Conscription and the threat of military strike-breaking

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 15

In early 1911 a rebellion broke out against the corrupt and abject Sultan of Morocco. France, the dominant European power in Morocco, sent troops to put down the rebellion and, in the process, to widen its control over the whole territory of Morocco. Spain took advantage of the opportunity to occupy some towns on the northern coast. The German gunboat Panther arrived in the Atlantic port of Agadir; Britain, fearing that Germany intended to turn Agadir into a German naval base, sent battleships. One hundred thousand workers demonstrated in Berlin under the banner of the Socialist Party, protesting the war moves of their own government.  The rapid escalation of European military activity signaled the deepening rivalry among the great powers and their competing ambitions to grab colonial territory. It was a foretaste of the conflagration that was to erupt three years later.

French troops in Morocco during Agadir crisis 1911-12

The International Socialist reprinted an article on Morocco by British socialist Tom Quelch (who was later a delegate to the second Congress of the Communist International). “France and Spain are busy carrying the banner of civilisation amongst the black folk of Barbary. That is to say, the troops of these two countries have entered a peaceful, sunny land, devastated its cornfields, destroyed its harvests, burnt its villages, committed all manner of barbarities, starved its children, violated its women, and massacred men. They have done this because in that portion of Africa there are mines and other things dear to the hearts of capitalists and financial swindlers. … What England has done to Egypt, France is going to do to Morocco. … The Sultan is an ass — or worse than an ass — and provides the capitalist vultures with just the excuse that they require. So they have swooped down, and are now proceeding to digest that unfortunate country. France, however, will not have it all her own way. Spain has already a finger in the pie. And Germany also throws a sinister shadow across the north-west of Africa. It is the same old game of plunder.”

Alfred Deakin in 1901, Liberal Prime Minister who led militarist drive in early years of Australian Commonwealth. Photo: NAA

Accompanying this bellicose manoeuvring was a major drive to mobilise the working class of the European powers into national armies. Militarism became the foremost political campaign of the ruling classes in France, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – as well as in the outposts of the British Empire. From 1909, and to a degree since the very founding of the Federation in 1901, militarism had been a major preoccupation of the ruling class in Australia, albeit they were often frustrated by political instability. The Deakin Liberal government had prepared a Defence Bill which included plans for military conscription in 1908, but the government fell before it could be passed by the parliament. In May 1909 the short-lived Labor-led Fisher government did the same, with the same outcome. Deakin tried again. A revised Defence Bill, which included some forms of conscription, was finally passed in 1909.

Illustration in The Queenslander Pictorial of Lord Kitchener at the time of his visit to Australia, January 1910. Photo: State Library of Queensland

In January 1910 the militarisation drive was spurred on by a tour of Australasia by Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Field Marshall of the British Army, veteran of the British subjugation of Sudan, and architect of the scorched-earth policy against the Boer republics in South Africa. (Later, as Secretary of State for War, Kitchener became the figurehead for the British mobilisation in the First World War.) Kitchener’s tour, which had been initiated by Deakin, had a big political impact in Australia. His report made detailed proposals on the size and shape of the future Australian ‘Citizen Force’ underpinned by conscription and universal military training of males. “The citizen should be brought up from boyhood to look forward to the day when he will be enrolled as fit to defend his country,” Kitchener said. [Report p8].

George Foster Pearce about 1901. Photo: National Library of Australia.

It fell to the Labor Government of Andrew Fisher elected in April 1910 to implement Kitchener’s proposals; this was a task they adopted with great enthusiasm. Under the guidance of Labor’s Minister of Defence, Senator George Foster Pearce, the Parliament passed the Commonwealth Defence Act 1911, which included among its provisions compulsory military training for all boys and men aged between 12 and 26 years old – a significant extension from Deakin’s proposals.

