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Allan McCulloch, the wiry curator of vertebrates at the Australian Museum, attempted several times in 1915 to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. At five-foot six, he just scraped over the minimum height criterion, but he failed to expand his chest to the required 34 inches. It would have appealed to his sense of irony that he had been fit enough to withstand rigorous scientific expeditions to remote Australia.
Like many volunteers, McCulloch saw a chance to exchange a settled middle-class life for masculine adventure. Frustrated, he watched as his younger friends and colleagues left one by one for training camps and the front.
Australia began compulsory military service in 1909 but, under an earlier Defence Act, conscripted men could not be sent overseas to fight. Prime Minister Billy Hughes wanted to change that. Passionately committed to Britain and the Great War, he pledged many more troops than voluntary enlistment alone could provide.
But Hughes had also pledged, to his own Labor Party at least, not to introduce conscription. With a Senate majority, the party would not have allowed it anyway. So, in August 1916, Hughes announced a referendum to be held on 28 October of that year. The announcement sparked a dramatic public debate, which historian Joan Beaumont says ‘has never been rivalled in Australian political history for its bitterness, divisiveness and violence’.
More than an ideological shouting match, the debate featured censorship, thuggery, propaganda, mass rallies and union strikes. Beaumont’s history of the war, Broken Nation (2013), traces not just the battles overseas but those on the home front:
What was at stake . . . was not simply a disagreement about the military need for conscription but an irreconcilable conflict of views about core values . . . Set against the backdrop of the Somme, the debate became infused with the passion and hysteria of mass grief.
The government had the upper hand, ruthlessly using the machinery of state under the War Precautions Act 1914 to censor debate, seize opposing propaganda and repress opposition.
The pugnacious Hughes pulled all available levers ahead of the vote, including a requirement for all single men aged between 18 and 42 to present themselves for military training. Even those rejected for service overseas — like McCulloch — were compelled to report for duty in 1916.
Of 600,000 eligible men, less than 30 per cent complied. Of those who did, many then sought exemption. The government convened tribunals to hear the avalanche of applications. One week out from the referendum, Special Magistrate Mr MH Fitzhardinge heard from McCulloch and 60 others in a marathon one-day sitting in Parramatta Police Court.
The local Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate reported on each applicant under the headline ‘The Men Who Want Exemption’. The story interspersed photographs and profiles of local lads serving or missing overseas.
Denied representation, the applicants offered emotional rather than legal arguments in support of their claims. Typical was Charles John Cook, engine-driver, 31 years, one of five sons and the only one still at home. One brother had left for the front; another was in a military training camp; the others still at school. Application refused.