifist groups and their publicity of the plight of conscientious objectors in Britain and New Zealand under their conscription schemes. His treatment of the second referendum is relatively brief, comprising the final third of the book.

His closing pages, written in 1935, are interesting, knowing as we do what happened just four years later.  He celebrates the Peace Ballot, held in England in 1934-5 where supporters went door-to-door, polling 11.6 million people, 38% of the adult population, and half the number who voted in a general election five months later.

The results of the peace vote in England in June 1935 was a ray of hope in a European sky overcast with the threatening clouds of war and oppression. Over ten million people asked for continued affiliation with the League of Nations… By six to one voters in the peace ballot favoured the abolition of the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit…Over 92 per cent of the ballots favoured economic and non-military measures against an aggressive nation, while the vote for military action against an aggressor was under three to one. (p. 351)

He noted the increasing expenditure on armaments, and the moves towards increasing the periods of compulsory military training in Switzerland and France, and English moves towards compulsory air-raid drills.  He predicted:

In general the peace movement today like all reform groups is waiting for something to happen that can be used to its advantage.  It is likely that actions of the militarists during the next few years will bring together large sections of the peace movement, resulting in an active organisation that will go further than ever before in the direction of removing the causes of war. (p. 355)

I wish he’d been right.

He ends his book with an affirmation in the faith of the ‘ordinary man’.

The anti-conscription movement in Australia showed that very little faith should be placed in the over-whelming majority of leaders as bulwarks against militarism. Archbishop Mannix of the Roman Catholic Church was the only authority in the Commonwealth who vigorously opposed conscription. Six out of seven of the Australian governments, together with almost all political, economic, and religious leaders, demanded compulsion. Yet against all this power and against the suppression and censorship of the time the will of the people prevailed against conscription. A determined people won. The “No” votes were those of the ordinary man and woman and of the ordinary soldier in the trenches.  The peace movement must concentrate on the ordinary citizen. After all, it is he who has to put up with most of the hardship of wars. A well-developed and organized public opinion against war and conscription can prevail. (p.353)

But it was not just Jauncey’s book that was overtaken by other events. In O’Farrell’s foreword, written in 1968, he notes that “…in 1943 or 1964, the conscription question did not become again a matter of such deeply divisive national passion” (p.xiv).  Although perhaps true for the introduction of conscription in 1964, the Moratorium marches of 1970 and 1971 eventually gave the lie to that statement, and perhaps vindicated for just a while, Jauncey’s more optimistic view of the power of mass political protests. Not for long though, when millions of protesters world wide were impotent to stop the Iraq war in 2003.  In the face of increasing expenditure on weaponry, and the sabre-rattling of ‘Little Rocket Man’ and ‘the Dotard’, I suspect and fear that we’re just as impotent today.