Holland wrote in November 1910, “To the working men of the outside world whose acquaintance with Australian conditions is limited, a puzzling question is why the Australian Labor Party, having captured the power to govern, should have first written the word Conscription in such flaming letters across its victorious banners. In all other countries the movements and parties of the working class refuse to countenance the crime of militarism because they understand the working-class position — because they know the fundamental reasons for compelling the workers to be trained to kill the workers. If our comrades of other nations fully understood the Australian Labor Party, they would no longer wonder at their advocacy of Conscription; they would know that the economic foundations on which our Labor Party builds are the solidified class interests of the Australian bourgeoisie, and, since the bourgeoisie of Australia in no material particular differs from the bourgeoisie of any other country in either its interests or its methods to conserve its interests, it was inevitable that…the organised wickedness and criminality of bourgeois interests that have found expression in the conscript laws of older and perhaps more unhappy countries should find reflection in the gradually-developing profit-making minds of our Australian rulers.”

Portrait of Aristide Briand, about 1915

Uppermost in the minds of Holland and many workers in Australia opposed to the government’s conscription campaign was the threat of military strike-breaking at home.  Holland had warned about this in October 1910, when a conscript army was used to break a railway strike in France. “In almost every civilised country in the world at the present time — whether under absolute or limited monarchical or republican rule — there is unrest, political and industrial. In France this unrest has shown itself in the form of industrial revolt. That blood has been shed is the result of the action of a bourgeois government led by a renegade from the working-class ranks. Briand, like his colleague Millerand, is an erst-time member of the French Socialist movement. To-day, in French politics, Briand and Millerand might be said to stand exactly where Fisher and Hughes stand in Australian politics.

“The lesson of the French strike comes to us from the military aspect of the situation. They have conscription in France; and, no sooner was the strike declared, than the Premier ordered the strikers to mobilise, and take charge of the railways under military rule. One of the penalties for disobeying such an order is death: What wonder if even the superior industrial organisation of the French workers failed before such a situation? We want to ask the workers of Australia to take to heart the French lesson. The Federal Labor Party is getting ready the machinery for the working of their criminal scheme of conscription— of militarism. The sons of the working class are to be compelled to become soldiers as in France and other conscript countries. What a mighty weapon the Fisher Government places in the hands of the employing class — in the hands of the Federal Government itself as the instrument of the employing class. In future days when the Australian workers strike — especially the workers employed by the Federal Government—profiting by the lesson taught by the renegade Briand, the Federal Government will only have to order the unionists to mobilise, and to carry on the public department affected under military rule. As in France, the penalty for disobedience — for refusing to blackleg — may be death!”

The danger of military strikebreaking is central to the Manifesto to the Conscript Boys of Australia issued in July 1911 by the International Socialists. “We wonder if many of you Australian lads have thought about this business of the compulsory military training to which the Government is subjecting you. Your parents have been told that their boys between the ages of 14 and 18 must be drilled, and marched, and taught to carry firearms, in order that when they grow up they may know how to fight, as soldiers, and shoot down or bayonet the lads of other countries…

“Then if you read the newspapers you will notice that soldiers in England, France, and America and elsewhere are often ordered to fire on strikers, who are forced, through hunger and hard conditions, to demand through the strike, better wages or shorter hours. How will you feel some day if you are ordered by the Government in power to fire on your friends and relatives, with whom you are in sympathy; because you know, as sons of workers, how much they are suffering? You may think now as lads that it is amusing to wear a uniform, and to march along gaily to the sound of military music; but how will you feel when you stand, one of a long row of trained murderers, with your rifle in your hand, awaiting the order to shoot down your relatives and your comrades?…”

The manifesto also addresses the question of the nature of imperialist war. “When you were at school and read about the wars of the past, and of our own time, you must have noticed that the causes of the wars were never connected with the lives and the interests of the working people themselves. When Russia fought Japan lately the Russian workers had no quarrel with the Japanese workers; and when the Japanese armies were victorious, the Japanese working people were no better off because of those victories. It was the rich men, the bosses, the employers, in the two countries who had a quarrel about trade, or the sharing of profits; and these rich men paid the poorer workers in both countries to go and fight for them. It was just the same during the Boer war. The mine owners in South Africa were quarrelling with the Boer landowners about who should work and get the profits from the mines; and tens of thousands of British soldiers, sons of working men and working women, died on the South African veldt in order that the rich bosses in England, who had paid them to fight, might become South African millionaires.”

Finally, the manifesto calls for defiance of the conscription orders.

