Mandatory Military Minors

‘In 1911 Australia became the first modern English-speaking country to demand universal and mandatory military training in times of peace; for 12- to 18-year-old boys. Caulfield Grammar School with its long-established Cadet Unit was an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.’

Caulfield Grammar School Cadet Unit 1908

Australia’s bitter conscription debates and referendums of the Great War belies the fact that our country had, only a few years earlier, instituted compulsory military training and service for all boys aged 12 – 18, the Army Cadet movement. School cadet units had existed in this country from the 1860s onwards and often grew out of the practice of students undertaking various forms of military drill, mainly in the form of marching. But in nineteenth century Australia, secondary schools were heavily influenced by the moral directions of British models and sympathetic headmasters who avidly supported the view that success in war depended upon patriotism and military spirit and that preparation for war would strengthen ‘manly virtue’ and ‘patriotic ardour’. At countless speech days, the assembled boys were told that their schools were providing training in character and duty to make them leaders of men and defenders of the Empire. These attitudes helped foster the growth of the cadet movement in Australian schools.

In Victoria in the early 1880s, the Minister for Defence, Lt. Col. (later Sir) Frederick Sargood, while on an overseas trip to Europe, had been much impressed with the defence system in Switzerland. School boys in that country from the ages of six to eighteen received progressive military instruction as a regular part of their school training. He sought to establish a somewhat similar military training in Victorian schools. He hoped it would serve the purpose of familiarising boys and youths with habits of discipline, regularity, and obedience to authority and exercise them in military drill and the ready use of a rifle. Sargood stated that he looked to cadets as furnishing a most important recruitment ground for the militia forces. He aimed to bind together in one patriotic brotherhood in the youth of this country so that, should occasion arise, they might be able, in years after, to defend their country with the most telling effect.

In due course, Sargood called a meeting of the principals of private colleges and prominent head teachers of State schools for the purpose of formally establishing the ‘Victorian Volunteer Cadet Corps’. This body was first gazetted on the 23 January 1885, with Caulfield Grammar School (CGS) listed as the fifth unit to be established in this state. Just six months later, by June 1885, the number of cadets enrolled in the program had risen to 1,850 in both Education Department and private boys’ schools. In 1902 Sargood remembered that of the large number of cadets that had passed through its ranks, it had been found that more than two-thirds of the men who had served in Victorian Contingents in the South African War had formerly been cadets. The Sargoods became heavily involved in the Cadet movement and Lady Sargood presented a handsome silver cup for annual competition in rifle-shooting. Sir Frederick, seen as the ’Father of the Cadet Corps,’ held the first general parade of the cadet corps on the grounds of his own 23- acre property ‘Rippon Lea’ at Elsternwick. These grounds were also used for rifle shooting practice and cadet training by his adjoining neighbours, Caulfield Grammar School, perhaps encouraged by the fact that his son William also attended the school.

By 1908 at CGS, this training was borne out in a practical way with a stated view to moulding future soldiers. For boys under 14, the chief aim was physical improvement and musketry practice using the miniature rifle range constructed at the school, which necessitated the erection of rifle racks to store the weapons during the days when students attended their usual classes. The older boys completed company drill and more especially open-order training, giving them, it was claimed, some insight into the methods employed in early 20th century warfare and was seen to be of great use for boys intending to join the Imperial Army. Little did anyone foresee the trench warfare of the Great War!

But the whole structure of the voluntary Australian Cadet movement changed in 1909 when the Prime Minister Alfred Deakin extended an invitation to the British Army’s Lord Kitchener to assess Australia’s military preparedness. Kitchener’s report, ‘Defence of Australia: Memorandum’ was submitted to the Australian Government in February 1910. Chief amongst his recommendations, were the establishment of the Royal Military College at Duntroon and the formation of an army of 80,000 men. One of the final effects of his report, enacted on 1st January 1911, was the compulsory provisions of the Defence Act (1909), which made Australia the first modern English-speaking country to require universal and mandatory military training in times of peace. This saw compulsory Cadet training being overseen by the Commonwealth Government for all Australian boys aged 12–14 years old. The youngest became Junior Cadets and were required to complete 120 hours per year on physical drill and attendance at parades. All 14–18-year-olds had to serve in the Senior Cadets and complete 16 days a year or equivalent of training in elementary musketry and drill. Alfred Deakin’s vision of universal training and the creation of a citizen army would both express and enhance Australian patriotism, even though he said he would have rather that it was done willingly rather than by compulsion.

These moves of compulsory cadets and Commonwealth oversight were greeted enthusiastically by many educators and schools such as CGS, as reported in the 1911 school’s magazine.
The Commanding Officer (CO) of the CGS Cadet Unit, Lt. McCullough, extensively outlined the changes in the cadet scheme, reminded boys of the seriousness of the work they were about to undertake, and pointed out that they now had a Record Book in which to record their service. He also singled out those boys who were seeking promotion through the scheme. McCullough stated that, having decided that Australia must prepare to defend itself, the nation also had to have the best system of defence and training it was possible to achieve under Kitchener’s scheme. The CGS cadets were encouraged to see that they would begin to play their part in this system of ‘national insurance’. McCullough stated that some of them might possibly regard their years of cadet service as a necessary evil, others as a pleasant long-drawn out sweetness, and others as a duty they owed to their country. But the young cadets were left in no doubt that their cadet service was based on the understanding that they might learn how to save their own lives and those of others.

The CO closed his remarks by pointing out, that it had been clearly noted by the school community that seventeen boys in the school had realized that there was something more serious than cricket or football, as since the very beginning of the year they had been seen on parade every lunch hour at half past one. Some of them, he noted, would soon have written in their Record Books that they would be among the first non-commissioned officers of the Senior Cadet Forces of Australia. Of these seventeen cadets, sixteen of them later enlisted for active service in the Great War with four of them being killed.

But as the cadet scheme unfolded, opposition emerged from other quarters, including some church, religious and union groups. On 22 October 1912, fifty-one boys of ‘tender age’ appeared in an Adelaide courthouse charged with not having attended the necessary drill parades as required by the Defence Act. Six boys who could not pay their fines were jailed overnight. In turn, these prosecutions for non-compliance led to an organised campaign against compulsion and some minor concessions and changes were made to the scheme.

During those years, Australia conscripted its youth on a scale that was far in advance of any other English-speaking country and it became apparent that for a recently federated nation, the introduction of the scheme had been a positive move. One correspondent reported that the ‘great majority of the lads are drilling cheerfully and there is little doubt that the people as a whole are convinced of the necessity for the system’. However, although the lads at home might have been cheerfully drilling, the horrors experienced by many in the trenches during the early years of the Great War, would begin to sway public opinion against the necessity of compulsory military service for adult Australian men.

By Dr Daryl Moran RHSV News February 2021

Contact Daryl Moran about this article.

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