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WWI Conscription and Conscientious Objectors in New Zealand

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The following is a tale of World War I legal history with a literary twist.  (Working at the world’s largest library, with books on every subject, I could hardly leave the literary aspect out, could I?)

I have previously written about New Zealand’s involvement in World War I, particularly in the Gallipoli campaign, and related legal topics.  In this post I examine the issue of conscription that arose during the war, and the related matter of the treatment of conscientious objectors.  Much has been written about both, and there are a range of resources available online and in print.

World War I conscientious objectors have been in the news in New Zealand quite a lot recently, with a pacifist organization drawing attention to their treatment by placing sculptures representing such objectors, in “field punishment number one position,” around Wellington on Anzac Day 2016 (April 25).  Previously, in 2014, a film was shown on New Zealand television that “follows the gruelling journey of Archibald Baxter, a pacifist who defied conscription and chose, on moral grounds, not to fight in World War I.”  This film was titled “Field Punishment No. 1” – again a reference to a particular punishment used during the war, which I discuss below.  Also, earlier this year, a list of the 286 conscientious objectors who were imprisoned during the war was made available on the New Zealand History website, which is produced by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.  In August 2016, the chief historian at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage spoke on Radio New Zealand about conscription and conscientious objectors.

Military Service Act 1916 regs
Regulations under the Military Service Act, 1916, New Zealand Gazette No. 104 (Sept. 18, 1916), pp. 3029-3034. All photos by author.

Conscription Rules

Following New Zealand’s entry into the war in August 1914 as part of the British Empire, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was made up entirely of enlisted volunteers.  Compulsory military training for boys aged twelve and over had been introduced in 1909 through the Defence Act 1909.  As the war progressed, however, the supply of volunteers dwindled, and the discussion turned to conscription.  In 1915, the government established the National Register, with all men of military age required to state whether they were willing to undertake military service.

After some debate, the Military Service Act 1916 was enacted on August 1, 1916, and became part of the Expeditionary Forces Act 1915.  The bill followed the passage of the Military Service Act 1916 in Britain in January 1916, and a second Act passed in May of that year.  The New Zealand conscription legislation required all men aged between 20 and 45 to register as reservists and to submit to a medical examination.  They were then entered into the conscription ballot (a selection process involving the random drawing of people to be called up for service) for active service in the NZEF, with conscription ballots being held nearly every month between November 1916 and October 1918.  Anyone called up for service had a right of appeal to newly established Military Service Boards that operated throughout the country.  Such appeals had to be based on limited grounds set out in section 18 of the Act:

(a.) That when so called up he was not a member of the Reserve:
(b.) That when so called up from any division or class of the Reserve he was a member of some other division or class the calling-up of which had not been authorized by the Minister of Defence under this Act:
(c.) That by reason of his occupation his calling-up for military service is contrary to the public interest:
(d.) That by reason of his domestic circumstances or for any other reason his calling-up for military service will be a cause of undue hardship to himself or others:
(e.) That he was on the fourth day of August, nineteen hundred and fourteen, and has since continuously been a member of a religious body the tenets and doctrines of which religious body declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service to be contrary to Divine revelation, and also that according to his own conscientious religious belief the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service is unlawful by reason of being contrary to Divine revelation.

Military Service Act 1916 appeals
Regulations as to Appeals to Military Service Boards, New Zealand Gazette No. 115 (Oct. 10, 1916), pp. 3207-3211.

Prior to this legislation, section 65 of the Defence Amendment Act 1912 provided for a broader exemption on religious grounds, allowing for a magistrate togrant to the applicant a certificate of exemption from military training and service if the Magistrate is satisfied that the applicant objects in good faith to such training and service on the ground that it is contrary to his religious belief.”  However, when the Military Service Bill was introduced, it actually made no provision for religious or conscientious objectors to be excluded from conscription.  After considerable debate on the inclusion of an exemption for such people, the Parliament passed a version that contained the very narrow grounds set out in section 18(e), above.

As a result, very few people were able to meet the religious requirements set out in the Military Service Act 1916.  By the end of 1917, only 28 men had been able to sign the relevant declaration regarding willingness to undertake non-combatant work: two Quakers, ten Seventh-Day Adventists, and sixteen Christadelphians.  In total, by the end of the war, only 60 men were granted exemptions on religious grounds.

