The Great Debate: Conscription and National Service in Australia 1912-1972

by Terry Edwinsmith

Colonel Marcus Fielding (Rtd)  Chair & President of MHHV Inc.

Registrants to this conference which was held at the Camberwell RSL, Victoria, on 30th May 2015 were welcomed by Colonel Marcus Fielding (Rtd) in his role as Conference Chair and President of the Military History & Heritage Victoria Inc.

Opening remarks were given by the society’s Patron, Major- General Jim Barry, AM, MBE, RFD, ED (Rtd) who introduced the keynote speaker. It was pointed out that the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1903 provided for Home Defence. During World War 1, two referendums were held to enable conscription of able bodied males into the Australian Defence Force. On both occasions, the referenda were defeated.

Hon. Tim Fischer

Mr Tim Fischer, AC GCPO, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and former National Serviceman spoke as Keynote Speaker on the subject, “Reflections on Conscription in Australia”. The 1916 and 1917 referenda proposed by Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in part defeated by the actions of (later) Archbishop Mannix of Irish descent who led the ‘‘Anti-Democratic Compulsion” crusade. The margin between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ vote in both instances was very small. Tim reminded us that 50 years have passed since the marbles were first drawn from the barrel on 10th March 1965 in Prime Minister R. Menzies’ term of office. This random ballot for 20 year olds selected conscripts on a certain birthdate with only medical and conscientious objectors eliminated from the list. Tim noted that inconsistencies seem to appear as some monthly birthdates lack randomness. Half yearly totals were inconsistent with 52% of the first ballot dates being selected where other draws were very much less in total. As the Department of Labour and National Service employees were in receipt of an enrolee’s personal details including educational achievement and current employment position, then it was possible to bias the draw to select the elite of candidates. “Who played god in this affair?” Tim’s thoughts on this matter were reproduced in an article in The Age Newspaper of 30th May 2015, Insight page 27. “Was conscription a scam? Tim Fischer thinks so”, writes journalist Tony Wright. Tim believes that there will be a future call up in Australia. He suspects that it may well take the form of the Israeli system where all 20 year old male and female citizens are drafted. Other countries such as Norway and Switzerland have similar schemes and their governments are able to pay the cost of this ongoing training. Military service would be one of several options with civic duties and possibly overseas aid forming a troika of possibilities. We were reminded that it was Sir John Monash who said that the only hope for Democracy was the ballot box and an educated population. Tim concluded his talk with a summary of the achievements of Sir John Monash.

Dr Craig Stockings

Dr Craig Stockings, Associate Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra at ADFA spoke on the topic, “Australia’s Boy Soldiers: Conscripted Cadets, 1911-1929.” Cadets were 14- 18 year old school boys who trained in purpose built drill halls around the country with 100000 boys in training at one stage. This was a pre-militia course for the CMF (Citizens Military Force). The number of boys training at any one time was huge, with both military and social implications involved. Lord Kitchener who was chosen by the Australian government to comment on military matters, was not keen on cadets replacing recruit training for the CMF. He did not agree with the government’s priorities in this regard. The cadet training scheme endeavoured to improve the physical health of the force. Combat skills, field training, shooting and parade drills were set skills but owing to a lack of competent military instructors due to war service in WW1, parade drill predominated. This soon became repeated for the 4 years of service of the cadets. Efficiency was reduced. Boredom predominated and absenteeism increased. Rather than communities supporting this training, schools themselves took over the training. (An interesting aside, was that a cadet instructor who had officer or senior NCO rank, could transfer into the AIF holding this same rank.) This universal compulsory training began to lose favour. The Australian Freedom League was against drilling and the Defence League lost support. Training was restricted to the 16-18 year olds with the 14-15 year olds eliminated from the scheme. The scheme wound down in 1922. Resistance, protests after rain, cold and chronic absenteeism especially in rural areas (during harvests) brought the scheme to an end in 1929. It was hoped that this scheme provided moral improvement to those involved. It certainly did not replace military training at CMF level.