“Now is the time to protest against the folly of this compulsory training in organised murder. Now is the time to make up your minds NEVER TO TAKE THE MILITARY OATH, which deprives you of will and conscience. … The army that you lads should enlist in is the Industrial Army. The only enemy you have to fight is capitalism; and the only State of the future under which you working lads will not be robbed of the greater part of the wealth your labor creates, will be the Socialist State. Workers of the world, instead of taking payment from the capitalists to fight each other, should unite to fight the capitalist, and take over for themselves the land, workshops, mines, and factories; and produce the wealth they are creating for their own uses, instead of for the few, who now exploit and govern them; and who, in the organising of this compulsory military training, are only preparing an army of legalised murderers to defend their stolen wealth.”

Among the first to reject the conscription drive were unionists who had faced down the rifles of the state forces in strikes. The leadership of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association, the biggest union at Broken Hill, was a stronghold of the Australian Labor Party. Nevertheless, at an overflowing special general meeting in September a resolution seconded by Alfred Giles denouncing conscription was carried unanimously:

“… Whereas, under the existing compulsory military law the youths and young men from 14 to 26, who … are to be disciplined by officiating flunkeys of a financing faction, may be called up in the future to put the quietus on the aims and activities of organised labor, we the members of the Barrier branch of the A.M.A., register our protest against the politically propped military scheme, and pledge ourselves to use every means, legitimate or otherwise, to frustrate the tide of mad frenzied Australian jingoism … further we call upon all unionists who are fathers of conscripts to counteract the damning influence of military officers by inculcating the spirit of independence and proletarian principles in their sons, so that they will always instinctively know where their class interests lie, and incidentally where to turn their rifles in the event of industrial unrest… and that all members of this association be asked to refrain from allowing their sons to be trained under the Compulsory Military Act, and in the event of any member being prosecuted this association offers its moral and practical support, and that this association is also in favor of the general strike as a means to prevent war.”

The miners decided that their resolution should be “forwarded to the Hon. Josiah Thomas, representative of the Barrier, requesting him to immediately bring the matter before Parliament with the view of expunging same from the Statute Book, and that same be published in all Labor papers, and that this association also refrain from supporting all Labor parliamentarians who do not support the wiping out of the Compulsory Military Act.”

Thus opened a deep fissure within the Labor Party on the question of conscription which would continue to widen over the next five years, culminating in a split. Holland immediately recognised that this was the greatest opportunity in years to break the political stranglehold of Labour Party influence in the working class. Over the next year he worked strenuously to widen the rift.

Andrew Fisher, Labor Party Prime Minister elected in 1910

In an open letter to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Holland wrote, “There was a day – a strike-marked, strenuous day – when one might have addressed you as ‘comrade.’ That day has gone for ever. It was the day of industrial revolt— a day that saw the wage-workers rising in rebellion [in 1890] … a day that saw … the capitalistic instruments of the ruling class flinging armed police forces against the working class in mostly successful endeavors to wreck the battalions of organised Labor … Have you ever stopped to think, Right Honorable Sir, what might have happened, what could have happened, had the ruling class of that bygone day had at its command such an armed and drilled force as you propose to place at the disposal of the owning class in the form of a conscript army? …

“May I remind you that you and your party were politically born as the result of those great industrial revolts of the early nineties. The creation of your party was due to the workers recognising that the parties then ruling were their class foes …

“But, maybe, you care little for the opinions of common working men in these days of political opportunism and industrial Iscariotism. You have been to England — you have dined with the king — that figure head of Capitalism, who, when scores of working men were entombed in a death trap mine, wired an enquiry as to the safety of the proprietors’ horses! You have fraternised with Asquith, who sent the military against the miners at Featherstone, and caused men to be shot down in cold blood … thereby earning for himself the title of Assassin Asquith. You have clasped the blood-stained hand of the murderer Churchill … who told the soldiers to ‘SHOOT TO KILL’ in the recent industrial upheaval …

“And, Right Honorable Sir, by your general attitude in the interests of Capitalism, by your brutal murder scheme of militarism, by your presence at the coronation of King George, by your protestations of loyalty to the throne, YOU HAVE PROCLAIMED YOURSELF TRAITOR TO WORKING-CLASS INTERESTS …

