In the first week following the outbreak of the First World War, 14,000 New Zealanders had volunteered, some of whom were Maori. They had received special permission to form a Maori contingent of the New Zealand war effort, as imperial policy did not allow ‘native peoples’ to fight.An estimated 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted during the First World War. Nearly 100,000 of them served overseas.At this time New Zealand’s population was an estimated 1 million. Many communities sent a generation of men to war and the majority of them did not come back.
Though conscription was not introduced until 1916, the New Zealand government established a National Register in 1915. The government assured people that it was not part of preparation for conscription. It was required for all men over 19 to register and only men of military age were asked questions regarding their willingness for military service. The majority of men answered negatively.
The Military Service Act was introduced to Parliament May 1916. The labour movement had been voicing its opposition to conscription since 1915 and were quick to react to the announcement. Anti-Conscription Leagues were formed, mass meetings, and demonstrations occurred. Despite this opposition the bill was quickly passed through Parliament with only three MPs from the socialist movement and a left-leaning independent MP opposing it.The initial Act required non-Maori men aged 20-46 to register. They were sorted into two categories; the unmarried or recently married, and everybody else. The men that would serve were chosen by ballot. At the beginning it was only the first category that were included in the ballot, but later they took from the second as well.
When Australia voted against conscription in a referendum in October 1916, the New Zealand anti-conscription movement received a boost. Meetings were held demanding that conscription be repealed. In an effort to circumvent the movement, the government arrested Robert Semple, an anti-conscription activist. He was charged with sedition, and sentenced to one year’s hard labour. His arrest set a precedent and within a week five of the most prominent union and anti-conscription activists were arrested.
Men who objected to military service could appeal to the Military Service Board, and half of those called up did. They could appeal on grounds of family hardship, religious objection, or public interest, i.e that they were carrying out socially useful work at home. Most of the appeals were rejected and unsuccessful applicants who refused to serve were imprisoned. The sentences varied from between 28 days to 2 years.
The 1916 Act only recognised Christadelphians, Seventh-day Adventists, and Quakers as conscientious objectors. In 1917 the Minister of Defence, Sir James Allen, decided that men who claimed to be conscientious objectors but who did not belong to those three religious groups should be sent to the western front. Accordingly, fourteen conscientious objectors were loaded onto a transport ship to be sent to France> Three became so ill on the journey that they had to be left at Cape Town, another fell ill in Plymouth, England, but the remaining ten did get to France. Some became stretcher bearers and three were sent to the front where they endured beatings, starvation, shelling, ‘Field Punishment No. 1’ (being bound and tied to a post for several hours), and the threat of execution. This caused an enormous uproar in New Zealand and resistance to conscription intensified.
In June 1917 the Act had been expanded to include Maori men. Many Maori tribes opposed conscription and more than a 100 men were arrested for their resistance. In 1918 the Māoris balloted for service that refused to report for training were arrested and taken to a training camp in Auckland. Those that refused to wear the uniform were subjected to severe punishment including being fed only bread and water and given limited bedding. Few Maori conscripts wore the uniform and none were sent overseas.
Of the estimated 135,000 men that were conscripted only 32,000 served overseas.