Fighting Conscription – Holland’s last battle in Australia

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand – Part 16

Roy Holland was Harry’s third son. He was 16 years old when in July 1911 he was called up to begin compulsory military training under the terms of the Defence Act which came into force that year. At the time of that call-up, Harry was in hospital recovering from a physical breakdown due to overwork. Knowing that refusing to turn up for training would put the political spotlight on his father, and wishing to avoid anything that would bring him additional stress, Roy commenced drilling as a cadet. However, as soon as Harry was well enough to return home, they discussed the situation and in November Roy ceased attending the drill. The uniform which he had been issued was returned.

Conscript ‘Junior Cadets’ and their instructors, Sydney, 1912

“I have instructed Roy that he must not attend any further drills,” Holland wrote. “When a final notice came threatening him with prosecution, I personally wrote to Senator Pearce, explaining that I, and not the boy, was responsible for his continued absence from drill, demanding that I alone should be prosecuted if any prosecution was to eventuate, and hoping that there was still sufficient honesty and manliness left in Senator Pearce’ s Dept. not to prosecute the boy for my act. Apparently there was not sufficient manliness left, for Senator Pearce has persisted in prosecuting the boy as well as myself.”

Roy was not the only boy prosecuted. Harry Holland wrote, “Last Monday at the Glebe, 20 boys were prosecuted before Magistrate Barnett (the identical man Wade sent to Broken Hill during the big lockout, and against whose severe sentences of unionists even the Labor Party protested.) On the previous Monday, 10 were prosecuted. All over Australia the same sort of vicious persecution is going on. But it is only the boys of working class parents who are being prosecuted. Hundreds of boys belonging to the wealthier class are refusing to attend drill. And no action is being taken against them.”

Most of those prosecuted were fined, but heavier penalties were handed out to the sons of socialists and unionists, such as 15-year-old Arthur James Polanski, son of a prominent member of the Socialist Party, who was jailed in Melbourne in January 1912. Thereafter, sentences of a few days to two weeks in prison became common for cadets who refused to train. Roy Holland’s case was adjourned when the lawyer provided by the Anti-Militarist League proved that prosecutions of boys under the Act were not permitted before the end of the military year, June 30.

Harry Holland’s case came before Judge Barnett on 25 March 1912, with Holland defending himself in court. Barnett overruled Holland’s motion that Barnett stand aside from the case on account of Holland’s denunciation of his rulings and sentences in the Broken Hill cases. Holland was able to demonstrate that the prosecution’s case against him lacked the most elementary documentary evidence. At this point any judge with an ounce of fairness or respect for legal process would have dismissed the charges; but this was Barnett. He granted the prosecution a week’s adjournment to enable them to get their documents in order. At the re-hearing Barnett refused to hear the statement Holland wished to read in his own defence. Holland was found guilty and fined the maximum penalty of £100 (approximately equal to Australian $20,000 in today’s money), with the alternative of three months’ hard labour. Backed by the Anti-Militarist League, Holland appealed both the verdict and the excessive fine, and remained at large. He announced publicly that he would not be paying any fine. A short time later, Alf Giles in Broken Hill was fined on the same charge, and on refusing to pay the fine, was jailed.

‘The Crime of Conscription,’ published by the Australasian Socialist Party in 1912.

With the threat of jail hanging over him, Holland published a pamphlet, The Crime of Conscription, in April 1912.  Holland’s principal means of defence against legal persecution, as always, was an appeal to the court of public opinion.

The Crime of Conscription takes the Defence Act apart clause by clause, exposing the class character of the law and the draconian powers and punishments it granted. Holland begins with a general discussion of militarism. “There was never a slave but a soldier helped to make and keep him a slave. To perpetuate slavery has ever been the function of military organisation. To hold men in wage-slavery is the fundamental purpose of Australian militarism, for Militarism is one of the important parts of the machinery of the Class State… [p3]

“In France and Germany – countries whose militarism was born away back in the days of savagedom and grew and developed along with barbarism … where the bourgeoisie rules and no “Labor” party holds the reins of power – a conscript doesn’t enter service until he is 20 years of age. … In no other conscript country do they put a gun in the hands of a boy of 14 and send him strutting the streets in military uniform. It has been left to the Australian “Labor” Party to do this – to drive boys from the home and the school; to start to revive all the latent blood-lust that lingers as a legacy of a brute past… [p9]

Militarist campaign was taken into primary schools. Junior cadets drill at Beechwood Primary School. Photo courtesy of Max Waugh

“One of the principal achievements of … the Labor Party as Lawmaker in 1910, almost immediately after its great victory at the polls, was the extension of the tentacles of the military octopus. The term of compulsory training service was lifted from two to seven years! The boy of from 12 to 14 was dragged in and called a Junior Cadet, and was required to drill for 120 hours in the year – nearly three working weeks. The boy of from 14 to 18 became a Senior Cadet, and was required to put in four whole days, 12 half days, and 24 night drills. Young men from 18 to 25 years became members of the Citizen Forces, with a liability of 16 whole day drills, eight of which must be in camps of continuous training. [p9]

