Facts About Conscription
Attempts have been—and are—made to disguise an objectionable system by such names as "national service," "compulsory military training," "universal service," and "universal training." The "United Service Gazette," England, states: "In a general and non-technical sense, all methods of compulsory enlistment are conscriptive, especially where the liability to service is legally established, as it would be under the National Service League's proposals, or under those of the promoters of Universal Military Service." While General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote: "Armies are divided materially into two categories, Regular and Militia; morally also into two categories, Voluntary or Conscript. These divisions are perfectly clear, and cannot be confounded by the invention of question-begging epithets."
Conscription is no new thing. Every Roman citizen, with few exceptions, was liable for service between the ages of 17 and 46; every foot soldier had to serve in 20, and every horseman in 10, campaigns. The modern systems may be said to date from 1733, when Frederick William I, the father of Frederick the Great, made service in the Prussian royal regiments compulsory. In 1798 conscription was introduced in France in place of Requisition, exceedingly heavy penalties being provided for breaches or evasions of the law. The system, in one form or another, is now general on the Continent of Europe.
The main arguments advanced in favour of conscription, apart from the obvious purpose of all armies and navies, are four:—
(1) That it tends to prevent war.
(2) That it is democratic, as all have to serve.
(3) That it is beneficial morally.
(4) That it is beneficial physically.
1. That conscription tends to prevent war. This assertion is based on the theory that if every man is a soldier or a potential soldier, the men of a country will do their utmost to escape the horrors of war and so will use their influence against it. The argument only needs to be mentioned, for it carries its own refutation in view of the present European situation. Not only does conscription not prevent war but it actually fosters the war system, for, if men were not forced to become part of the enormous fighting machines of to-day, armies would tend to decrease naturally as international relations improved. Conscription operates to prevent this, and the existence of huge armies and navies engenders suspicion and fear, with the consequently greater possibilities of armed conflict.
2. That conscription is democratic. The argument is plausible. "All men with certain exceptions, such as those physically unfit, must undergo military training, and in the event of war risk life and limb. What can be fairer?" Why have three recent British Trades Union Congresses, representing millions of individuals, declared strongly against it? Surely some, at least, of their number have had opportunities of studying the working of this democratic system on the other side of the North Sea and the English Channel. That is just the difficulty, from the point of view of the National Service League and other British exponents of conscription; they have! And they have not found the facts square with the "democratic" theory.
Friedrich Glaser, Doctor of Political Economy, Munich University, writing of universal service in Prussia, says that when it was introduced these same ideas were expressed in the same phrases. "There was much talk of the 'Volk in Waffen'—the 'people in arms,' the right and duty of each citizen to defend his country. But how did this idea work out in practice? If we look at the German army of to-day we find a tremendous machine which is neither animated by democratic principles nor tends to propagate them—an organisation thoroughly feudal in its character and aims. So far from making for equality, it tends rather to fortify and increase existing inequalities. It not only strengthens the already existing class divisions, but it creates numerous small coteries distinguished from each other by characteristics which are superficial indeed, but for that very reason unworthy to exert so very powerful and unwholesome an influence as they do upon the social life of the people," and this in spite of the fact that "at the time of the re-organisation of the Prussian army, which is, of course, the model upon which the present German army is organised, there was a sincere attempt to do away with the caste feeling which pervaded the Frederician army, and to establish to a certain degree, at least, a real people's army—a true 'Volk in Waffen.'"
The evils of Prussian militarism are being shouted from the house tops; and yet, on the authority of a German professor of political economy, the system developed from a genuine attempt to create a democratic defence force.
"But," objects the exponent of conscription, "the effects in England could not be the same as in Germany." The saying that history repeats itself is only partly true, but broadly speaking, like causes tend to produce like effects. Let us take an opinion from a source absolutely untainted by even the slightest bias against conscription. In an earlier edition of "Britain's First Duty: the Case for Conscription (the sub-title was altered in the 1907 edition to "The Case for Universal Training") by Mr. Shee, the following paragraph occurs on page 239:—"If we are to judge what the effects of universal military service would be in England, we must look at the results, not among the French, who have hardly a trait of character in common with us except personal courage, but among the Teutonic nation, closely allied to us by common ties, descent, language, literature, and history and possessing the same grundideen" (lit. ground-ideas), "which are the roots of national character among all Germanic races." The work in question became practically the text book of the National Service League, of which the late Lord Roberts was the enthusiastic president.
Even the Swiss citizen army, so often held up as a model, has become more Prussianised every year. Its men have been used to suppress strikes; severe hardships from exposure have occurred, sometimes ending in death; many instances of arrogance and brutality on the part of officers have taken place; and the military authorities are continually demanding longer training periods. The chief of the Military Staff, in response to a deputation asking that the Army should be placed on a democratic basis like other Departments, said: "Every army worthy of the name is necessarily autocratic, and in its organisation is the antithesis of democracy."
