Jenny Madeline, New South Wales Regional Meeting

This is the title of a passionately-worded, 16-page, booklet authored by John F. Hills, a South Australian Quaker, in 1912. It was issued in response to the implementation in 1911 of the Defence Bill of 1909 that provided for compulsory military training for boys aged 14–18 (senior cadets), young men aged 18–26 (in the citizen forces), and physical training for 12–14 year olds (junior cadets).

Whilst most of us would be aware that Australians voted, albeit by a narrow majority, against conscription for overseas service in referenda held in 1916 and 1917, the existence of conscription for military training in Australia, prior to, during, and after WWI, may come as a surprise to some of us. Some of the boys, and their parents, became the first conscientious objectors in Australia. International Conscientious Objectors’ Day is now marked on 15 May every year.

John Hills 1912

John Hills 1912

To provide some context – after federation, the first Defence Bill was introduced in July 1901. The Society of Friends immediately made known its concerns about militarism and the absence of exemptions for those with a conscientious objection to military service. A deputation of Melbourne Quakers met the Prime Minister on 2 August, The Clerk of Rockhampton Preparative Meeting wrote to the Prime Minister, and NSW Quakers issued a manifesto that was read in parliament on 31 July.1 The latter included:

“We believe that all war – therefore all preparation for war – is opposed to the spirit and teaching of our lord Jesus Christ. We cannot therefore take up arms, or otherwise engage in any occupation directly or indirectly concerned in preparation for, or prosecution of war, and we appeal to you to protect us, and all who believe with us in the due observance of our religious principles in this respect.”

The inaugural General Meeting for Australia held in Melbourne in November 1902 issued the following minute:

“We think it right, at this our first annual general meeting, to renew our protest against all war as opposed to the spirit and teaching of Christ . . . Preparations for war, instead of contributing to peace, produce suspicion, jealousy, and mistrust between the nations. It is better to sow steadily and consistently the seeds of goodwill and concord. We appeal to . . . our fellow Christians generally, to work earnestly in the cause of peace, and for the settlement of international differences by judicial tribunals instead of resorting to fire and sword.” 2

After a gestation of two years, the Commonwealth Defence Act was passed in 1903, empowering the government to call up “unexempted” males in time of war, but it was the implementation of the compulsory military training provisions in 1911, in peacetime, that galvanised Quakers, Peace Society branches, and some unionists, socialists, church bodies, and women’s groups. The Labor Party and the union movement were conflicted over the issue. Exemption on the basis of freedom of conscience was very limited. Clause 143 of the amended Defence Act provided that those over 14 years of age “who are forbidden by the doctrines of their religion from bearing arms shall, so far as possible, be allotted non-combatant duties,” but this was to be under the jurisdiction of, and at the whim of, the military authorities.

London Yearly Meeting was so concerned about the Commonwealth Defence Act, and its implications for Britain, that it despatched a “deputation” to support Australian Quakers in their opposition to the compulsory clauses. These Friends were J. Elliott Thorp, J. Percy Fletcher, Alfred Brown, and Arthur Watts.3,4

With the commencement of prosecutions under the Defence Act in January 1912, the need for broader and more organised opposition was evident. E.H.F. [Edward H. Fryer] reported in Adelaide Notes in the Second Month 23rd, 1912 issue of The Australian Friend, that:

“Dr. [J. Herbert] Thorp has started a movement here, called ‘The Anti-Compulsory Military Training League’; we do hope this new society will be progressive, and not adopt the passive methods of the Peace Society, Society of Friends, and other bodies who are supposed to be champions of Peace.”

The League morphed into the Australian Freedom League for the Abolition of the Compulsory Clauses of the Commonwealth Defence Acts, which was launched at the Friends Meeting House, Adelaide, on April 18, 1912. This followed an Easter campaign in Gawler by three Friends – John Hills, Thomas Hubbard and J. Percy Fletcher. Branches were soon established in other states.Quakers continued to make representations to the government and played a significant role in the League until its raison d’étre was overtaken by the outbreak of WWI.

