Story: Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism

As long as New Zealand has been involved in wars, people have objected to fighting in them for political, religious or philosophical reasons. And they have often been punished for it.

Story by Mark Derby
Main image: Conscientious objectors at Hautu Detention Camp, 1943

Story summary

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Conscription is compulsory enlistment for military service. Conscription was first introduced in New Zealand in 1845, when able-bodied non-Māori men had to make themselves available for military training or service. Some European settlers refused to fight in wars between Māori and the government.

The First World War began in 1914, and conscription for non-Māori men was introduced in 1916. Men were selected by ballot. At first married men were not selected. Some Māori men were later also included.

Conscription was reintroduced during the Second World War (in 1940). A total of 312,000 men were conscripted.

All New Zealand military engagements since the Second World War have been carried out by volunteer or regular rather than conscripted troops.

Conscientious objection to conscription

During both the First and Second world wars people could apply to be exempted from conscription as a conscientious objector – on political, religious or philosophical grounds. Most appeals were denied, and men who still refused to fight were imprisoned. During the First World War some were severely punished. At the end of the wars some were denied voting rights for 10 years.

Conscientious objection to compulsory military training

For most of the period from 1909 to 1972, some young men had to attend military training. Those convicted for refusing the training could be held in prison camps. From 1949 they could appeal to the Conscientious Objection Committee to be exempted.

Conscientious objection to union membership

From 1936 until 1983 people generally had to belong to a union. People who objected could apply to a committee. Exemptions were usually granted.


The Moriori people who lived on the Chatham Islands had been pacifists (opposed to war and violence) for hundreds of years. Parihaka was a Māori community in Taranaki that practised pacifism.

A number of pacifist groups formed during the First and Second world wars. Many were based on Christian ideals, and some were women’s groups.

From the 1960s, with the threat of nuclear war, the peace movement became strong in New Zealand. Legislation in 1987 made New Zealand the first officially anti-nuclear country in the developed world.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 June 2012