There is the kernel of the whole matter. Army organisation is necessarily autocratic, and as soon as enlistment becomes compulsory the principal safeguard against abuse is removed. Following the doctrine of "military necessity" (the same plea advanced by the Germans for their violation of Belgian territory; by the Federals for the deliberate devastation of hundreds of square miles of the United States; by the British authorities for farm-burning and concentration camps in South Africa) Australian lads have been sentenced by military officers to solitary detention for continuous periods ranging up to ten days because they could not conscientiously undergo military training.
At the enquiry before Mr. Justice Rich into conditions at the Liverpool (N.S.W.) camp a military witness "explained that he was a staff officer, and was in a difficult position. If he gave certain answers it would not do him any good. As far as victimisation was concerned, the Minister of Defence had not given a direct answer to Senator Millen's question. In the circumstances witness was not asked certain questions. (The emphasis is ours.) In other words, military influence was allowed to over-ride the jurisdiction of a judge of the Federal High Court, appointed by the Government as a commission of enquiry. The Staff Sergeant-Major in question was presumably a voluntary officer, with the right to resign after a given period; how much stronger would the grip be on the conscript private?
The "Argus," while complaining of the failure of the Defence Department to arrange for the public reception of wounded soldiers from Gallipoli, made this comment:—"The cause of this remarkable negligence seems to be the fatal inability of the military mind to appreciate public feeling. The home-coming of the men, in the opinion of the military officials, had nothing to do with the public; it was a military matter. The public, however, feels that a private soldier is something more than a pawn, and that a man who has shed his blood and risked his life is worthy of honour." Such an obiter dictum from a journal strongly favouring conscription is in itself a warning to those who value the liberty of the people.
3. That conscription is beneficial morally. The chief grounds for this plea in favour of conscription is that discipline and obedience are fostered. It has been said that obedience is "non-moral," i.e., neither good nor bad in itself. You may have the very strictest discipline on a pirate ship or under a brigand chief. Modern educational theory and practice tend away from repression and subordination and towards self-discipline; outward authority seeks gradually to efface itself in favour of the authority of the child's own developed character.
In a summary of lectures on "Discipline," by Lieut.-Colonel R. O. Hume, the storming of Badajos by Wellington's army on the night of 6th-7th April, 1812, is referred to "as one of the most glorious feats of arms recorded in our military history." Col. Hume cites this at the end of his summary, and tells the recruits to whom he addresses himself that their training in "implicit obedience" is but to fit them for like glorious deeds.
Col. Hume's illustration is an unfortunate one for advocates of the moral benefits of military discipline. The historian of the Peninsular War thus describes the scene that followed the storming of Badajos:—
"Now commenced that wild and desperate wickedness which tarnished the lustre of the soldier's heroism. All, indeed, were not alike; hundreds risked and many lost their lives in striving to stop the violence, but madness generally prevailed, and as the worst men were leaders here all the dreadful passions of human nature were displayed. Shameless rapacity, brutal intemperance, savage lust, cruelty and murder, shrieks and piteous lamentations, groans, shouts, imprecations, the hissing of fires bursting from the houses, the crashing of doors and windows, and the report of muskets used in violence, resounded for two days and nights in the streets of Badajos! On the third, when the city was sacked, when the soldiers were exhausted by their own excesses, the tumult rather subsided than was quelled. The wounded men were then attended to, the dead disposed of."
The French and German nations have not found the moral benefits of conscription; indeed there is abundant testimony of a directly opposite character. Bebel used, once a year, to make a long speech in the Reichstag on instances of immorality in the army. Anatole France, the great French author, characterises the barracks as "an abomination, the most hideous invention of modern civilisation"; while Drumont, a strong Nationalist, said: "Compulsory military service, far from being a school of morals, is a school of drunkenness, idleness and debauchery."
Very numerous instances of ill-treatment by officers in conscript armies have taken place, and this is one factor in the causation of the high rate of suicide among conscript soldiers. The comparative rates are:—
|Rate of Suicide.|
These, be it remembered, are all, or nearly all, in their prime, when the hold on life should be strongest. The suicide rate for the rest of the population of the United Kingdom is only one-half that of the army.
4. That it is beneficial physically. Physical exercise taken in moderation is, of course, beneficial, but it does not follow that military drill is the best form of exercise. (Let us hear what experts say). Speaking on November 28th, 1913, the British Minister for Education (Mr. J. A. Pease) said: "Nor was military training calculated to improve physique. His experts at the Board of Education told him that no military system equalled the Swedish drill now given in the schools." Sandow gives similar testimony:—"It must never be forgotten for a single moment that military drill and physical culture are two absolutely different things, and must be kept separate…Physical culture has for its entire aim the proper and healthy development of the human body; military drill has for its object the teaching of precision and rhythm in movement."
