by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot, & Sean Scalmer, editors
Melbourne: Monash University / Portland, Or.: International Specialized Book Services, 2016. Pp. iv, 220.
Illus., tables, notes, index. $34.95. ISBN: 1925377229
Australia Debates Conscription, 1914-1918
The editors, historians, sociologists, and political scientists from Australia and Britain, have gathered essays by themselves and some of their colleagues on the debate over the introduction of conscription in Australia during the Great War. Although the primary themes is why and how the Australians came to reject conscription, several essays make comparisons with the campaigns to adopt conscription in some fashion by Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, which introduced the practice, and South Africa, which rejected it. Thus the Australian experience is set within that of the whole English-speaking world.
After an introduction that addresses the importance of what one contemporary called ‘The Most Interesting Experiment that has Ever Been Made in a Political Democracy’, the eight papers in the volume are organized into four categories.
The first grouping, “Origins”, has two essays exploring the history of the English tradition of “volunteer” military service versus the “despotism” of continental powers, and the origins of the debate over introducing conscription.
“Campaigns and Results” includes essays on the anti-conscription movement in Australia, the strongly pro-conscription stance among the nation’s academic community, and the referenda on the subject in 1916 and again in 1917.
In “Comparisons” we find an paper comparing the conscription issue in the various English-speaking countries and another comparing the implementation of conscription in Britain and Australia.
The final section, “Legacy”, include just one essay, devoted to memory and memorialization of the anti-conscription movement.
The authors attribute the Australia decision, confirmed by two referenda, to limit conscripts to home defense service only, which did, of course, provided a pool of trained men who might be willing to volunteer for foreign service, to a number of factors, among them the country’s strong democratic tradition, its powerful labor movement, and even the inept propaganda from some pro-conscription advocates.
While not for the casual reader, this will prove valuable reading for anyone with a serious interest in the history of conscription and the problem of manpower procurement in a popular democracy at war.
Note: The Conscription Conflict and the Great War is also available in paperback, $29.95, ISB 978-1-9254-9539-3, and several e-editions