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1917, the year of Referendum, Revolt and Revolution

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Max O.

The year 1917 was a momentous turning point of World War One for both Europe and Australia. It was the year when the Australian military casualty rate was the highest, with 22,000 troops killed on the Western Front.

The death, destruction and terrifying conditions that soldiers faced on the Western Front produced desperate opposition to the war amongst the Allied troops. Riots and mutinies occurred amid French, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers; the most famous being French units who disobeyed orders to attack German positions and inspired by the Russian February Revolution established Soldiers’ Councils.

These Soldiers' Councils refused to fight and raised demands for an end to the war. The French High Command viciously suppressed the mutiny, arrested and court-martialled thousands of troops, executed the ring leaders and concealed any news of the rebellion.

Australian troops from the 59th and 1st Battalions in September 1918 who after an extensive period of fighting on the front line had just started R&R, refused to return to the front line after being quickly ordered back. Many of the soldiers had had enough and deserted, with over half of the 1st Battalion combatants gone missing.

War-time recruitment and conscription

With news coming home from the front of the appalling casualties, voluntary enlistment for military service fell away dramatically. Australian recruitment plummeted from 165,912 in 1915 to 28,883 in 1918.

Britain put pressure on the then Australian Labor Prime Minister Hughes to supply more troops to fill the devastated ranks on the Western Front. After narrowly losing the first conscription referendum of 1916, Hughes attempted another referenda in December 1917 and lost again by a larger majority.

Opposition to military conscription came from many sectors of Australian society: pacifists, Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), Catholic Church, progressive sections of the Labor Party and the Irish Australian community.

Some of the largest protest rallies in Australia's history took place against conscription. Fearing the anti-conscription campaign, the government enacted the Unlawful Associations Act and the War Precautions Act to attack dissidents.

The famous anti-conscription conspiracy called The Sydney Twelve, was undertaken by Prime Minister Hughes and NSW Labor Premier Hollman to frame-up charges and crush the militant Wobblies. Leaders of the Wobblies in Sydney were charged with bogus claims of arson, felony, treason and forgery then sentenced and goaled until their acquittal and release in 1920.

The conscription issue morphed into class hostility over a range of other crises. By 1917 wages in Australia had been forced down and productivity increased, whilst the cost of living had increased over 30 percent on pre-war prices.

Over 15,000 women, in August 1917, rallied in Melbourne to protest against rising food prices and war profiteering. Demonstrations like these were brutally broken up causing riots to erupt over a number of days.

Volunteer police patrols were organised by the Burghers of Melbourne to implement a ban on public meetings. The city authorities feared that the February Revolution in Russia was just around the corner for Australia.

They were right to be fearful. The February and October Revolution made a deep impression on the Australian working class at the time.
Hard to believe now but the then Victorian and NSW Labor Party actually passed resolutions praising the Russian workers for overthrowing the Czarist regime and condemning capitalism for igniting the World War.

The 1917 Great Strike

Coalescence of rising prices, falling wages, divisions over the two conscription referendums and the industrial bloodbath of the World War became a catalyst for industrial trouble inside the country. The most famous of these was the 1917 Great Strike that took place in Sydney at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops.

Workers went on strike in August 1917, at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops and Randwick tram sheds to oppose the implementation of time cards which scrutinized the performance of workers. It was a Taylorist time-management system to control and speed-up the workforce to support the 'war effort'.

Initially 6000 rail and tram workers went out in protest against this new card system. Eventually the strike expanded to other towns and industries and saw 77,000 strike in NSW and 100,000 nationwide.

Whilst The 1917 Great Strike had popular militant support, with frequent massive rallies in Sydney's Domain, it collapsed by September 1917. The defeat saw 22 unions deregistered and militant workers sacked, blacklisted and discriminated against.

The war-time attacks on workers’ living standards and intensified exploitation at the workplace saw an increase in Australian workers' class consciousness. The defeat of workers' industrial strike activity by business and government only increased their class hostility.

Combined with the news of the successful October Revolution in Russia, which sparked revolutionary upsurges in a number of other European countries, it radicalised many workers in Australia, giving them a vision and hope of a new cooperative society, socialism. Soon after the First World War these events attracted the most advanced workers to revolutionary struggle and convinced them to establish the Communist Party in Australia by 1920.


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