Homefront Header

 

View Panorama
Read this first

Quizzes and  Activities

CONSCRIPTION: CURTIN'S DILEMMA
 

As wartime prime minister, Curtin struggled with some thorny personal dilemmas, but none caused him more soul searching than the issue of conscription. During World War I Curtin had argued passionately against compulsory enrolment for overseas military service. Yet in World War II he was responsible for its introduction, overturning one of the Labor Party's most sacred policies.

Military recruitment poster for the volunteer forces

Military recruitment poster for the
volunteer forces

 

Publicity authorised by Curtin for an anti-conscription mass meeting during World War 1

Publicity authorised by Curtin for an anti-
conscription mass meeting during
World War I

AUSTRALIA'S TWO ARMIES - CONSCRIPTS AND VOLUNTEERS

When Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941, just weeks before Japan was to enter the war, Australia effectively had two armies. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was made up of volunteers who could be called upon to fight anywhere in the world. The Commonwealth Military Force (CMF), also known as the Militia, consisted of conscripts who could only serve within Australia and its territories.

As the Pacific War intensified, Curtin faced mounting pressure to amalgamate the two armies, and to allow conscripts to fight overseas.

 

CURTIN'S DECISION

By the end of 1942 Curtin had reluctantly decided that the use of conscripts beyond Australia's territorial limits could no longer be avoided. Although the threat of outright invasion had largely subsided, Curtin argued publicly that conscripts were needed to defend Australia from Japanese attack.

 

Recruitment poster for the volunteer air force

Recruitment poster for the volunteer
air force

 
In reality, his decision was based on more complex political and strategic concerns. Critics asked why US conscripts should be sent far from home to defend Australia, while Australian conscripts could not fight beyond the territory of Australian New Guinea. American General Douglas MacArthur argued privately that until Australia devoted its all to the war effort, the US government would provide no more resources to fight the Pacific War. Curtin also saw that sending conscripts overseas would give Australia strength in diplomatic dealings with Britain and the US after the war.

Mothers campaigning against conscription for overseas service, 1943

Mothers campaigning against conscription
for overseas service, 1943

 

Map of the SW Pacific region, showing the extended boundary within which Australian conscripts could serve following the passing of the Militia Act in Feb 1943

Map of the SW Pacific region, showing
the extended boundary within which
Australian conscripts could serve following
the passing of the Militia Act in Feb 1943

THE HISTORIC SHIFT

After bitter debate within the party, Curtin convinced the ALP to accept a limited form of conscription for overseas service. In February 1943 the area in which CMF conscripts were permitted to serve was extended to cover Japanese-held islands south of the equator.

Some Labor die-hards damned Curtin as a traitor. Others saw him as a pragmatist, forced to adapt his firmly held beliefs in response to the crisis of World War II. After a lifetime's opposition to militarism, this was perhaps the toughest decision he ever had to make.

 
CONSCRIPTION IN WORLD WAR I

Opposition to the conscription of men for overseas military service had long been a key policy of the ALP. During World War I, government attempts to introduce conscription divided the nation, and triggered a massive split in the party. Curtin himself fervently opposed conscription, and became secretary of the Trades Hall Council anti-conscription campaign.

 

World War 1 anti-conscription campaign publicity

World War I anti-conscription
campaign publicity

 
'Your turn next'. World War 1 pro-conscription campaign publicity

'Your turn next.'
World War I pro-conscription
campaign publicity

'Such a simple question'. World War 1 anti-conscription cartoon, Australian Worker, 1917

'Such a simple question'
World War I anti - conscription
cartoon, Australian Worker, 1917

 
ALL IN!

For most ordinary Australians, life on the home front during World War II was hard. Through rousing speeches and ceaseless campaigns, Curtin called on all Australians to support the war effort. Sacrifice and hard work became the order of the day.

 

Wartime government publicity urging support for the war effort

Wartime government publicity urging
support for the war effort

 

Meat rationing in the butcher's shop

Meat rationing in the butcher's shop

EVERYTHING FOR THE WAR

In 1942 Curtin's government launched an 'austerity campaign' aimed at diverting as many of the nation's resources as possible to the war effort.

Rationing of clothing and food was introduced to ensure that everyone had fair access to scarce goods. Coupons had to be handed over along with money in order to buy any rationed goods.

 

Housewives were encouraged to recycle everything from food scraps to rags. Restrictions were placed on horse racing, alcohol sales and gambling.

Thousands of Australians invested their savings in government war loans which raised money for the war effort.

Ration books containing coupons for food and clothing were issued to all Australians Ration books containing coupons for food and clothing were issued to all Australians    

Ration books containing coupons for food
and clothing were issued to all Australians.

 

Wartime government publicity urging support for the war effort

Wartime government publicity
urging support for the war effort.

John Curtin speaking in Sydney at the opening of the First Liberty Loan, 1942

John Curtin speaking in Sydney at the opening
of the First Liberty Loan, 1942

 
HARD WORK ON THE HOME FRONT

Under extraordinary wartime powers, the government conscripted both men and women to essential war work.

Men who worked in `reserved occupations' were not allowed to enlist, and those employed in non-essential fields were directed to war-related industries.

Women at work in a munitions factory

Women at work in a munitions factory

 
Non-traditional work such as arc-welding was taken on by women in the war years

Non-traditional work such as arc-welding
was taken on by women in the war years.

Hundreds of thousands of women moved into factories, workshops, offices and farms to replace men serving in the armed forces.

Although women did the same work as men, they were usually paid at only 60-75 per cent of the male rate.

 
Another 45,000 joined the three major women's forces established during World War II - the Women's Auxiliary Australia Air Force (WAAAF), the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) and the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).

Volunteer workers also pitched in, sending supplies to soldiers overseas and raising money for the war effort.

Recruitment poster for the AAMWS

Recruitment poster for the AAMWS

 
  In 2000 the JCPML added a display to the exhibition featuring a recreation of the front room of the Cutin's home in Cottesloe - John Curtin at Home. View Panorama
Note: This panorama shows the complete exhibition but download time is significant -file size 2.6 MBytes
 

Man of Peace Home     A Nation Mourns     Poor Boy to PM     Crisis at Home and Abroad     Homefront