Australia's boy conscripts

Media release: Wednesday, 14 October 2015

A myth persists that, when war broke out in 1914, the Australian volunteers who enlisted had no defence training to draw on. In truth, Australia had been conscripting youngsters and training them in military skills, obeying orders and using a gun since 1911.

'This meant that, when war was declared, Australia had a ready-made army of trained, disciplined and patriotic young men, ready for battle,' said Greg Cope from the National Archives in Brisbane.

He has been delving into archival records on conscription in Australia and will share his findings in two public talks on Friday 16 October at 2pm and Wednesday 21 October at 10am.

'In 1909 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin introduced a bill to Parliament providing for compulsory military training,' said Greg Cope. 'It was referred to as “universal” which was seen as less controversial than the term “compulsory”.'

All schools were required to join the scheme. From 1911 boys aged between 12 and 18 were being trained at school and in drill halls. It was also mandatory for young men from 18 to 26 to attend training and be assigned to the home militia defence. But they could not be forced to serve overseas.

Attendance at parades and camps in their own time was a compulsory part of training. Boys and men who did not attend, even due to work commitments, were punished with fines or jail sentences.

'In just two years there were over 27,000 prosecutions,' said Greg Cope. 'They were called “shirkers” and “slackers” by the authorities and the press. It was the severity of this punishment that generated some of the strongest opposition to the scheme. One 16-year-old was sentenced to 21 days in prison, with a full week in solitary confinement in a windowless cell.'

This was the background to Prime Minister Billy Hughes' call for conscription for overseas service on his return from Britain in 1916. A plebiscite on 28 October 1916 failed to pass, with 51 per cent voting against conscription. In the next plebiscite on 20 December 1917 the 'no' vote increased.

In all, Australia has had four periods of compulsory military training, the universal military training scheme from 1911 to 1929, wartime conscription form 1940 to 1945; the first National Service Training scheme from 1951 to1957, with the backdrop of the Cold War, and the second National Service scheme from 1965 to 1973 which sent conscripts to serve in the Vietnam war.

The National Archives has more information on World War I enrollments on its Discovering Anzacs website.

Contact information

  • Greg Cope (Director, Queensland State Office)
    t (07) 3249 4224 m 0400 753 854
  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au

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