Aux armes étudiants! When students went to war

Many USyd students from both past and present have faced compulsory military service

A graphic featuring illustrations of saluting soldiers and a tank Artwork by Angela Zha

The threat of war is not typically a worry on the minds of young students in Australia today.

However, it was not until December of 1972 that young Australians could cease worrying about being unwillingly conscripted to fight faraway wars, for or against causes they did not properly understand. The “birthday ballot” was among the many dreaded stresses that young Aussies had to come to terms with, when twice per year, those unlucky enough to win the lottery would be conscripted into the Army alongside all other young men who shared the same date of birth. For most, the choice was between two unappealing options: two years of service in the Army, or two years in prison for objection. Under the threat of war, which would be the greater sentence?

While misfortunately drafted university students could apply for deferment until the competition of their studies, fates were often sealed early as students could not prolong their studies enough to beat out the eight-year duration of the Australian draft during the Vietnamese conflict. Still, many students were not complacent in their anti-war sentiment and as such, they would turn Sydney University into a hub of protests and dissent. Unknown to most, the famous Graffiti Tunnel that runs between Manning House and the Holme Building was originally started as a legal, allocated area for students to display slogans and create protest art against the Vietnam War, at least in part to dissuade the practice of doing so directly onto the sandstone walls of the Quadrangle.

While decades have passed since young Australians have had to face the issue of mandatory conscription, few are privy to the realities of this issue that a number of international students at the University of Sydney have faced or continue to face in their own lives.

Shaun Chua, a recent graduate in Media and Communications, is very familiar with the continued practice of national service. Like all medically fit Singaporean men who reach 18 years of age, Shaun was conscripted into a minimum of two years full-time service in the Singapore Armed Forces. Speaking of his time as National Serviceman, Shaun recalls a story he shares with a brotherhood of over 900,000 Singaporeans.

“It was frustrating to have to interrupt my studies for national service since I felt separated from all my friends who were commencing their studies ahead of me,” he explained.

Unlike most Australian conscripts in the 20th century, Shaun’s service was unique in that he joined during relative peacetime in his country. Defining his experience in the barracks as repetitive, uninteresting and mundane, Shaun offers this rare, striking perspective.

“Since Singapore is relatively peaceful, the thought of war or deployment into hostile theatres never loomed large in our minds during our national service.

“While there’s no great desire to be deployed into war zones or participate in a conflict, I often caught myself wishing to be deployed and to take on the challenges of a deployment, just to break the mundane life in the barracks and the cycle of training,” Shaun explained, adding that it was a view that strongly conflicted with his “desire to stay out of danger”.

Shaun is just one of many University alumni over the decades whose military experience was initiated by either compulsory national service or simply answering their nation’s call to action prompted by global conflict.

Just a decade after the Federation of Australia in 1901, the Australian government found its unsatisfactory levels of combat readiness low enough to prompt the introduction of boyhood conscription (compulsory military training for ages 12-26). The result lead to the draft of all eligible Sydney University undergraduates to the militia battalion of the Sydney University Scouts. Upon the beginning of the First World War, young Aussies on the home front battled public shaming and nationwide propaganda to pledge allegiance to the British motherland, such as the notorious act of presenting white feathers to those unwilling to volunteer as a symbol of cowardice. Yet despite failed referenda in 1916 and 1917 to introduce conscription, over 60% of the University’s Scouts would nevertheless go on to serve in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Australians were not so lucky after Prime Minister Robert Menzies successfully introduced conscription. What remained of the Scouts was now a reserve officer-training regiment within the Australian Army called the Sydney University Regiment. One such Arts Law graduate belonging to the regiment, Flight Lieutenant Gough Whitlam, began training as a navigator and bombardier and after graduation flew RAAF Lockheed Ventura Bombers out of the Northern Territory during WWII.

When Prime Minister Menzies reintroduced conscription for a second time in late 1964 to bolster the war effort in Vietnam, 63,000 young Aussies were conscripted by birthday ballots according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. These were drawn from a randomly selected pool of over 800,000 who were required to register for national service between 1964 and 1972. Over 15,000 of those diggers would plant their boots on Vietnamese soil alongside military men by trade and other volunteer soldiers.

After numerous years of protest and the continuation of a now unwinnable war, it would be none other than the now-retired Flight Lieutenant Gough Whitlam who would challenge the Incumbent PM William McMahon in the 1972 federal election under the platform of ending mandatory national service. Upon his parliamentary win, Prime Minister Whitlam immediately abolished conscription by administrative action, reaffirmed this action with the passing of the National Service Termination Act, and released from jail those sentenced for resisting national service. Last but not least, Whitlam announced the end of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and ordered the last of Australia’s diggers to finally return home.

The Australian Defence Force has remained an all-volunteer force ever since, and although many Sydney University alumni who served during these times have gracefully passed, what remains of this part of Sydney University history is the continuation of the Australian Army’s Sydney University Regiment, the ever growing list of student alumni currently or previously in service to their country, as well as a continually strong culture of demonstrations and political protests still alive on campus today.