Story: Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism

Page 1. Conscription

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New Zealand wars

Conscription – compulsory enlistment for military service – was first introduced in New Zealand in 1845 in response to fighting between Māori and government forces. The Militia Ordinance 1845 required able-bodied non-Māori men who were British subjects aged between 18 and 60 to make themselves available for training or service near their own settlements. The Militia Act 1858 reintroduced conscription. In several North Island districts, settlers served in militia units fighting ‘rebel’ Māori during the New Zealand wars. This service was highly unpopular due to the low pay and economic disruption to communities.

Not keen men

When settlers were called up to join the militia at the outbreak of the Waikato War in 1863, many ‘suddenly became short-sighted or helpless cripples before the inspecting doctors and others hastily proposed to marry eligible young women to escape service’.1 The Auckland deputy adjutant general referred to them as ‘shirkers’, the first time this word was used of such men in New Zealand, and he threatened them with severe penalties if they did not obey the law.

Some settlers held pacifist beliefs and refused to join in military operations against Māori. Thomas Mason and his sons of Taita, near Wellington, were Quakers who objected to enlisting in the militia in 1864. When the second Taranaki war broke out in the same year, Thomas Gilbert and his son George moved from New Plymouth to Nelson to avoid taking part in the hostilities.

First World War

The First World War began in 1914 and conscription was introduced in 1916 after the number of volunteers for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force fell below requirements. The Military Service Act 1916 required the registration of non-Māori men aged between 20 and 46. They were sorted into two divisions – the unmarried or recently married, and everyone else. Some were chosen by ballot, initially from the first division and later from the second, and sent to training camps. Māori were initially exempted, but in 1917 the act was extended to include Māori – though conscription was only imposed on Tainui Māori. No Māori conscripts served overseas. A total of about 135,000 men were conscripted during the First World War and about 32,000 eventually served overseas, compared to almost 70,000 who volunteered.

Hard Labour

The New Zealand Labour Party was formed in 1916, just months before the introduction of conscription for the First World War. The party firmly opposed conscription and several of its leaders, including Peter Fraser, Bob Semple and Harry Holland, were arrested for sedition. Paddy Webb, the MP for West Coast, lost his seat due to his anti-conscription stance and went to jail, but was re-elected while serving his sentence. However, Fraser, Semple and Webb were all ministers in the government that brought in conscription during the Second World War.

Men who objected to military service could appeal to the Military Service Board and about half of those called up did so. They could appeal on grounds of family hardship, public interest (that they were carrying out socially useful work at home) or religious objection. The boards rejected most appeals and unsuccessful appellants who refused to serve were imprisoned. Other objectors left for countries such as Australia, where proposals to introduce conscription had been rejected by the public, or hid in remote areas such as Great Barrier Island and the West Coast. The conscription campaign aroused strong opposition and two large anti-conscription conferences were held during 1916, representing the radical labour movement, Irish republicans and pacifist groups. Māori who had opposed the Crown during the New Zealand wars, such as the Waikato and Tūhoe tribes, also resisted conscription and about 100 men were arrested.

Second World War

The Labour Party had traditionally opposed conscription on the grounds that volunteer forces would be able to cope with all contingencies. Several Labour politicians who had been imprisoned for anti-conscription activities in the First World War were in cabinet when New Zealand entered the Second World War in 1939. As in that earlier war, volunteer numbers proved insufficient and in 1940 the National Service Emergency Regulations were passed to introduce conscription. All men aged between 19 and 45 were required to register for military service, and were divided into categories depending on their marital status, age and number of children. Māori were exempt from conscription, since a high proportion were willing to volunteer. The total eventually conscripted was more than 312,000.

Objectors to military service could appeal to district manpower committees and armed forces appeal boards on grounds of hardship, essential employment and conscientious objection. Most appeals on the last of these grounds were rejected.

During the Second World War there was also ‘manpower’ conscription, with people sent to work in a particular workplace or part of the country to keep essential industries going.

After the Second World War

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

  1. John Featon, The Waikato war, 1863–4. Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 1995, pp. 13–14 (originally published 1879). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism - Conscription', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012