Kōrero: Armed forces

Whārangi 1. Historical overview

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


New Zealand has had its own armed forces since the early days of European colonisation. The first unofficial military organisation was the Kororareka Association (1838–40). Local volunteer forces were established in the early 1840s but were disbanded when the Militia Ordinance 1845, which authorised the raising of compulsory militias to supplement imperial (British) troops, was issued. Imperial troops were stationed in New Zealand from 1840 to 1870.

Militia men

Under the Militia Ordinance 1845 all able-bodied European men aged between 18 and 60 could be called out for compulsory training or service within 25 miles (40 kilometres) of their town. Militia service was unpopular because the pay was low, and communities and families suffered economically when their men had to leave paid work to attend. Militia forces saw active service during the New Zealand wars, and the last force – the Taranaki Militia – was released from service in 1872. Militias were never used again but provision for their use remained in legislation until 1950.

Volunteer units were established during the New Zealand wars. The first permanent military force was the Colonial Defence Force, which was active from 1862. This was replaced by the Armed Constabulary, which performed both military and policing roles, in 1867. After being renamed the New Zealand Constabulary Force, it was divided into separate military and police forces in 1886. The military force was called the Permanent Militia and later renamed the Permanent Force.

In 1910 the Territorial Force was established, replacing Volunteers. This reserve force formed the foundation of the army. By then, the Permanent Force had evolved into the Royal New Zealand Artillery. This, along with the Royal New Zealand Engineers and the New Zealand Staff Corps (who were in charge of the Territorial Force) became the army’s professional, permanent centre.

New Zealand naval volunteers were first formed in the 1860s. The New Zealand Naval Forces and a New Zealand branch of the Royal Naval Reserve were established by the Naval Defence Act 1913. The first warship (HMS Philomel) was purchased in 1914. This was followed by the formation of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1921 and the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1941.

New Zealand’s air force has its origins in the gift of an aircraft to New Zealand by the United Kingdom-based Imperial Air Fleet Committee in 1913. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force was created within the army in 1923, and the name was changed to the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1934. It separated from the army in 1937.

Compulsory military training and conscription

Compulsory military training (CMT) began in 1911 and formed the basis of the Territorial Force. During the First World War the compulsory scheme was, in effect, replaced by conscription for overseas service from 1916. CMT continued after the war, but budget restrictions limited its scope and it was suspended in 1930.

Conscription was reintroduced early in the Second World War. During both wars, conscription was used because the number who volunteered did not match the needs of the war effort.

CMT was introduced again in 1949 but could not meet the technical needs of the navy and air force, and produced more servicemen than were required for the army. The scheme ended in 1959 and the strength of the Territorial Force declined almost immediately. By this time the balance had shifted from amateurs to professionals. Large-scale warfare was now unlikely, and highly trained permanent or regular forces were needed mostly for more localised conflicts overseas.

A more limited form of national service (selective conscription by ballot) was introduced in 1961. This ended in 1972. The Territorial Force became a voluntary reserve service which supplemented the regular, professional force.


During the First and Second world wars, the armed forces expanded to meet the needs of global warfare. In the Second World War 194,000 men (67% of those aged between 18 and 45) and 10,000 women served.


The armed forces diversified over time. Compulsory training initially did not apply to Māori, but some had volunteered for the Volunteers and Territorial Force. A small contingent of Māori fought in the First World War, but it was not until the Second World War that Māori participation became more prominent.

As Māori moved into the cities after the war, their proportion in the armed forces increased and they became moderately overrepresented compared to their proportion of the general population. In 2011 Māori comprised 17% of the regular force (compared to 14.6% of the general population in the 2006 census).


Women served as nurses in the First World War. In the Second World War women’s roles diversified, though no women actually fought. After the war women’s armed services were retained but participation was low – around 4–5% of the forces in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over time more branches of the armed forces were opened to women and separate women’s services ended in 1977. However, human-rights laws reserved the right of the armed forces to give preferential treatment on the basis of gender in relation to combat roles. The Human Rights Commission Act 1977 and the Human Rights Act 1993 both contained particular provisions which allowed this discrimination. These provisions were repealed by the Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Act 2007. By this stage, restrictions on women’s service had already been lifted by the New Zealand Defence Force – the change in law reflected an existing change in practice.

By 2000 all restrictions on women engaging in combat had been lifted. In 2011, 16% of the regular forces were women.


Homosexual acts between men were illegal in New Zealand until 1986. During the first and second world wars, members of the armed forces found to have engaged in homosexual acts were imprisoned for disgraceful conduct and then ignominiously discharged. From 1950 most were discharged from the forces without prosecution.

The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 decriminalised homosexuality, but the armed forces were exempted from its provisions. Discrimination based on sexuality in the armed forces became unlawful after the passing of the Human Rights Act 1993. The chief of defence force approved the establishment of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) support group in 2011.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jim Rolfe, 'Armed forces - Historical overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/armed-forces/page-1 (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jim Rolfe, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Apr 2020