History of Conscription – A personal perspective

by WO2 Dan Winkel

Rising Sun

Very few people in Australia are aware the plan for the Australian Defence Forces as put forward by Lord Kitchener to the Federal Parliament in 1908 envisaged the Australian Military Forces as consisting of two elements. A small professional Corps of full time trainers to be known as the Army Instructional Corps (AIC) and the Citizen Soldiers (C.M.F.) All males on reaching the age of 18 were to undertake 3 months full time training instructed by the A.I.C. Kitchener had seen the structure of the Armies of the Boer Republics in South Africa and thought it ideal for the new Australian Government. Prior to Federation in 1901 an Australian Army did not exist.

Various Colonies had Armed Forces consisting of various Army Units and several Colonies including Queensland had its own Navy. Hence until the outbreak of WW1, that’s how it was. To support the U.K. at the outbreak of WW1 a special all volunteer force was recruited, to be known as the Australian Imperial Forces. The name, A.I.F. indicated that although it was raised in Australia, its purpose was to defend Britain. Because of the high rate of casualties and the lack of volunteers to replace them, Prime Minister William Maurice (Billy) Hughes attempted to pass a law for conscription. The Australian people were outraged at the attempt and a Referendum was held. It failed. The Australian Public held very strongly to the view that NO Australian conscripts should be asked/forced to serve outside of Australia. That doctrine held until 2 year conscripts were sent to South Vietnam in 1966. However the 3 months “call up” continued after WW1 right up until General Mobilization when the Japanese invaded Australia in 1942. Even during the New Guinea campaign, no conscripts were forced to serve beyond the Australian Territories in PNG. At the end of WW2, the 3 month “call ups” ceased.

Although the 3 months Intake was discontinued after 1945, the legislation was still in place and any Government who so wished had the legal means to reintroduce it. When the war broke out in the Korean Peninsula in 1949, Australia as part of the UN was committed to provide a Fighting Force. The newly elected Menzies Liberal Government made the decision in line with what had been done at the beginning of WW1&2 and raise a Special Force. It was known as “K” Force. Men were enlisted to serve for the duration of the Korean conflict. A few months later, the 3 months “Call Ups” were recommenced. As had been the case with the earlier 3 months “Call Ups” there were no ballots or exemptions. It was everybody in. The only exceptions were those who were medically unfit to undertake the rigorous training involved. Those who objected on religious or other grounds still had to serve the 3 months. They were not required to undertake training at Arms but to serve as domestic staff. That is, they worked at various non Military tasks like preparing food, cleaning bathrooms and latrines, gardening etc. Men were exempt while undergoing education or apprenticeships but were required to undergo the training as soon as possible/practical after completion of training.

I commenced my 3 months training on the Monday after New Year’s Day as soon as I had completed Teacher Training. Consequently quite a few of the men I had attended Teachers College with were included in the Intake. As well, there was a sprinkling of men who had graduated the previous Nov/Dec from the U of Qld as Doctors, Surveyors and Engineers etc. They completed their 3 months as Privates but when they took up their duties in the CMF they were promoted to Commissioned rank. The last of the 3 month Intakes was around late 1958 or early ‘59.
The idea of a 2 year conscription as was the case at the time in USA and the U.K was not acceptable either to the Menzies Cabinet or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In its place the Joint Chiefs of Staff made it clear the Army wanted the option to choose or reject those selected for compulsory Conscription. Consequently the Australian ballot guaranteed that many more 20 year olds were selected than were needed. At the time the USA had a selective Conscription where the Local Government appointees did the selecting from a generated list of enrolled names. This method allowed the local Sheriff and Mayor to get rid of those they thought were troublemakers within the community. It also allowed the affluent to buy their son out of the draft.

About that time there was a mini recession in Australia. It hit the coal mining industry quite hard. Part of the reason was steam trains had been replaced by Diesel electric Locos. As well, BHP had developed a new steel making process which instead of using 10 tons of coal to process 1 ton of Iron ore used only 1 ton of coal to process each ton of iron ore. Consequently, coal mines closed and men were put out of employment. Quite quickly there was a significant number of unemployed. Many were school leavers. Because of the down turn in the economy, Industry was not taking on Apprentices and there were very few opportunities for employment especially for unskilled people. The Public perception soon developed that many young men not only didn’t have a job but didn’t want a job. They were happy to draw the unemployment benefit and spend their days surfing or just “hanging out” with their mates on the beach or in Bars and making trouble.

