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* A Nation Divided: The Great War and Conscription *
The debate over conscription during the darkest years of the Great War has been described by some historians as the most bitter, divisive and violent ever to consume the nation. From 1916-1917 thousands of impassioned speeches were made, endless newspaper columns written, mass meetings and huge rallies were held throughout Australia. As families, communities and organisations divided in bitter recrimination, it seemed as if the soul of the grieving nation would tear itself apart. This exhibition at the Old Treasury Building tells the story of this extraordinary period in our history. It is a tale of political intrigue, industrial turmoil, civil unrest and a lurid propaganda war. But it is also a story of passionate idealists, who faced down government repression in pursuit of their beliefs. In the end, it is the story of the triumph of democracy amidst the most testing circumstances ever experienced in Australia. Now largely forgotten, the two conscription referendums were held during the worst years of the Great War. Australians had enlisted in large numbers in the first year of the war, but as casualty lists mounted on the Western Front, enlistments faltered and the government reluctantly considered introducing conscription. Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes had earlier promised never to consider conscription, but changed his mind under pressure from Britain. Other countries introduced conscription by legislation, but the implacable opposition of the Labor Party and labour movement meant that Hughes could not win this way. He opted for a direct appeal to the people. Two referendums were held, the first in 1916 then another in 1917. On each occasion a majority of Australians voted 'No'. In the end Australia was one of few combatant nations to field an army comprised entirely of volunteers.
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