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The campaign that failed

Conscription was introduced by law in New Zealand. However, Australians were able to vote on introducing conscription in a referendum in October 1916. This film was made as part of the “Vote Yes’ campaign. It shows PM William Hughes presenting the pro-conscription case, followed by messages to vote 'Yes' from well known figures such as the martyred Nurse Cavell, King George V and France’s General Joffre. Despite these efforts, however, the campaign for conscription was narrowly defeated.

Year:1916

Location:Canberra, Australia

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The campaign that failed

Conscription was introduced by law in New Zealand. However, Australians were able to vote on introducing conscription in a referendum in October 1916. This film was made as part of the “Vote Yes’ campaign. It shows PM William Hughes presenting the pro-conscription case, followed by messages to vote 'Yes' from well known figures such as the martyred Nurse Cavell, King George V and France’s General Joffre. Despite these efforts, however, the campaign for conscription was narrowly defeated.


Year: 1916

Length: 08:47

Source: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Catalogue Reference: NFSA Title: 11060


People: William Morris (Billy) Hughes (Australian Prime Minister)

Location: Canberra, Australia

Tags: Australia, Prime Minister, Billy Hughes

Subject: Recruitment


Military training for Australian men over 18 years of age had been compulsory since 1911, but there was no compulsion to enlist for duty when the First World War broke out in 1914. At that heady time, the rush to volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was so intense that recruitment officers were forced to turn people away. However, as the war dragged on, casualty rates increased and the number of volunteers declined. By 1916 the AIF faced a shortage of men and extensive advertising campaigns failed to change the trend.

The Prime Minister, William ‘Billy’ Hughes, was a strong proponent of Australia’s participation in the war and became convinced that conscription was necessary. Despite opposition from his own ranks in the Labour Party, and furious debate in the Australian community, Hughes decided to take the issue to the people in a referendum, held on 28 October 1916.

This film is part of the official campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote. Like many politicians of his time, Hughes began his career speaking on soapboxes and street corners. Mass media communication was still very new and Hughes’s style sits rather uneasily in the motion picture format. The film nevertheless provides a valuable insight into political propaganda at the dawn of new media technology.

After the proposal for conscription was narrowly defeated, enlistment for the war continued to decline and Hughes held another referendum. On 20 December 1917 the nation again voted ‘No’, this time with a slightly larger majority. Australia and South Africa were the only participating countries not to introduce conscription during the First World War. This film is one of a collection of historical campaign films held at the NFSA on behalf of the Australian Labor Party.

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The campaign that failed

  • Canberra, Australia

  • 0:00

    Intertitle: The Prime Minister of Australia will now address you

  • 0:05

    Intertitle: Since I cannot personally visit every centre, I take this method of appealing to the whole of Australia to vote “YES”

  • 0:15

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes giving a speech

  • 0:18

    Intertitle: The fate of Australia is now being decided on the battlefields of France, and it is there the Australian Citizen must fight for his country

  • 0:33

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes continues with his speech

  • 0:38

    Intertitle: Now is the hour when Australia is called upon to gird up her loins and make her great effort

  • 0:48

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes continues with his speech

  • 0:54

    Intertitle: Every citizen must decide in which camp he will stand—for or against Australia, for or against Britain, for or against the Empire

  • 1:08

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes continues with his speech

  • 1:17

    Intertitle: I warn you to beware of the enemies in our midst, the agents of treacherous Germany

  • 1:24

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes continues with his speech

  • 1:35

    Intertitle: I appeal to every Unionist to do his duty to his fellow Unionists now fighting so gloriously on the fields of France

  • 1:45

    William ‘Billy’ Hughes continues with his speech

  • 1:49

    Intertitle: Women of Australia – To vote “NO” would be to abandon those gallant Australian Troops who are fighting so heroically for you

  • 2:01

    Intertitle: “The Antis argue that Germany is beaten – IS IT?”

  • 2:07

    Intertitle: The portions of the Map in Black represent Belgium, Northern France, Poland, and Servia, still held by the Enemy

  • 2:15

    Map of Europe

  • 2:26

    Intertitle: “Won’t you help to push them out by voting --- YES?”