Truth was there just was no work to be had for unskilled hands and very little opportunity to gain the skills necessary to get a job. All the while Industry was crying out for skilled employees. A big part of the reason there were no skilled people to take up vacancies in Industry was the failure of Employers to train school leavers. The Employers claimed it was too expensive to train Apprentices. It was not surprising an element of the young unemployed got into trouble with the Police. This was especially so in the Capital Cities. This led to the Army receiving poor quality men/recruits at various times because some Magistrates in NSW had reverted to the WW2 practice of deferring their hearing for 24 hours so the youth before the court had the option of enlisting into the Army (as recommended by the Magistrate) or showing up the following day to face a conviction and sentencing.

This discontentment and disillusionment with the Government arising out of the unavailability of jobs and job training was already beginning to be apparent when I did my 3 months Compulsory Army Training at the beginning of 1957. Around 25% of the men in my Platoon had no job skills and had never had a paying job. For many as was the case with the 2 year National Service Training, the 3 months National Service was a life changing experience. And so it was for me. I became aware of the RAAEC and the opportunity for me to choose the RAAEC as a career path as I subsequently did.

Follow-up Correspondence

Thanks for all of this.
I am interested in Dan’s comments about National Service and I did not realise some of the history. I have thought about his comment about the quality of the people joining the army prior to 1965. Quite clearly the Nashos in my intake, 1/71, included a lot of highly educated people who had finished degrees and then gone in at the beginning of the year. I expect that these people would be considerably different to the group signing up as Regular soldiers – not all in a positive way either!!! However I have been mulling over another question since reading before Christmas that new book about Nashos and the Vietnam War. (“The Nashos’ War” Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam, by Mark Dapin – see below for review.) It seemed to me that the author described in detail every death in Vietnam! I found that demoralising and it made me wonder how successful National Service was at turning conscripts into “real” soldiers. The fact highlighted in the book was the high rate of Nasho deaths compared to deaths of the Regular soldiers. Again something I did not realise and something I find worrying. Based on this one fact it seems that conscription was not a success!
Glenn H.

G’day Glenn,
I was one of those WOs whose responsibility it was to turn civilians into trained soldiers within the 12 weeks we had them at Kapooka. The recruits we were getting before the 2 year National Service were the dregs of the community. The NS Trainees I had to deal with were from the top 10 % of the community. In general their attitude was, “We are here, not voluntary but by compulsion. Show us what to do and WE WILL DO IT” and most of them did it very well. The high rate of casualties was because they accepted the need to fight and did so or died in the attempt. Just the number who went on to get Commissioned rank attests to their quality. Before the 2 year NS, I believed in a volunteer Army. My experience with NS Trainees showed me that for an Army to be effective, a cross section of the community was needed. The very high rate of very well educated men can be attributed to the method of selection, whereby only the cream of those eligible by the Ballot were actually called up. Even then at least 20% of those actually called up were sent home within the first 6 weeks of training.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask me any additional questions you may have.



The Nashos’ War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam

Author: Mark Dapin
Price: $39.99

SKU: 9780670077052
On 10 March 1965, the first nasho’s birthdate was drawn from a lottery barrel at the Department of Labour and National Service in Melbourne. Over the next seven years, a total of 63740 young Australian men would be drafted into the army and face the prospect of being sent to war.

The nashos came from all walks of life: plumbers and dentists, footballers and musicians, Christians and Jews, willing and unwilling. Some spent their two years square-bashing in Singleton. Others went to Vietnam to fight – and die – in Australia’s bloodiest battles, including the slaughter at Long Tan.

But our ideas of national service contain strange contradictions and inaccuracies: that the draft was unpopular but militarily necessary; that the nashos in Vietnam all volunteered to go to war; and that they were met by protesters and demonstrations on their return to Australia, rather than the huge welcome-home parades reported at the time.

Here, Mark Dapin dramatically deconstructs the folklore of Vietnam and national service. Drawing on the accounts of over one hundred and fifty former national servicemen, The Nashos’ War tells a vastly more personal and nuanced story of national service and Australia’s Vietnam War than that previously heard. Most powerfully, it records with extraordinary intensity what it was like to be a bank clerk one day, and fighting for your life in the jungles of Vietnam soon afterwards.

Price: $39.99

The Nashos War

Book Cover: The Nashos’ War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam
The Nashos’ War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam (eBook)
By Mark Dapin
The untold story of the ordinary Australians conscripted to fight in our most controversial war, by one of our most celebrated journalists
Published: 24/10/2014
Format: eBook
ISBN: 9781742536774
Price: $16.99

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One comment

  1. Regarding conscription during World War 2: The Curtain Government changed the law in 1943 so conscripts and reservists could be sent to the Pacific Theatre. A consequence of that was, conscripts in Queensland mutinied.

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