“On any parade ground on any Saturday afternoon your officers may be seen carrying out the details of your great scheme. There the sons of honest workers are lined up, and ordered about, and sworn at, and often struck with the canes your popinjay officers carry. The police court records show how you deal with such of the boys as are manly enough and high-spirited enough to resent the insults your paid professional officers heap upon them. To those officers, too, you have given power to impose fines, extra days and years of military servitude, and other punishments and penalties. You and your Government appear to be determined that if you can’t make trained murderers of the sons of the Australian workers, you will do your best to make criminals of them …

“… you may succeed in brutally coercing the sons of the workers into the ranks of your conscript. army. But a word to you, Right Honorable Sir. You have but heard the rumbling of the Anti-Militarist, Anti-Capitalist revolt. It is a rumbling that is destined to grow into a roar of class-consciousness. We, the Revolutionary Socialists, shall propagate the idea of the general strike to block you and the class whose tool you are from marching armed forces against the workers or this or any other country. You see, we Socialists are not patriots! We will propagate the idea of desertion on the part of the conscripts when you and the class whose tool you are desire them to march to the killing of other workers. You see, we Socialists are not murderers! We will drill into our sons a knowledge of “where their class interests lie, and in which direction they should turn their rifles” on the day when you send them out with ball cartridges against the workers on strike; and our teaching will make that a dangerous day for your popinjay officers who will order them to murder their fellow men. You see, we are not traitors to our class. We will teach them to remember on the day you want them to make war on the men of other countries, whether in support of the unjust wars of England or not, that insurrection is more justifiable than war!”

Thomas Chataway, former grazier and mill-owner, leading Queensland cane-grower who became Liberal Party Senator from 1909. Photo: NLA

The Australian ruling class responded to such pronouncements from the International Socialists with fury. In a long debate in the Senate in October 1911, Senator Thomas Chataway, a Queensland Liberal, quoted at length from the International Socialists’ Manifesto, and called for “steps to prevent the circulation of what is clearly treasonable literature against the law of the land…. no one is at liberty to preach sedition and mutiny to those who are being trained in the Defence Force of the Commonwealth.”  He noted that “We have already had a large number of prosecutions of boys in connection with our system of universal training.”

Defence Minister Pearce took the stance that “The worst thing the Government could do at the present juncture would be to make martyrs of these persons … I exceedingly regret that Senator Chataway has given such undue prominence to the authors of this pernicious literature by directing attention to it from his place in this Chamber.”  He nonetheless indicated that “As regards the use of the Post Office for the circulation of literature or this character, it is my intention to bring the subject under the notice of the Postmaster-General and to ask him to see that the Post Office is not used for such a purpose.”

Josiah Thomas, former Broken Hill miner and president of AMA, later member for Broken Hill and after 1910 Postmaster-General in Fisher government.

Holland called the Government’s bluff. “The International Socialists DEFY SENATOR PEARCE TO JAIL ANY WHO WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SOCIALIST MANIFESTO. We will furnish him with the name of the author of the manifesto … If Mr. Thomas [the Postmaster-General] does obey Mr. Pearce, he can only do it illegally, for there is no Federal law that gives him the power to stop anti-militarist literature from going through the post. Mr. Pearce was either deplorably ignorant of this fact, or he was determined to do things whether the law permitted him or not. We know the ruling class will break every law every time that class interests demand the breaking of it.  If Mr. Thomas stops The International Socialist, to be consistent he will have to stop Barrier Daily Truth, Queensland Worker, Mackay Pioneer, [Labor Party newspapers that had opposed the militarist drive] and other official organs of his own party. Of course, we know the ruling class is never deterred by considerations of consistency from doing acts of corruption. … However this may be, WE DEFY THE LABOR PARTY TO DECREE THIS PAPER SHALL NOT GO THROUGH THE POST.”

The Government proved to be politically unable to suppress the anti-militarist newspapers. They did, however, find other means to silence the anti-militarist voices. In particular, they used the provisions in the Defence Act for prosecuting parents of boys of the draft age for ‘refusing to permit their sons to register.’ The first two such prosecutions were brought against Alfred Giles, the Broken Hill militant who had seconded the anti-militarist resolution in the meeting of the miners union, and Harry Holland.

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