Dr Andrew Kilsby

Dr Jim Wood, Colonel RFD Rtd, Vice-Patron MHHV as session chair of the Great War topic, introduced Dr Andrew Kilsby who spoke on the topic, “Billy Hughes and the politics of conscription”. Billy Hughes placed referenda before the voting public in Australia in 1916 and 1917. Voting was not compulsory. The AIF in the field voted ‘yes’ but both ballots were lost by small margins. Daniel Mannix opposed the draft. The subject became a lightning rod for anti- conscriptionists. There was a contrast in styles between the vibrant Billy Hughes, supporter of the war vs. the stern Dr Mannix, Catholic head in Victoria. Conscription law was available to the parliament of the day but it lacked the power to send soldiers overseas. Hughes was so confident of electoral victory that 7000 civilians were in training prior to the defeat of the referendum. The patriotic class of teachers, clergymen, newspaper proprietors and the Returned Soldiers, Sailors Imperial League supported conscription. In 1918 a small ballot was held for men who volunteered for war service. This VBBS or Volunteer Ballot for Badges Scheme was a means to stop the sending (and receiving) of white feathers.

Dr Michael Lawriwsky

Following Andrew’s address, Jim introduced Dr Michael Lawriwsky who spoke on the topic: “Voices from the front: Albert Jacka VC and the conscription debate.” Michael is the author of ‘Hard Jacka and the Return of the Gallipoli Legend’. Albert Jacka VC was used as a poster boy for the conscription cause. His family especially his father took an opposing view and became almost as famous as his son in opposing conscription. Albert’s rise through the ranks is in contrast to that of his two brothers who also served overseas. Life in the Jacka family is a story of contrasts.

Mark Dapin

Following lunch, session chair, Major Earle Jennings AM RFD ED, President of the National Servicemen’s Association of Australia introduced two speakers who addressed the topic of ‘The Cold War and Vietnam’. Mark Dapin spoke to the topic: “From the Cold War to Vietnam: National Service to Conscription. “ Mark is the author of ‘The Nasho’s War: Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam’ as well as other celebrated books. Mark has interviewed over 200 national servicemen for material for his book. He knows the importance of birthdays. The coalition government used legislation to train 18 year old men from 1951 to 1957 then to 1960 for a period of 176 days followed by reservist activities for a further 5 years. Only those who were clergy or objectors were excused from this ’train all men’ activity. National service was an insurance against perceived enemies of the time, a chance to defend Australia! The scheme catered for the mental, physical and social benefits of the individual. Social classes were able to mix enabling the soldiers’ parents to smile with pride with their son’s achievements. Army, Navy and Air Force were filled with these reservists. (However Navy and Air force draftees had to agree to overseas service if required before they were accepted.) In 1954 all rural workers had the opportunity to defer their military service indefinitely (with smiles from the drill hall). New Australians were accepted into the scheme. About 33750 men served per year. In 1957 a smaller Army force accepted 12000 men per year into the Army only and a birthday ballot was held for these men. After 52 intakes from 1951 the scheme was disbanded in November 1959.

A second conscription scheme began in November 1964 under the Menzies government of the time. Indonesia’s President Sukarno was becoming sympathetic to Communist doctrine and it was believed that he had expansion tendencies into the Territory of Papua New Guinea. Troop build-up in South Vietnam was large and required additional forces to maintain the battalions’ strength. 33000 new troops were required. Army pay was increased by 30% to help recruitment but there was no appeal to patriotism at this time. These new conditions took time to filter in.
Menzies endeavoured to speed up recruitment by adding 40000 men per year, a selective service for single men to fill the battalions for Pacific Islands Regiments. However deferments and exemptions were not factored into the ballot. Men were deferred for 6 months and up to 6 years for some with intensive university training. Nashos became the elite, fit, bright and compliant soldier. No man with a serious criminal history was enlisted so it was that the ‘coppers’ were enlisted and the delinquents were not. So much for the public perception that the Army turned you into a model citizen. Other men on missing out on the ballot volunteered for service so that there were more volunteers than places to serve. Mark was over his time limit so this very interesting story was cut short.

