Early Associations and Aims
The first associations were formed early in this century by men who had served in the Second Boer War. Clubs, which were formed first of all to pick up the threads of wartime friendships, became in due course South African War Veterans' Associations, each autonomous in its own district, usually as an incorporated society. A national body, the South African War Veterans' Association of New Zealand, was not formed, however, until after the First World War. Membership was not restricted to New Zealanders, and the total of 1,479 in 1943 included Australians, Canadians, South Africans, and men from the United Kingdom. As late as 1952 there were 1,200 members, but the years took an increasing toll from then onwards and in 1962 the figure fell below 300. Though the various associations have undertaken welfare work among South African War veterans, their functions have been chiefly social. They were never numerous enough to exert great influence in Government circles and by the time many of their members needed help, more powerful spokesmen for ex-service interests had appeared on the scene.
The South African War volunteers had enlisted for one year only; they served in small contingents widely separated, and the 6,000-odd who returned were quickly reabsorbed into the civil community. The First World War of 1914–18 took more than 100,000 men and women abroad, the men mostly in army formations which attained a lively esprit de corps. They suffered great hardship and loss. Because of their greater numbers and the more intense quality of their war experience, therefore, the returned men of the First World War found it harder to settle down afterwards in civilian life. When they organised themselves, as they began to at the end of 1915, into Returned Soldiers' Associations, they at once engaged in vigorous debate on issues such as land settlement, the handling of patriotic funds, and promotion for those going overseas again. The Government and other public bodies soon recognised the RSAs as representatives of returned soldiers: trade unions, for example, discussed with them the matter of wages for disabled ex-servicemen. By July 1916 there were 18 local associations, as well as a national body, the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association, with headquarters in Wellington. On Anzac Day of 1918 the first issue of the RSA official newspaper, Quick March, appeared. Membership grew by 1920 to 57,000, but thereafter it began to fall off.
The NZRSA explored all aspects of what was then called “repatriation” (later “rehabilitation”), that is, the change from army to civilian life with its many problems of adjustment. It helped to gain official recognition of the fact that many illnesses – mainly tuberculosis cases – were attributable to war service. It thrashed out the complicated details of a pensions scheme and finally in 1923 got the Government to set up a War Pensions Appeals Board. The RSA Land Committee and Land Bureau helped returned men to find farm land and settle on it and, by May 1920, a total of 9,041 had benefited, of whom some 2,250 had settled on land provided by the Government. Looking to the good of the country as a whole, the RSA saw that repatriation could not be entirely successful except as part of a far-sighted post-war policy which must include close labour-employer relations, rational manpower distribution, development of new industries and State ownership of some of them, a broad hydro-electric plan, and better fiscal policy. All these were advocated in 1919; but this was too soon. The RSA was ahead of its time and it took the depression of a dozen years later to convince the country of the need for such measures. One practical step to cope with unemployment among returned men (as well as to help children in the war-devastated areas of France) was the pre-Anzac Day sale of poppies, which began in 1922; three-quarters of the proceeds were devoted to unemployment relief. Looking even farther afield, the RSA took part in a conference at Cape Town in 1920 which laid the foundations of the British Empire Service League, and its delegates there advocated support for the League of Nations.
The enthusiasm which had carried the RSA this far, however, began to wane. Quick March ceased publication in 1923, to be succeeded in the following year by the RSA Review, which has appeared regularly ever since. Membership fell by 30 per cent per year until 1926. Then the trend changed. By 1930 the figures were moving upwards and at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 they reached 31,549 members. With the stimulus of another war, which took even more men and women overseas, membership rose to 136,119 in 1947. It dwindled again from then onwards, but began to rise again in 1955. For some years it has held fairly constantly between 90,000 and 100,000 and in 1964 was 93,286.