Story: Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism

Page 2. Conscientious objection

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Objecting to conscription

First World War

When conscription was introduced in 1916 the views of conscientious objectors –people who refused military service on political, religious or philosophical grounds – became a highly divisive public issue. Only Quakers, Christadelphians and, later, Seventh-day Adventists were automatically exempted from military service. Most other conscientious objectors were imprisoned for up to two years with hard labour, and sometimes returned to prison if they still refused to go to war. Fourteen especially determined conscientious objectors were forcibly shipped overseas and faced severe punishments – they included Archibald Baxter who later wrote about his experiences. At the end of the war New Zealand was the only country to deny conscientious objectors voting rights or employment in the public service or local bodies – for 10 years.

Field Punishment No. 1

During the First World War Dunedin conscientious objector Archibald Baxter was forcibly shipped to the French front and repeatedly given ‘Field Punishment No. 1’, which involved being tied to a post in freezing conditions. His son, the poet James K. Baxter, later wrote:

When I was only semen in a gland
Or less than that, my father hung
From a torture post at Mud Farm
Because he would not kill.1

Second World War

Conscription was introduced in 1940 and almost 5,000 men applied to appeal boards for exemption on conscientious grounds. Again, only practising Quakers and Christadelphians were automatically exempted. The remaining ‘conchies’ included fundamentalist Christians, Christian pacifists, and ethical and political objectors.

About 800 were labelled ‘military defaulters’ and interned for the duration of the war in specially built camps in remote areas such as Whenuaroa (between Rotorua and Taupō), Shannon in Manawatū and Balmoral in north Canterbury. There they carried out basic farming and labouring jobs in work gangs. Some applied to carry out humanitarian work such as serving as medical orderlies, but this was refused. A number escaped, and others refused to obey orders and were imprisoned. After their release, all convicted defaulters were deprived of voting rights for 10 years.

Barbed-wire university

The almost 800 men held in detention camps during the Second World War were detained ‘for the duration of the war’, that is, for an indefinite period. To help each other cope with confinement and prepare for their release, the detainees organised a system of classes and study groups. Among the subjects on offer at Strathmore camp, south of Rotorua, were many European languages, Māori, religious studies, poetry, drama, music, history, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, anthropology, geology, biology and botany.

Objecting to compulsory military training

In 1909 New Zealand introduced compulsory military training (CMT) for young men aged 12 to 20 (later 14 to 25). Unlike Australia, exemptions on the grounds of conscience were not permitted. Strong opposition to CMT emerged, especially in Christchurch where apprentices at the Addington railway workshops formed the Passive Resisters’ Union. Three Christian movements – the New Zealand Peace Council, the Anti-Militarist League and the Freedom League – formed to oppose CMT. By 1914 almost 5,000 young men had been convicted for resisting CMT and some were held in military defaulters’ camps such as Rīpapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour.

CMT was suspended for economic reasons in 1930 but reintroduced from 1949 to 1959. Objectors could appeal to the Conscientious Objection Committee, which granted successful appellants either unconditional exemption or non-combatant duties. Unsuccessful appellants who continued to refuse national service were fined or directed into employment at fixed maximum pay.

National military service was again reintroduced between 1961 and 1972, and the Organisation to Halt Military Service was formed to oppose CMT and support conscientious objectors. Its Wellington chair, Geoff Woolford, was jailed after repeatedly refusing to attend military training camps. However, the army’s reduced requirements for manpower meant that most conscientious objector appeals were allowed.

Objecting to trade union membership

From 1936 until the introduction of voluntary unionism in 1983, union members were given preference for jobs in many New Zealand workplaces. From 1951 any employee who had a religious (or, from 1961, conscientious) objection to union membership could apply for exemption. A Conscientious Objection Committee (originally set up to hear objections to compulsory military training) heard the objections, mostly on religious grounds from faiths such as the Exclusive Brethren. In most cases exemption was granted as long as the objector paid an amount equivalent to the union fee to the government.

  1. James K. Baxter, ‘Pig Island Letters 8’, Collected poems. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 281. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism - Conscientious objection', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012