Dave Sabben, MG

The chairman then introduced the final speaker in this segment. Mr Dave Sabben, MG spoke to the topic: “From Scheyville to Vietnam: my conscription experience.” Dave was in the first call up and he managed to enter Officer Training at Scheyville in the inaugural intake and succeed in this new Officer Training Unit. He toured Vietnam with 6RAR then served 4 years in the CMF. For Australia, the problem arose during the 1960s Cold War when British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan withdrew British troops from South East Asia. A vacuum was created and Communism was spreading south to fill this hole. The Domino Theory was the USA’s term for this outcome. There was a need to replace UK forces in the SE Asian area, replace cold war expansion in the area, address Sukarno’s threats and finally build up Australia’s military forces. In 1960 there was nearly 12 million people so 70000 twenty year olds were available for call-up. As it transpired, 1 in 12 men were conscripted. This selective process placed men into recruit training where a ‘level playing field’ plan made teams out of equals. Equal dress, food and accommodation; equal fieldcraft, discipline and deadlines; equal sports, fitness and standards; equal instruction in the tools of trade. These team building activities made groups greater than the sum of their component parts. As for officer selection, it was voluntary for those who had passed their leaving certificate. 1 in 10 were selected from recruit training with an initial 120 selected to undertake a 22 week course of 16 hours per day. 1 in 3 dropped out with 80 officers graduating before joining a unit, most probably an Infantry Unit as this is exactly what the training was for.

Infantry battalions were welcomed back after Vietnam service if they were attached to a large town. There was pride in serving with the regular soldiers. National Service raised the bar in the regular military forces. The scheme re-established Australian military skills in our region and assisted Foreign Policy by giving input into the ANZUS Treaty. The Army displayed potential to those who looked on, both at home and abroad. Prejudice crept in, in the later years of the draft through resistance, and the various ‘Save our Sons’ movements. Conscription was a solution for Australia’s weak military situation of the time. Conscripts have not been heard as a group. They lack a voice in society. The RSLs have been mute in this regard. It is noted that over the 7 year period of conscription, that 9 battalions of men were maintained during this time.

Rafe Champion

The final session of the day was chaired by Dr Noel Turnbull, Adjunct Professor in the School of Media and Communications, RMIT University and former National Serviceman. Noel introduced the final speaker, Mr Rafe Champion, an Independent Scholar in philosophy and social theory. Rafe’s paper is entitled: “The Long Ripples of Vietnam Conscription.” Rafe’s number did not come up in the ballot. He was active in the Humanist Society of NSW. He opposed conscription but not the war in Vietnam. He objected to the idea that one could be an objector to conscription on religious grounds but as an atheist he was denied this right. He agreed with the idea that conscription in 1965 was not bought in for Vietnam but for supposed Indonesian aggression. Rafe then made the point that the quagmire created by the Vietnam War has contributed to the downfall of conservative governments in Australia. The natural choice of a LNP government has been eroded by the Vietnam/Conscription issue. He stressed the importance of conscription in the public mind. There was no public unrest over the Korean and more recently, the Afghanistan wars. The public accepted casualties when professional soldiers were maimed as it was their choice of career. The Vietnam War was a mistake at best, however history has been written by anti-Vietnam scholars whose views contain a certain amount of bias. The big difference between Korea and Vietnam was conscription! This gave rise to the Middle Class Activists, the ‘Save our Sons’ group and others of a similar persuasion. The lethal consequences of conscription has been the support of the ALP or Green parties to the detriment of LNP parties during the past half century. Many groups in our universities are active and articulate, wielding influence not in proportion to their numbers. They push ALP propaganda. There is no voice for Vietnam Veterans apart from the occasional Normie Rowe utterance. Vietnam Vets and National Servicemen were a silent group in a changing world of the 1960-70s where social change was seen in a growing affluence of society, feminism, wide travel opportunities and a growth in tertiary education. Rafe’s contribution was acknowledged by the chairman.

Dr Noel Turnbull

As this was the final address by the invited guest speakers, a panel discussion was arranged to answer questions from the audience. It was moderated by Dr Noel Turnbull and all speakers less Tim Fischer who had other appointments, together with the session chairs, joined in the discussion. The final duty of the day was the closing remarks by Colonel Marcus Fielding, President of MHHV Inc. who thanked both presenters and audience for their presence and participation.

“The Great Debate” at:

Share your love

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *