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How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

In early 1942, during World War II, in response to Japan's actions, Australia introduced a labor orientation system that was extended to women.

However, "two armies" system, which separated Citizens' Army, which operated only in certain areas, from Australian Imperial Forces, continued throughout war.

The only modification came in 1943 when Labor government of Prime Minister John Curtin (elected in November 1941) expanded territory in which conscripts could serve to include "South Pacific", including Solomon Islands, Timor, Java, Celebes and most of Borneo.

Ironically, practice of non-conscription during First World War has been extensively studied in Australian historiography, while its implementation during Second World War has received little attention.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

The most common form of interaction is a simple analysis of date and scope of various pieces of legislation, rarely how they affect individuals or how people react to them.

One of few questions that caused controversy was why Prime Minister Curtin decided to push for more areas to which conscripts could be sent.

This was an important development, as Labor Party experienced major internal divisions during First World War and subsequently joined cause against conscription.

In addition, Curtin himself was an ardent opponent of conscription in army in 1916 and 1917.

In trying to explain Curtin's behavior, scientists have given varying degrees of importance to two factors.

Haslak's official history (1970) emphasized domestic considerations, especially upcoming general election, and insisted that Curtin was desperate to live up to Labor's reputation as a wartime government by reversing its policy against overseas conscription.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

Other studies have paid more attention to diplomatic pressure from United States, which objected to fact that their conscripts drove Japanese out of Pacific and Australian conscripts were barred from serving outside their own territories.

Gray (2008) attempts to reconcile these opposing arguments by asserting influence of internal and external factors.

When considering how conscription affects different groups, different approaches are taken. It is common to re-enter administrative controls and rules with statistics on how many people they apply to.

The author states that a more complete analysis can be found in Darian Smith's (2009) wartime Melbourne portion of study. Of course, this says little about conscription, and its geographic limitations make one wonder if this city is typical of Australia as a whole.

However, Darian Smith draws on a large body of literature, explores administrative and experiential factors of work learning, and views his subjects as active historical agents.

Because Darian Smith has a special focus on women's conscription, it's helpful to read her research.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

As in Australia, conscription in Canada has some important restrictions. Longtime Prime Minister William Mackenzie King was determined to fight war with "limited liability", largely to avoid being drafted into military.

The French in Quebec at end of First World War were strongly opposed to conscription of men for military service, and William Mackenzie King feared that second time it would have such a detrimental effect on unity of country, so these attempts were made in 1940. This was partially reversed in June when Allied defeat in France prompted government to pass National Resource Mobilization Act (NRMA), which required all men over age of 21 to complete 30 days of military training.

Although training period was later extended to four months, National Resource Mobilization Act expressly prohibited sending of recruits abroad.

By 1942, desire to expand war forced government to introduce a national selection service program to send labor and reconsider question of conscription for military service abroad.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

A referendum in April 1942 showed that an overwhelming majority was in favor of repealing restrictions of National Resource Mobilization Act, and government duly did so.

However, William Mackenzie King suspended these new powers as Quebecers were overwhelmingly in negative.

It was not until November 1944 that William Mackenzie King finally approved sending of conscripts abroad, a total of 16,000 men.

Canadian historiography includes several works on topic of conscription, most notably Granatstein and Heathman's seminal study (1977), which covers entire history of conscription in Canada, but this book still contains a detailed analysis of period between 1939 and 1945. , from early days of "limited liability" to final decision to send conscripts abroad.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

In addition to prioritizing political situation, Granatstein and Heisman also explored how Australian civilians and paramilitaries perceive and evaluate various conscription measures.

For many years, however, this study was sidelined as other scholars focused entirely on political aspects of conscription. This is partly due to extensive records left by diaries of William Mackenzie King and his cabinet colleagues as main sources of events.

Additionally motivated by William Mackenzie King's claims, first made public in 1952, that decision to send conscripts abroad was forced on him by military leaders who threatened en masse to resign if they didn't will do. t get what they want.

Much of literature has thus focused on debate that took place in cabinet, extent to which a general was guilty of having to send conscripts abroad, and reality of a "general's uprising".

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

Many other aspects of conscription have come back into spotlight only in recent years. Stevenson (Stevenson, 2001) was first to examine in detail Australia's national service program, through which authorities enforce labor standards, since Stevenson analyzes merits of system from point of view of military service itself, his study is institutional in nature.

However, Stevenson also provides several telling examples of how agency interacted with key individuals and organizations and how those individuals responded to its charter.

But Kershen's (2004) work challenges prevailing notion that Canada's war effort was characterized by national unity and patriotic resolve, and in a chapter on whether such sentiments manifest themselves in conscription and civil war, he cites some illustrative statistics and examples of information about how people responded to calls.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

Byers (2016) explores these issues in more detail in his study of National Resource Mobilization Act and its implementation. Byers is interested in political and institutional aspects of conscription but presents them as main context for demographic analysis. NRA men, examining their attitudes towards military training and discussing why some later volunteered to serve overseas while their colleagues refused to do so.

When works of Stevenson, Kershen, and Byers are read alongside classic narratives of Granatstein and Hitzman, understanding of call far exceeds understanding of Britain, New Zealand, and Australia provided by historiography.

In fact, if Canadian conscription system is excluded from consideration, Brodie's (2006) study would be only one currently available. However, importance of conscription means that it cannot be marginalized if it is to improve understanding of wartime life.

During World War II, Canadian conscription was not just a recruiting or channeling tool, but a mechanism to mobilize and support all war efforts.

Without conscription, political, social and cultural environments in four countries would be so different that they would not be able to make such a significant military and economic contribution to cause of Allies.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

Secondly, scientists should continue recent trend towards a more comprehensive and in-depth study of issue of conscription. Analyzing experience of women and conscientious objectors is undoubtedly rewarding work with countless rewards.

However, focus only on women meant that many military aspects of conscription were not explored, and conscientious objectors made up only a small proportion of conscripts in four countries.

Furthermore, isolating a particular gender or group automatically denies a comprehensive analysis of call.

Because gender is a socially constructed relative characteristic, it can only be fully understood when one considers expectations and opportunities afforded to women, along with male control and attitudes.

Similarly, treatment of conscientious objectors occurs in narratives revolving around sacrificing equality, meaning they are far from only group in society accused of "shifting blame".

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

The fact that dissenters were only male conscripts whose experience received widespread attention may also give false impression that open resistance is a standard response to military drafting.

Most previous research has underestimated freedom of action of individuals and organizations in connection with military conscription.

In fact, often everything is described strictly linearly: first, government sets policy, and then it happens to civilians.

However, number of letters, diaries, resolutions, protests, and newspaper articles that mention conscription clearly points to widespread participation of population.

As work of Pattinson et al. on England, Montgomery's work on New Zealand, Darian-Smith's talks on Australia, and Byers, Kershen, and Stevenson's assessment of Canada make clear, this two-way process does not take place in a vacuum, but instead builds on existing values and people's beliefs, which in turn cause them to accept or reject new ideas.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

Thus, studying responses to conscription sheds light on fundamental nature of wartime societies and helps to assess attitudes towards gender, class, citizenship, and national identity.

In their work, it is useful for scholars to make comparisons between countries, four countries share a common British heritage and all are members of British Empire.

Moreover, both of them fought as democratic societies, and both sent large numbers of soldiers into conflicts outside their territories.

However, there are significant differences between specific ways in which conscription measures are applied and extent of these measures in relation to specific groups. Analyzing reasons for these similarities and differences is critical to achieving a comprehensive understanding.

As an example, New Zealand scholars tend to argue that labor guidance has never been overly enforced, while studies of Australian experience often emphasize use of such controls.

However,between January 1943 and July 1944 only about 10,000 Australians received orders to work in certain areas.

How Australia's "two-armed system" influenced people's reactions during World War II

While New Zealand has a population of over one hundred thousand, if these raw figures do not tell whole story, comparing them with existing historiography does reveal limitations of interpretation that come with working within a purely national framework.

The only relevant example is Brody's (2016) study of how Britain and its empire recruited soldiers between two world wars. However, with exception of some chapters on Britain, details of this work are scarce, and its information is almost entirely obtained from secondary sources.

More representative examples of transnationalism are Sheffield and Riesman's (2018) study of indigenous peoples during World War II and Fennell's (2019) work on British and Commonwealth armies. Both books deal with conscription as a subject.

However, extensive use of first-hand sources and cross-country comparisons allowed authors to draw important new conclusions about official policy and people's reactions.

The implementation of these three recommendations is a departure from existing historiography, and it is by no means easy to achieve justice within a single work, but they provide scholars with an opportunity to build on this understanding of conscription research.

If this shift continues, and if transnationalism is supported wherever possible, it will provide many valuable new insights into key elements of WWII experience in UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.


Donnelly (1999) Great Britain in World War II. London, UK: Routledge.

Abbett E. (1984). When Boys weren't Home: New Zealand Women in Second World War. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. and A. W. Reid.

L. Edmund (editor). (1995) Women in Wartime Wellington, New Zealand: GP Press.

Fennell (2019). Waging a People's War: The Armies of Britain and Commonwealth and Second World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goodall, F. (1997) Matters of Conscience: Conscientious Objectors in Both World Wars Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton.

Granazstein, J. L. (1969). Conscription in World War II, 1939–1945: Studies in Political Administration. Toronto, Canada: Ryerson Press.

Granazstein, J. L. (2016). Canada at War: The Politics of Mackenzie King Government, 1939–1945. (new edition). Oakville, Canada: Rock Mills Press.

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