Recruitment & Conscription Debate

Providing enough manpower to serve overseas was a major concern for the military and government. Each belligerent involved in the conflict, was desperate to keep their ranks full. Germany and France relied heavily upon their large cache of compulsory trained reserve troops. However, Britain and her dominions initially relied on a system of volunteers.

Consequently, enticing men to enlist became a necessity for the authorities. Therefore, recruitment marches, speeches and posters became commonplace across Australia. This need grew more important as the war progressed and horrific battles and weapons devoured troops. After the horrendous campaigns of 1916, enlistments began to decline. Prime Minister Billy Hughes on returning from England, proposed conscription would solve the shortfall. He was not alone, since the war commenced the Universal Service League had claimed that victory could only be achieved if all able bodied men did their duty. They sent letters to politicians and published articles which were circulated in The Campbelltown Herald and the Camden News. Accordingly, a conscription referendum was held on the 28th of October 1916. It was narrowly defeated, and recruitment numbers continued to fall. A second referendum was held on the 20th of December 1917. Again it was again crushed. It appeared that although Australians supported the war, they did not want to force men to fight.

Conscription continued to be bitterly debated, dividing households and politics, splitting the Labor Party. Those who protested against conscription were criticised, and young able bodied men who had not enlisted were branded cowards. Often, they were sent or pinned with white feathers for failing to join up. Vote ‘yes’ articles littered the newspapers. Residents were constantly reminded of the need to defeat Germany, recapping the sinking of the Lusitannia and violation of Belgium.

Although many prominent Macarthur residents believed in providing every available man to serve overseas, some were not. An Anti-Conscription League of Camden formed under the leadership of a Mr Pyke. A. H. Conroy, an initiate, delivered a speech at the Camden Plough and Harrow Hotel in October 1916, criticising the efforts of the Prime Minister in pushing for mandatory service.