New Zealand played a small but useful part in the British Empire’s war effort. The defeat of the Central Powers in late 1918 ensured New Zealand’s physical and economic security.
Superior Allied sea power had made the risk of any significant danger to New Zealand's territory remote. The defeat of the German squadron in the Pacific at the outset of the war meant that New Zealand suffered little more than raider incursions. There were a couple of high-profile incidents, and German armed merchantmen laid mines in New Zealand waters in 1917. Only the triumph of the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea might have changed the picture. Although Germany claimed victory in the crucial naval Battle of Jutland in 1916 (on the basis that they destroyed more British ships), its fleet never again put to sea to challenge the Royal Navy. During 1917 German submarines seriously threatened Britain’s supply routes but failed to sever them.
New Zealand farmers enjoyed the benefits of relatively good prices for their produce under commandeer arrangements. But the price of security was high: more than 18,000 New Zealanders were killed while serving overseas.
The war had a major impact on constitutional arrangements within the British Empire, and it affected New Zealand’s international status. Tentative moves had been made before the war to involve the self-governing dominions in imperial decision-making. This process was accelerated by their contribution to the empire’s war effort. An Imperial War Conference was called in 1917 and an Imperial War Cabinet was established. The dominions saw such events as foreshadowing a more co-operative post-war imperial system.
In 1919 the dominions signed, in their own right, the Treaty of Versailles, the peace agreement officially ending the war. The dominions also became full members of the newly established League of Nations. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 established the equal status of Britain and its self-governing dominions, and in 1931 the Statute of Westminster embodied this principle in law.
The First World War seemed to have further strengthened the British Empire. Imperial resources were successfully marshalled in the common cause, and the empire’s territory was extended by the acquisition of German and Turkish colonies in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific (as mandates of the League of Nations).
By contrast, rival empires in Europe were in disarray. The Treaty of Versailles had crushed Germany, which fell into revolutionary unrest. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, breaking into a number of smaller states. Russia was racked by civil war following the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, which had led to its early withdrawal from the war. France was simply exhausted.
Appearances can be deceptive. Although it was not immediately apparent, the war had seriously undermined the British Empire’s strategic position and, with it, the security system upon which New Zealand relied. New potential rivals outside Europe had emerged, in particular the United States and Japan. Communist Russia represented a fundamentally antagonistic and unstable ingredient in international relations.
The war had left Britain financially drained and unable to sustain the level of armaments required to protect its worldwide empire. Its position was further weakened by the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1921. Increasingly Britain relied on political action to maintain the status quo, an approach that would fall apart in the 1930s.
At first sight, the prolonged and costly conflict did not affect New Zealand attitudes to war. When, in 1922, a new conflict with Turkey seemed possible during the Chanak crisis, thousands of men rapidly came forward to form a new expeditionary force. Ultimately, however, the heavy toll of lives and the seemingly futile nature of many of the battles, especially on the Western Front, did affect opinion in New Zealand, as in other Commonwealth countries. Pacifism was boosted.
The war, especially the Gallipoli campaign, also had a marked influence on the development of a distinctive New Zealand national identity.