  • 2:32

    Intertitle: “These Anzacs are over there Coo-eeing for more Anzacs”

  • 2:38

    Footage of New Zealand troops marching in a parade with crowds watching

  • 2:55

    Intertitle: The War cannot be won on points; it must be a Knock-out

  • 3:01

    Intertitle: “This is what will happen if we send the men”

  • 3:07

    Map of Europe. Animation shows black areas marking Germany’s troops receding

  • 3:13

    Intertitle: “And at last the Anzacs reach Berlin”

  • 3:18

    Map of Europe: Animation shows the Allied troop lines converging on Berlin ending with the word ‘Anzac’

  • 3:31

    Intertitle: Australia should be There

  • 3:35

    Slide showing ‘The Bulletin Cartoon’ of a crowd supporting the ‘No’ vote holding their thumbs down to war weary Anzacs. The title reads, ‘Never Let it be Said’

  • 3:41

    Intertitle (over moving footage of soldiers in trenches): REFERENDUM BULLETS by W. M. Hughes. You would answer a Coo-ee for help in the bush. The Anzacs are Coo-eeing

  • 3:53

    Slide of Kaiser Wilhelm on horseback

  • 3:56

    Intertitle (overlayed onto slide of Kaiser Wilhelm): If you vote “NO,” spell it “Nein.”. That is how the Kaiser would spell it. Vote “Yes” – Fame, Success; Vote No – Dishonour, woe

  • 4:14

    Intertitle (over moving footage of soldiers in trenches): Do you want to save men in the trenches from a 96-hour shift under shell fire? Then vote “YES” for Reinforcements

  • 4:23

    Intertitle (over moving footage of destroyed buildings): The Antis say Australia has done her share. Belgium, France, Poland, and Servia have suffered more than their share

  • 4:34

    Intertitle (over moving footage of a horse race): Preserve the lives of the Anzacs, which are as sacred as the lives of shirkers, by voting “Yes”

  • 4:47

    Intertitle (over moving footage of tents at a training camp): Without reinforcements our training camps will be empty by the end of January

  • 4:56

    Intertitle (over moving footage of soldiers in trenches): “There are 27,000 members of the A.W.U. in the trenches, and if I did not vote to send them aid I would be ashamed to look one of them in the face”. W.G. SPENCE

  • 5:14

    Intertitle (over moving footage of Australian troops marching): Australia has 100,000 men, 5 divisions, in the battle line. Our task is to maintain these five divisions at the their full strength

  • 5:31

    Intertitle (over moving footage of New Zealand troops marching): Is Australia going to take the count after October 28th? The only proper backing for Anzacs is more Anzacs

  • 5:48

    Intertitle (over moving footage of Australian troops marching): The Antis ask you to throw in the towel on the 28th. Are you going to scab on the Anzacs?

  • 6:07

    Intertitle (over moving footage of the RMS Lusitania): Are you going to remain passive, remembering the “Lusitania,” the Belgian horrors, Nurse Cavell, and Captain Fryatt?

  • 6:17

    Intertitle (over moving footage of William ‘Billy’ McMahon continuing with his speech): Those who vote “No” will make the Australian Commonwealth the first blackleg among the Allies

  • 6:26

    Intertitle (over moving footage of a battleship): If Australia were ever threatened with invasion, we would shudder to think that Britain might vote “No”

  • 6:42

    Intertitle (over moving footage of the Australian flag): See that the scrap of paper you put into the ballot-box carries the ‘YES” of national honour

  • 6:55

    Intertitle: Or will you Vote NO for these

  • 7:00

    Slide of Kaiser Wilhelm on horseback

  • 7:06

    Slide of three German officers, arms linked

  • 7:14

    Intertitle: Will you vote “YES” for these

  • 7:19

    Intertitle: General Sir Douglas Haig asks you to Vote YES on the 28th

  • 7:26

    General Sir Douglas Haig inspects troops

  • 7:39

    Intertitle: Nurse Cavell’s last words were” “I’m proud to die for my country.” For the sake of her memory, VOTE “YES.”

  • 7:49

    Animation of a portrait of Nurse Cavell receding within the shape of a Christian cross

  • 8:20

    Intertitle: England’s Dead Soldier asks You to Vote YES on the 28th

  • 8:27

    Intertitle: King Albert and General Joffre as You to Vote YES on the 28th

  • 8:34

    Intertitle: His Majesty King George asks You to Vote YES on the 28th

  • 8:41

    Intertitle: The Allies expect that every man this day will do his duty