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During the Crimean War (1853-1856) the South Australian colonial government passed the Militia Act 1854 enabling it to select men by ballot to undergo four weeks military training annually. In fact, the forces raised were volunteers and, until the Defence Act of 1894, it was unclear whether they legally remained civilians, albeit in uniform. That Act provided that the members of the volunteer militias were 'soldiers' who were subject to military discipline, and liable to serve in any Australian colony. Amendments in 1896 allowed for compulsory military service should a state of emergency be proclaimed. However, conscription by ballot was only to be used after a call for volunteers. In the event, the ballot was never used and the South Australians who fought in South Africa (1899-1902) were volunteers.

As early as July 1901, the possibility of universal military training was discussed in the new Federal parliament. The Commonwealth's Defence Act of 1903, as amended in 1911, provided for universal military training. This was strongly opposed by many South Australians. An account of the work of the Australian Freedom League, an organisation founded by the South Australian Quakers in co-operation with other interested Christian groups, can be found in Charles Stevenson's publication The millionth snowflake; the history of Quakers in South Australia. An extract from Michael T Shepherd's Compulsory military training : the South Australian debate, 1901-1914 describes the court case of the Size brothers who were charged with offences against the Defence Act.

Although the Defence Act required men to undergo training with the militia, it specified that no Australian (including members of the regular military forces) could be compelled to serve overseas.