“The cadets get NO PAY. The burden of the deductions from their wages for time lost attending drill falls on them and their working class parents; for special care has been taken to insert a proviso that the employers shall not be required to pay a conscript any wages for time so lost.” [p10]

“Clause 135 makes a boy of 12 years of age (and upwards) liable to a penalty of not less than £5 and as high as £100 if he fails to attend the required number of drills. [p10] The Hugheses and Pearces and Fishers of the Labor Party … enacted that boys from 12 to 18 years should be held legally and criminally responsible… in addition to any penalty (fine or jail or both) inflicted on the defaulting boy, he may be committed to the custody of military officers…

“This is a monstrous power to bestow on military officials. Confinement under military law in the custody of officers, where the boy is deprived of every vestige of protection, is certainly far more objectionable than confinement in jail… An officer, under such conditions, may strike and otherwise illtreat a boy, and if the lad strikes back he renders himself liable to severe penalties – to long terms of imprisonment, and possibly to the death sentence…

“The Labor Party’s Defence Act gives the officers power to inflict fines and other penalties on the boys without any form of trial whatsoever. … Clause 136 …decrees that any boy who defies the provisions of the Defence Act shall be boycotted and blacklisted from public employment. …

“Clause 134 originally read: “No employer shall prevent, or attempt to prevent, any employee…from attending any camp of instruction… either by reducing his wages or dismissing him from employment…. Penalty: One hundred pounds … In 1911, without anyone knowing what was being done, The Labor Party sneaked in a far-reaching amendment, which added the words “parent or guardian” after the word “employer” in the first line; and the penalty of £100 provided by the earlier Capitalist Government for the wealthy employer was made by the Labor Government to apply to the case of the wage-working parent!” [p 10]

“The working class should never forget that those heroic parliamentarians (who are prepared to shed the last drop of blood of the schoolboys in defence of this magnificent country) first of all exempted themselves.” [p11]

Cadets in South Australia, 1912. Photo: State Library of South Australia

“Originally, other than in the case of patriotic parliamentary men, judges, parsons, and other non-producing and worthless members of the community, there was no legal exemption whatever from military training, but in 1910 the Labor Government, in compliance with the command of the church, inserted a clause exempting theological students! But no exemption was provided for the useful worker with conscientious objections.” [p12]

“It is not in any sense an exaggeration to say that more than 50,000 boys are either wholly or partly refusing drill” [p14].

The prospect of yet more jail time must have been truly appalling to Harry Holland – especially in his weakened state of health. Some among his friends seriously feared that another jail sentence could be the end of him. But he was greatly encouraged by his visit to Broken Hill in April, where he witnessed the resolve of the miners’ union branch to stand behind Alf Giles. Holland became convinced that there was a real prospect that the conscription law could be overthrown by a campaign of mass disobedience, non-cooperation and refusal to pay fines, led by the ore miners at Broken Hill, the Newcastle and Maitland coal miners, and other key contingents of the working class that had already expressed their opposition to conscription.

“History has furnished no instance of a great immoral law disappearing from the Statute Book of any country unless its immorality was first challenged and its penalties defied by the more consciously upright and intelligently fearless among the people. Clearly, there is little hope of securing the repeal of the present dishonest, immoral, and criminal law of Conscription until by breaking it – by declining to become parties to its wickedness – we force a recognition of its gross immorality and criminality and its general anti-working-class nature upon the working-class community.” [p16]

Holland was prepared to lead by example in this effort.

At the time his summons to court arrived, it was another development that was occupying Holland’s attention: the rapid growth of the Socialist Party in New Zealand. As part of a reorganisation and re-naming of the Socialist Federation in 1911, the Socialist Party in New Zealand had been integrated as a branch of the Socialist Party of Australasia. The New Zealand organisation was growing rapidly, but its leaders lacked experience, and they had asked for help with agitational speakers and experienced organisers from across the Tasman.

Harry Scott Bennett Photo: Parliament of Victoria

Harry Scott Bennett from Melbourne, one of the most accomplished orators in Sydney, was one of several who answered this call. Bennett undertook a tour of New Zealand in 1909, speaking at public meetings organised by the Party in Wellington and on the West Coast. He returned in 1910 and settled down in Auckland for a longer sojourn, becoming a leader of the Socialist Party branch there and founding a weekly newspaper, the Social Democrat. Bob Ross, editor of the Melbourne Socialist after Tom Mann, was appointed editor of the Maoriland Worker, the newspaper of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, in 1911 and quickly turned it into a lively and popular voice of the wider movement. Bennett and Ross found themselves in the company of many other Australian migrants to New Zealand, especially former miners, many of whom had moved there to escape blacklisting in the wake of industrial disputes.

