Our forgotten war at home

BILLY HUGHES was prepared to sacrifice an entire generation of young Australian men to help his imperial masters in Britain win the first world war, a local historian has discovered.

Associate professor Deborah Gare, who heads Notre Dame University’s history program, made the dramatic discovery while researching another wartime prime minister, John Curtin—an active campaigner against conscription during the Great War period.

Prof Gare says secret correspondence by governor-general Ronald Munro Ferguson to Britain’s colonial office in 1916 makes it clear what Hughes was prepared to sacrifice in order to help Britain win the war:  “It is not intended until the supply of single men without dependents is exhausted, to apply compulsion to married men, youths under 21, single men with dependents, or to the remaining sons of families in which one or more of the members have already volunteered,” Ferguson wrote of the PM’s conscription plans.

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• Billy Hughes became a ‘despot’ in his desperation to introduce conscription.


Prof Gare says the governor-general had expressed concern the number of men volunteering for service was lagging far behind those being mowed down at the front.

Hughes had visited Australian troops en-route to London in 1916 but by the time he returned home many of those had been killed. In two months of extraordinary carnage, 28,000 ANZACs were killed in battles now etched in the nation’s psyche: Fromelles, Poziéres and Mouquet Farm.

“I think he came back shocked because they were men he had just met,” Prof Gare says.

In his desperation to send reinforcements, says Prof Gare, Hughes became a despot and she was shocked to discover the extent of his abuse of executive power.

While it’s common knowledge Hughes held and lost a national plebiscite to introduce conscription that year, Prof Gare says there’s little in the history books about his questionable tactics.

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• Historian Deborah Gare says researching John and Elsie Curtin’s life has uncovered dramatic information that may alter our perception of Australian history.

The PM recessed parliament under the guise of having MPs consult with constituents about conscription.

“Because they were not sitting, under the War Precautions Act Hughes acted to govern by rule of decree,” Prof Gare says.

“He ordered all eligible men to report for service, so 196,000 men are conscripted, and they’re called conscripts and they go to conscript camps, and they can’t go straight into the AIF so Hughes puts them in uniforms.”

Prof Gare says Hughes then parades the men around the country as part of a war recruitment campaign, all the while using increasingly despotic measures to stifle dissent, much of it from amongst his own Labor MPs.

Prof Gare says more than 7000 people, including printers, publishers and journalists, spent time behind bars for breaching Hughes’ ban on posters or articles critical of the government’s plebiscite.

“The government also admits to surveilling all phone calls, and outlawed speaking in a foreign language on the phone,” she says, adding Hughes was concerned eavesdropping operators wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said.

There is evidence that armed militia harassed and beat opponents and sabotaged the anti-conscription campaign HQ run by Curtin—a trade unionist at the time—although she thinks they were probably channeling Hughes’ rage rather than acting under his direct orders.

“He’s got all this censorship going, then on the night before the referendum he goes to the governor-general and issues a decree that instructs all the electoral officers to ask people coming in to vote ‘were you eligible to report for service’ and ‘did you report’ and if they didn’t get the right answer—which you could imagine—their vote would be put aside and the government would decide later whether to count it.”

“Can you imagine that?” Prof Gare asks in amazement.

She says that in line with the other tactics, Hughes only allowed the pro-conscription case to be put to voters.

Despite all this, the referendum failed, albeit narrowly. A second referendum a year later was more emphatic.

The issue split the Labor party and Hughes and 24 supporters abandoned Labor, forming a minority government as the National Labor Party (Hughes later went on to help found the UAP, the precursor to the modern Liberals).

Prof Gare says she was “embarrassed” to realise she didn’t know this side of Australian history, and says it’s important it be woven in amongst the “forging of a nation” and “mateship” jingoism that is increasingly defining the country’s view of the era.

“I think we’ve under-estimated the complexity of the home front and also under-estimated and under-reported on the abuses of executive power the government was prepared to make in order to win the war.”
Prof Gare says there are chilling echoes of Hughes’ tactics in the last decade, with successive governments rolling out surveillance and restrictions on citizens’ rights in the name of the war on terror.

She says a greater understanding of the past will put those moves into a greater perspective and perhaps get more people questioning them.

She says her research has also given her a greater appreciation for Curtin, as it was his concerns about Hughes’ abuses that drove him. He was such a thorn in Hughes’ side that on the day those imprisoned for speaking out against conscription were freed, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Curtin avoided detection for some weeks, taking time to cement his budding relationship with Elsie in Tasmania before handing himself in to authorities. He was sentenced to nine months in prison, but Hughes was put under so much pressure he was released after three days.

Curtin’s Melbourne friends, concerned about the stress he was under and his increased alcoholism, packed him off to Western Australia.

Prof Gare will present her discoveries at a free Fremantle Heritage Festival talk at Tannock Hall on Cliff Street, Fremantle, on Friday May 8 at 6pm.


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