Volunteers and the Special Reports Era
The Volunteers were created by the Militia Act of 1858, and continued until 1910. Under the first regulations service was for one year and members undertook to serve anywhere in New Zealand. As almost every settlement formed its corps it became necessary to appoint a Deputy Adjutant-General. Few Volunteer units took part in campaigns between 1860 and 1865. After 1865 small parties of volunteers participated against Titokowaru in Taranaki. Small corps, subsequently disbanded, were formed for specific duties. Acts passed in 1865, 1881, and 1886 varied the force's central organisation, but a provision which permitted units to elect their own officers, remained until 1910. The force consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery; each corps' strength fluctuated between 40 and 100 men, and the total strength was stabilised at about 6,600. An annual capitation grant, which varied from year to year, was paid for every officer and efficient volunteer. The corps' commander was sole judge of a volunteer's competence—in spite of the fact that his own competence might be doubtful. There was no training syllabus prescribed. Corps drilled sporadically, and in many cases left their drill halls only for ceremonial parades. Dress regulations permitted such differences in uniforms that no two corps dressed alike.
This was an era of special reports, but recommendations were seldom adopted. Opinion in these reports generally favoured smaller forces trained to higher efficiency and equipped with modern weapons. Reporting officers praised the fine spirit of the men but said the force lacked proper direction. In 1874 Major W. Gordon condemned the system as “inefficient, lax, and wasteful”: armament was varied and obsolete, instructors were unqualified and lacked manuals, and the election of officers was severely criticised. Nothing was done, however, and for many years the volunteer system continued unchanged.
Two Russian scares, however, compelled the Government to look to the country's preparedness, and in 1880 Colonel Scratchley reported on the coastal defences. He recommended that Auckland. Wellington, Lyttelton, and Dunedin harbours be fortified and that these ports be manned by regular troops assisted by special volunteer corps. Armament was to consist of guns, mines, torpedoes, and searchlights. The Volunteers were to be reorganised as a small field force centred upon the ports. Two years later the Government implemented this report, and by March 1888 about £428,000 had been spent on coastal defences. In 1885 Sir G. S. Whitmore became Commandant of the New Zealand Forces. He directed his efforts towards the training of suitable officers and established a Central School of Instruction with branches at the three main centres. Whitmore also created the nucleus for a defence organisation to control the separate corps.
In 1892 Commandant Lieutenant-Colonel Fox reported exhaustively upon Volunteer Corps and their officers. This report caused a tremendous press controversy as his only commendatory remark about the force was that spirit was excellent; he considered that no interest was taken in its welfare and that there was no dependable system. Fox resigned, but continued until 1896 as Inspector and Adviser to the Minister. To some extent Fox's report produced gradual improvement of efficiency. Obsolete equipment was replaced, capitation was increased, drill manuals were issued, and rifle corps were reorganised as battalions.
In 1899 New Zealand's participation in the South African War gave the Volunteers a stimulus, and 10 contingents of mounted rifles went overseas. Public interest was reflected in the strength attained by the local Volunteer regiments (17,000 men). The cavalry was reorganised in battalions, Lee-Enfield rifles were imported, a national “Karkee” uniform was adopted, and in 1901 the School of Instruction was re-established. In the seven years following Major-General Babington's appointment (1902) training procedures were standardised and the principle was accepted that permanent instructors should train officers and non-commissioned officers, who, in turn, would train their own men. Problems due to election of officers, the lack of sufficiently trained staff officers, and the low standards of personnel efficiency remained, and difficulty was experienced in arranging for men to attend camps and parades. New Zealand still lacked an effective army in 1906. On his retirement Babington recommended reorganisation, and complained that the colony did not take its defence seriously. His criticisms led to the creation of a Defence Council, which assumed the Commandant's functions. Some improvements were made. Gradually the regiments obtained permanent adjutants, instructors were provided for artillery, engineers, signals, and infantry, and, for the first time, provision was made to mobilise an expeditionary force.
Enthusiasm did not improve, however, and the Defence Council's first report contained the warning that “volunteering has had its last chance” and that the only practicable alternative was compulsory military training. Meanwhile public attention was being aroused by international events, and arguments in favour of more adequate defence arrangements began to be heard. The Defence Act of 1909 replaced the old Volunteer Force by a Territorial Force recruited by compulsory military service.