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Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism

by Mark Derby

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.


New Zealand wars

Conscription – compulsory enlistment for military service – was first introduced in New Zealand in response to wars between Māori and government forces in 1845. 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 re-introduced conscription during the New Zealand wars. In several North Island districts settlers served in militia units fighting ‘rebel’ Māori. This work 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 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 in the war, 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. 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 land wars of the 19th century, such as the Waikato and Tūhoe tribes, also resisted conscription and about 100 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.

Also during the Second World War there was ‘manpower’ conscription, where people were 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 rather than conscripted troops.

    • John Featon, The Waikato war, 1863–4. Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 1995, pp. 13–14 (originally published 1879). Back

Conscientious objection

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 chairman, 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.

    • James K. Baxter, ‘Pig Island Letters 8’, Collected poems. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 281. Back



The Moriori people of Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) are said to have practised pacifism for hundreds of years. A chief named Nunuku ordered two rival tribes to cease fighting, destroy their weapons and make peace. He insisted that in future, serious disagreements would be settled by non-fatal single combat. The Moriori symbolised their rejection of violence by wearing white feathers in their hair, which later became an international symbol of peace.


For some Māori converts to Christianity, such as Taranaki leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, the biblical message of peace was also deeply significant. They preached a gospel of non-violent resistance to European settlement on confiscated Māori land, and more than 2,000 followers came to live at their community at Parihaka, in the shadow of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). They passively resisted the surveying of their land for European settlement by ploughing it. On 5 November 1881 the settlement at Parihaka was occupied by settler volunteers and the New Zealand Constabulary Field Force. Since 2006 a peace festival has been held annually at Parihaka.

Man of principle

Pukekohe-born Ormond Burton enlisted for the First World War as a medical orderly. He was wounded three times, repeatedly decorated, and gained a lieutenant’s commission. His wartime experience helped to make Burton a lifelong pacifist. He became a Methodist minister and in 1936, together with Archie Barrington, founded the Christian Pacifist Society. In 1939 Burton objected from the steps of Parliament to New Zealand’s entry to the Second World War. He was later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison despite international protest. When released in 1944, the only job he could obtain was as caretaker of Wellington High School. He spent 11 years there, eventually as deputy principal.

1890s to the First World War

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1892, combined pacifist views with advocacy of women’s suffrage and temperance (discouraging the drinking of alcohol). The move towards world war in 1914 sparked an upsurge in pacifist movements, mostly based on Christian ideals. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, formed in 1915, had a branch in New Zealand by the following year. A prominent pacifist, Unitarian minister James Chapple moved his family to the then-neutral United States in 1915.

Pacifism in the Second World War

Several pacifist groups were formed in the years before the Second World War, such as the mainly Methodist Christian Pacifist Society (CPS) and the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union. None gained widespread support and Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage condemned pacifists as ‘cranks and ingrates, the dreamers of fantastic dreams, of ideological oddities and ne’er do-wells.’1 The Motueka citrus orchard of Hubert Holdaway, who had become a convinced Christian pacifist during the First World War, was a base for pacifist opposition to the war. It became known as the Riverside community and remained a thriving pacifist community and communal farm in the 21st century.

Prominent pacifists

Many New Zealanders have held and advocated pacifist views at some time in their lives. They include the former prime minister Walter Nash, artist Leo Bensemann, Ngāti Toa chief Wī Parata, and ombudsman and race relations conciliator Guy Powles.

Nuclear-free Pacific

Opposition to war was more widespread from the 1960s, especially after France began nuclear tests in the South Pacific in 1966. The Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Coalition was formed in 1972 and the following year the New Zealand government took a case against the tests to the International Court of Justice and sent a naval frigate into the test zone. Protests against visiting nuclear warships led to the formation in 1975 of the Peace Squadron, a civilian naval blockade. In 1984 the government declared New Zealand to be officially anti-nuclear, the only such country in the developed world.

The anti-testing movement gained worldwide attention in 1985 when the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland Harbour by French secret agents. Subsequent financial compensation from the French government funded the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust, which has supported pacifist organisations such as the New Zealand Peace Foundation.

In 2008 three Christian peace activists damaged a satellite dish at the Government Communications Security Bureau base at Waihopai, near Blenheim. In court they claimed that they were acting for the greater good of humanity, and they were acquitted by the jury.

    • Dominion, 12 February 1940. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 January 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012