Author: Public Record Office Victoria

In 1916 and 1917, during the darkest days of the Great War, two referendums were held asking Australians to decide whether men should be conscripted to fight overseas. The issue was hugely controversial, dividing families, communities and political parties. Thousands of impassioned speeches were made, endless newspaper columns written, mass meetings and huge rallies held throughout the country. In fact the debates surrounding these two referendums have been described by some historians as the most bitter, divisive and violent ever to consume the nation. As Australians divided in bitter recrimination, it seemed as if the soul of the grieving nation would tear itself apart.

A new exhibition at Old Treasury Building tells the story of this extraordinary period in history. It is a tale of political intrigue, industrial turmoil, civil unrest and a lurid propaganda war. There were passionate idealists on both sides of the debate, but also many ordinary people who quietly made up their own minds. In the end Australians voted against conscription, despite a huge government campaign to persuade them otherwise. In a sense then, the conscription story is also a story of the triumph of democracy, amidst the most testing circumstances ever experienced in Australia.

Featured in the exhibition are posters from our collection. The posters are part of the series from the Town Clerk's Office of the City of Melbourne (VPRS 3183 P0 Units 132, 133 and 134).


Propaganda posters


poster why we must win the war
Eight weeks of bitter campaigning preceded the conscription vote. Huge rallies were held by both sides and violent heckling was common. Graphic pamphlets and posters circulated. 


poster the voice of germany
Central to pro-conscription propaganda was an especially graphic caricature of the enemy. Germany was depicted as the rapacious ‘Hun’ trampling liberty underfoot and murdering innocent women and children. 


poster god bless daddy
Women as mothers featured prominently in the propaganda campaigns of both sides. Emotive leaflets and posters played on women's loyalty and pride (pro), or their protective instincts and sense of fairness (anti).


poster the blood vote
One of the most powerful leaflets of the campaign was the anti-conscription poster ‘The Blood Vote’, first printed in the Australian Worker on the eve of the 1916 vote. One million copies of this poster were distributed in 1916–17. 


A Nation Divided

A Nation Divided: The Great War and Conscription was researched and curated by the Old Treasury Building in partnership with Public Record Office Victoria and with the support of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, as part of the Anzac Centenary program. 

More information about the exhibition, including additional resources and articles, can be found on the Old Treasury Building website. 


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