Moreover, the military system rejects those who most need building up physically, only affecting those who pass a certain physical test.
"But," it may be said, "all this, while germane to the subject, is beside the mark in the present crisis. The British Empire is at stake, and conscription for the war may be necessary; if so, nothing is too precious to be risked in so vital a cause." A gain, it is sometimes argued, "If Great Britain had had conscription, the war would not have occurred."
Those who make this latter assertion base it on the assumption that England's army would have been so strong that the German military party would not have risked a war. There are doubtless many ways of looking at the matter, but space precludes any lengthy discussion of what is now after all an academic consideration. Two of the principal theories as to the origin of the war are:—First, that the German Government has deliberately watched and worked for war, with a view to world domination, and, second, that the Germans feared aggression by Russia, and think they are fighting a war of defence. Take it either way. If England had begun to institute conscription, and Germany was determined on war, war would have come sooner or later, and Germany might—probably would—have struck before England's conscript army had come into being. Or, if the theory of a defensive and desperately hazardous war on the part of Germany against Russia (backed by the other Entente Powers) be accepted, would the extra danger caused by the existence of a million, or a million and a half, British conscripts have prevented war?
Lord Roberts spoke officially as President of the National Service League at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 22nd October, 1912, and was heartily applauded. In the course of his speech, he said: "Germany strikes when Germany's hour has struck. That is the time-honoured policy of her Foreign Office. That was the policy relentlessly pursued by Bismarck and Moltke in 1866 and 1870; it has been her policy, decade by decade, since that date; it is her policy at the present hour. And, gentlemen, it is an excellent policy. It is, or should be, the policy of every nation prepared to play a great part in history." In the same speech he demanded an army "strong enough also to make our strength felt on the mainland of Europe should we ever appear there as the armed ally of another Power, as we were on the verge of doing last autumn." The National Service League denied that, in advocating such a policy, there was any intention of aggression, but there is little doubt as to the construction which Germans would place on such remarks from one occupying so prominent a place in English public life. At the best, the assertion that British conscription would have prevented the war is "not proven;" at the worst, it would be possible to argue that, if at any time a British Cabinet with aggressive designs came into power, conscription would furnish the means for action.
The Universal Service League has urged "the adoption for the period of the present war of the principle of universal compulsory war service, whether abroad or at home." The reasons usually given are the need for preserving Great Britain and Australia from alien rule.
Leaving for the moment the question of the period during which conscription would be in force, let us examine these reasons. Some conscriptionists admit the extreme difficulty of seizing and holding England. It would, indeed, be a hopeless undertaking. Germany has had forty years' experience of attempting to Teutonise and subdue Alsace-Lorraine, with, to say the least of it, very unsatisfactory results. Is it likely that the German Government would try the same experiment with forty millions of people accustomed to freedom? But those who picture Germany taking Great Britain frequently state that she will begin by making sure of the coast opposite—Belgium, Holland, Northern France, perhaps Denmark. This trifling programme being accomplished, then ho! for the British Isles and the Over-Seas Dominions.
This brings us to the second reason. The armies and fleets of the Allies have all been swept aside, to the last submarine and the last soldier. Germany's fleet has in some marvellous manner survived the catastrophes that disposed of the Allies fleets; from her present disorganised and scattered mercantile marine, and with the aid of commandeered vessels and coerced British and foreign sailors, she has equipped a fleet of perhaps 500 ships to carry, say, half a million men, with horses, guns, stores and ammunition for the invasion and occupation of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa; for doubtless similar fears are being expressed in each of the Dominions. It took England, with the sea clear and her huge mercantile marine to assist, about three months to land a quarter of a million men in South Africa at the time of the Boer War. If Germany attempted the conquest and subduing of Australia only, the undertaking would be enormously difficult, even if Great Britain's other Dominions, together with France, Italy and Russia, merely looked on. The journey to Australia is very much longer than that to South Africa, and the task of keeping up supplies would be enormous.
The obstacles assumed as removed in the last two paragraphs place the proposition of a successful occupation of Australia, or, indeed, of Great Britain, out of court. But there are other very serious difficulties. The re-adjustment of German finance will require wise statesmanship and unremitting effort over a long period. But perhaps the greatest obstacle of all is the German people themselves; they have fought this war energetically because they consider they are fighting a war of defence; a definite aggressive expedition to conquer a continent 12,000 miles away would appear a very different proposition; they MIGHT be drawn into it, but———!