Waihi mill, about 1890

Harry Holland received an invitation to visit Waihi, a small town 150 km southeast of Auckland, in February 1912.  Waihi was a town built on a rich goldmine – the closest thing in New Zealand to Broken Hill. The letter read in part, “I am the secretary of the Waihi Socialist Party in New Zealand. We are just on a hundred strong. Also it is a mining field and a union in the NZ Federation of Labor about 1200 strong. All officials members of our party we formed here a little over three years ago… There is another branch, at Karangahake about 10 miles away, of energetic fighters, and I think that a party could be started in nearly every place with a bit of work put into it as the Worker is going into the majority of homes in this district.”

Karangahake gold mining town, 1910, with battery on right. The Maoriland Worker was read in the majority of homes.

Holland responded immediately, but later had to write, “I regret to say that I will not be able to leave Australia as early as I desired and anticipated – on account of the prosecution of myself by the Federal Labor Government under the Conscription Act… An appeal has been lodged. If the appeal succeeds, and if the Labor government does not immediately serve me with a fresh summons, I shall leave at once for NZ. If the appeal fails, I shall have to enter the Labor Party’s jail for 3 months – and will consequently have to defer my NZ trip for that period – provided your branch is willing.”

The appeal was heard in the first week of May. The conviction was upheld but the fine reduced to £10. Within days, Holland was on the boat bound for New Zealand, with the fine unpaid.

On the eve of his departure, Holland spoke at a May Day demonstration in Sydney. In the speech, he reflected on the past quarter century of socialist organising and propaganda in New South Wales.

“Twenty years ago to-day the writer first took part (that is, officially) in a May Day demonstration. The Socialist movement in Australia was then in its embryonic stage. The Australian Socialist League — the only Socialist body at that time in existence — had no defined program, no clearly-stated objective. Its membership was made up of Socialists, Republicans, Anarchists, Free- thinkers, Single-taxers, and others. Its trend was towards “State Socialism,” otherwise State Capitalism.

“Some there were like Holman, Hughes, Beeby, and a host of others who really never understood the Socialist position, but who didn’t hesitate to use the Socialist ladder to climb to easier things. As I write I have by me a manifesto of the Australian Socialist League, drafted mainly by Holman. It is a fearsome document, and it sets forth that the men and women of the A.S.L. are positively law- abiding persons; that they desire to do only that which is “constitutional”; that “we have nothing but the sternest reprobation for those misguided men who advocate either secret crime or open violence.” It was the cry of the vote-catching confidence man calling from behind the blind of Socialism.

“The years came and went, and in due time the Socialists (scarcely any of them understanding the historical and scientific basis of Socialism, nor yet the internationality of it), recognised in a vague sort of way that the Labor Party was travelling the wrong road, and we seceded from the Labor Party. The writer was the first of the secessionists, and he was bitterly denounced by some who seceded later. But the secessionists themselves moved along an unscientific and non-working class way. I have also before me the manifesto we issued when, adopting for political purposes the name of Socialist Labor Party, we entered the contest in the 1901 State elections. That manifesto has a somewhat clearer objective; but it carries a burden of long palliatives — social demands, political demands, and municipal demands. It puts the case for a White Australia, and also for an Australian Navy! and in every line betrays the taint of the Labor Party’s influence.

“I lately read the records contained in the first minute book of the International Socialist Club, and these show that one of the earliest conflicts between the International Socialists and the S.L.P. element was over the “White Australia” clause. S.L.P. men (then members of the Club) moved that the Club should endorse the White Australia principle, and the motion was defeated. The most capable speaker the S.L.P. had in those days used to lecture in advocacy of high protective duties, and the movement generally was in a state of economic muddle. When the great strike of tailoresses occurred, a section declared that the Socialists had no right to enter into industrial fights, as we were purely a political organisation.

“Undoubtedly the coming to Australia of Socialists from other countries — and especially of German comrades — a decade back brought the leaven of Science and of Internationalism, and from that time the Australian movement began to assume a clearly-defined attitude with more scientific methods. But it was not until 1907, when the International Socialist Party was formed in Sydney, that a revolutionary movement of Socialism could be said to exist. At best the movement hitherto, however earnest, was sentimental, uninformed, and unscientific, and the votes recorded by its candidates had little significance from the viewpoint of International Socialism, although most of us thought differently at the time.

“Those twenty years have been years of hardships and disappointments and stupendous sacrifices; years that revealed great treacheries on the part of some men who claimed to be Socialists; of yawning graves that ended for ever the lives and work of splendid men…Twenty years and more have given us a Labor Party in Australia; a Labor Party that has given us “Arbitration” and Jail, Conscription and Jail, and all the tyrannies that the other parties of Capitalism have given us. … The revolutionary Socialist movement in Australia has got to fight its way to freedom past the Labor Party as well as past all other parties. To-day, while it is true that, comparatively speaking, we are numerically weak, we are in a stronger and better position than ever we were before.”

Holland himself embodied these hardships, disappointments, sacrifices – and achievements – better than any other individual in the movement. These hard-won experiences and battle-tested ideas would now be placed at the service of the working class in New Zealand. By a combination of accident and design, Holland’s arrival in Waihi coincided with the opening, in that town, of the biggest and hardest-fought class battle New Zealand had ever seen.

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