The first prosecutions were of two fathers who had refused to register their sons – Henry (Harry) E. Holland and Alfred Giles, both socialists from NSW. Alfred Giles was given no time to pay his fine and was imprisoned. Other fathers, including Methodist minister, Alfred Madsen, were fined for the same offence. To get around this civil disobedience by parents, a new regulation in June 1913 enabled military Area Officers to register boys. They visited schools twice a year and enrolled boys whose parents refused to do so.5 Fathers were then prosecuted for preventing their sons from drilling. One of these was William Ingle, a Quaker from South Australia, who served a term of imprisonment, following his refusal to pay the fine.

Then, boys who didn’t attend military drill, or complete the required number of hours (often for reasons of personal or family hardship) were prosecuted and, in some cases, imprisoned. They were called “shirkers” and “slackers” by the authorities and in the press.6 In February 1913 provision was made for the sentences to be served in military barracks and fortresses, rather than in a civilian jurisdiction. From 1912 until 30 June 1914, there were 27,749 prosecutions under the Defence Act, resulting in fines in most cases, but also 5,732 imprisonments, mainly in military barracks or fortresses.7

Only a small number of the prosecutions related to boys or youths who had a conscientious objection to military training. Many of the latter suffered significant privations, with periods in solitary detention and/or half rations during their terms of imprisonment and, on some occasions, physical abuse. This generally arose from their refusal to carry out non-combatant duties. Herbert Ingle, Sydney (or Sidney) Crosland, Walter and Ernest Krygger, Douglas Allen, William Jones and Thomas Roberts were some of the Quaker boys, or boys with Quaker connections, who were imprisoned.

A number of cases gained considerable publicity including Victor Yeo, the son of a miner from Broken Hill, who was imprisoned a second time and subjected to a diet of dry bread and water for 7 days, John and William Size from South Australia, who were each sentenced to 20 days detention in Fort Largs, Albert Francis (Frank) Giles also of Broken Hill, and Harry Flintoff of Victoria, who was given a second sentence of 20 days. Thomas Roberts’s sentence of 21 days in the Queenscliff Fort, including a full week in solitary confinement, in a windowless cell, occurred soon after the publicity surrounding Harry Flintoff’s case, and aroused a great deal of attention, being the subject of questions in parliament and assurances of support for the abolition of solitary confinement8.These conscientious objectors, some just 15 or 16 at the time of their imprisonment, assuredly exhibited considerable courage.

And then WWI intervened and everything changed. Military drills for senior cadets were halted for a period in 1915, however universal military training (as it was euphemistically called) continued even after the conclusion of the war, in a reduced form, until it was suspended in 1929. Bobbie Oliver in Peacemongers says that “it is both ironic and tragic that, while the failure of the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917 released grown men from the prospect of imprisonment if they did not enlist, under the law, boys could still endure solitary confinement for refusing to undergo military training.” Jauncey was of the view that the controversy and publicity surrounding the imprisonment of boys became a focal point in the campaign against conscription during the war.AFL

End Notes

1. National Library of Australia website:

2. Australia Yearly Meeting. This we can say: Australian Quaker Life, Faith and Thought, 2003; also in Evening News, Sydney 14.11.1902.

3. Stevenson, Charles. The Millionth Snowflake: The History of Quakers in South Australia. Religious Society of Friends (Adelaide Meeting), Inc. 1987.

4. Barrett, John. Falling In. Australians and “Boy Conscription” 1911-1915. Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1979.

5. Oliver, Bobbie. Peacemongers: Conscientious objectors to military service in Australia, 1911-1945. Fremantle Arts Centre Press,1997.

6. Fletcher, John Percy & Hills, John Francis. Conscription under Camouflage. An account of Compulsory Military Training in Australasia down to the Outbreak of the Great War. 1919.

7. Fletcher, John Percy & Hills, John Francis. Op.cit.

8. Jauncey, Leslie C. The Story of Conscription in Australia. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1935.

Share This