Conscription "for the war." And what after the war? The clash of ideas will come in each country; broadly speaking, those who favour the reduction and gradual abolition of armaments, together with a policy of international co-operation, will be ranged on the one side; those who advocate retaining the strongest possible armies and navies and the maintenance of the old international system, with all its unsatisfactory features, on the other.
The "thin end of the wedge" method is a favourite one with advocates of conscription, and it is easier to secure the continuance of a measure than to introduce it. Many of those who now desire the passing of an act to make men compulsorily liable for service at home or abroad for the period of the war only doubtless do so without any mental reservations. But it is well to recall something of the past history of the conscription movement in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and to remember that radical changes of attitude in politics are not infrequent. A striking instance of the latter is furnished by the change of front of the present Minister of Defence, Senator Pearce; less than a score of years ago he was a strong anti-militarist, speaking against any form of militarism; to-day he has power to detain any one in Australia in custody, without the semblance of a trial, and without even giving reasons.
The full history of the conscription movement in the British Empire has not been written, perhaps never will be. But enough is known to put lovers of democracy on their guard. The democratic element in Great Britain has, in the main, opposed conscription, while some of its chief supporters are members of the aristocracy and military officers. There is, too, a close unofficial connection between the National Service League and the great armament firms. The League was formed in 1902, with the Duke of Wellington as president; he was supported by the Duke of Norfolk, the Duke of Fife, Lord Meath, Earl Wemyss, and Lord Newton. In later years Lord Roberts became president. The latter advocated four to six months' training as the irreducible minimum, and stated that "once the principle of compulsion is accepted, there will be no difficulty in adjusting the details.…to reduce theory into practice." Lord Dudley, ex-Governor-General of Australia, is reported as saying, in reference to compulsory military training in Australia, that "it was tactful and politic not to make the term of service too arduous at first, and to let it grow."
Mr. W. M. Hughes, M.H.R., in 1907 introduced a motion in the House to the effect that "all able-bodied adult males should be trained to the use of arms, and instructed in such military or naval drill as may be necessary for the purpose." In doing so, he stated that it was the fourth occasion upon which he had submitted a similar motion. Mr. Hughes is, or was, one of the secretaries of the Australian National Defence League, N.S.W. Division. In the August, 1908, issue of its organ, "The Call," the League congratulated "the parent League" ("The National Service League of G.B.") on the "great progress it has made in the last twelve months." The Universal Service League originated in New South Wales, and some of its leading members are, or were, also members of the Australian National Defence League, notably the Hon. J. C. Watson.
Lord Roberts wrote to Col. Allan Bell in New Zealand: "I hope your efforts to get universal training in New Zealand will be ultimately successful; for, if you fail there, it will mean we shall not get it here in England." Col. Heard, Acting Commandant of the New Zealand Forces, speaking at a dinner at Wellington in September, 1913, said:—We soldiers have come out from the old country for the reason which appeals to us very much.…We want the people at home to recognise that they ought to have some kind of a citizen army. Therefore we have come out here to help you set up your citizen army, so that you can show an example to the old country."
There are some of the known facts; Australians must judge for themselves their significance, and the probable ultimate effect of conscription in Australia, bearing in mind the words spoken by the late Field-Marshal Lord (then Sir Garnet) Wolseley' in 1882. "One of the most distinguished generals in the world, who was a German, said once to me that no one could realise the burden which universal service was to Germany except those who really knew what it was. The burdens were very great, and the system drove from that country its finest men, so that it was regarded by a large section of the people with detestation and horror. They had only to go to such places as Hamburg to see thousands of able-bodied men leaving the country to escape from that 'infernal and cursed burden of universal military service.'"
AUSTRALIAN FREEDOM LEAGUE.
(IN OPPOSITION TO CONSCRIPTION)
Telephone: Brighton 2325.
Commonwealth Organiser - - THOS. J. MILLER.
"Bide-a-Wee," Lees St., BENTLEIGH, MELBOURNE.
Fraser and Jenkinson, Print., Queen Street Melbourne.
- February 5, 1914.
- "Compulsory Service," p. 61.
- "Age," July 24, 1915.
- Sub-leader, July 21, 1915.
- Reprinted in the "Australian Military Journal" (published at the Headquarters of the Defence Department, Melbourne), of July, 1914, from the "Army Review," of July, 1913.
- Major-General Sir W. F. P. Napier's History of the Peninsular War, Vol. IV., pp. 122-3.
- "The War Traders," by G. H. Perris, Chancery Lane Press, Rolls Passage, London, E.C. 1/-.
- London "Daily Chronicle," September 18, 1911.
- "Hansard," p. 1282.