Conscientious objection in the First World War

There are always supporters and opponents of a country fighting a war. As a nation, New Zealand took a full part in the First World War. More than 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas, and there was strong support for the war on the home front. But there were also people who opposed the war, for political, religious or moral reasons. Some of these people conscientious objectors paid a heavy price for their stance.

Over by Christmas

When the war broke out in 1914 men flocked in their thousands to answer the call to arms. By the end of the first week of the war 14,000 had enlisted. Few New Zealanders seemed opposed to the war.

Despite confident claims that it would be 'over by Christmas', by 1916 the war appeared no closer to a conclusion. The seemingly endless toll in lives and maimed men began to impact on public sentiment. Newspaper editorials urged the public to accept the necessity of greater sacrifices if the war was to be won. Intensive campaigns to encourage enlistment failed to meet their targets; only 30% of men eligible for military service had volunteered.

In 1916 conscription for military service was introduced to maintain New Zealand's supply of reinforcements. Only four MPs opposed its introduction. The Military Service Act 1916 initially imposed conscription on Pakeha only, but this was extended to Maori in June 1917. More than 30,000 conscripts had joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force by the end of the war.

Objection to service

By the end of 1916 conscientious objection to being conscripted for service had become a major issue. Those who objected did so for many reasons. Maori from iwi who had suffered as a result of imperial and settler government policies of the 1860s also resisted the call to fight for the British king. The authorities and general public usually dismissed these arguments; everyone was expected to do their bit for 'King and Country'.

People could gain exemption from conscription on very limited grounds. By the end of the war only 73 objectors had been offered exemption, and 273 were in prison in New Zealand for refusing to serve. As a consequence of their actions, 2600 conscientious objectors lost their civil rights, including being denied voting rights for 10 years and being barred from working for government or local bodies.

How to cite this page: 'Conscientious objection in the First World War', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/first-world-war/conscientious-objection, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012