Prior to conscription taking effect in September 1916, 69,085 volunteers had been accepted for service and sent to camp.  Following September 1916, people did still volunteer, with another 13,939 sent to camp from this group.  In terms of conscription numbers, while there are some conflicting figures, it seems there were 134,393 men called up through the monthly ballot system, under section 10 of the Military Service Act.  A further 2,876 men were called up under the so-called “family shirker clause” in the Act.  This provision, section 34, enabled the Defence Department to call up the sons of families in which no-one had volunteered.  An additional 213 men were called up under section 35 of the Act, which provided for men to be sent straight to camp without being balloted if they were found not to have enrolled for the conscription ballot.  However, of those conscripted, only about 32,270 men were actually sent to camp, as many were rejected due to being medically unfit or being found exempt for other reasons.

Military Service Act 1916 religious objector
Form 8 of the Regulations as to Appeals to Military Service Boards, New Zealand Gazette No. 115 (Oct. 10, 2016), p. 3211.

Treatment of Conscientious Objectors

Military Service Act 1916 ballot
The results of the first ballot under the Military Service Act, 1916, were contained in the Notice as to Men called up under the Military Service Act, 1916, for Service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, New Zealand Gazette No. 132 (Nov. 23, 1916), pp. 3663-3693.

The ballot system under the Military Service Act 1916 brought those so conscripted under military jurisdiction.  Section 13 of the Act provided that all those called up for service had to obey the orders of authorized officers and to report at any time and place notified by the Commandant in the New Zealand Gazette.  If a person failed to present himself he could be “tried and punished under the Army Act for the offence of desertion or absenting himself without leave.”  Section 15 further provided that, should a member of the NZEF remain in New Zealand after his unit had left the country for military service overseas, he could be deemed guilty of desertion.  Under section 17, anyone guilty of desertion was, in addition to his liability under the Army Act, deemed guilty of an indictable offense punishable by imprisonment with hard labor for up to five years (although he could not be punished twice for the same offense).

The Army Act is a UK statute, which was also applicable to New Zealand soldiers under the Defence Act 1909.  I talked about the Army Act, and the accompanying Manual of Military Justice, in my previous post on the punishment for falling asleep at one’s post.

In total, about 600 men declared conscientious objections to serving in the NZEF.  As noted above, about 286 of those men were imprisoned (usually for a short period initially, then for up to two years with hard labor if the person continued to disobey lawful commands), while others were either found to be exempt or accepted non-combatant service.  Fourteen of the imprisoned conscientious objectors were sent to the Western Front in July 1917 at the direction of the Minister of Defence.  These men were to be an example to others, having been labeled “defiant objectors,” with the Defence Department believing “they were motivated by stubbornness rather than “genuine” religious scruples.”  Among these fourteen was Archibald (Archie) Baxter, a farmer and committed pacifist, and his two brothers.

Casualty forms for Mark Briggs, one of the fourteen conscientious objectors sent to the Western Front in 1917. The bottom entry is for 28 days Field Punishment no. 1, dated 15/12/1917, for refusing to comply with an order. Source: Archives New Zealand Flickr page, used under Creative Commons License 2.0.
Casualty form for Mark Briggs, one of the fourteen conscientious objectors sent to the Western Front in 1917. The bottom entry is for 28 days Field Punishment no. 1, dated December 13, 1917, for refusing to comply with an order. Source: Archives New Zealand Flickr page, used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

One of the punishments carried out against some of the conscientious objectors at the front, when they refused to serve, was called “field punishment No. 1.”  In my previous post, I referred to “field punishment No. 2.”  The rules for both punishments, made under section 44 of the Army Act, were contained in the British Manual of Military Justice that applied to the New Zealand troops.  With respect to field punishment No. 1, the rules state that a person so sentenced may be punished as follows:

(a) He may be kept in irons, i.e., in fetters or handcuffs, or both fetters and handcuffs; and may be secured so as to prevent his escape.
(b) When in irons he may be attached for a period or periods not exceeding two hours in any one day to a fixed object, but he must not be so attached during three out of any four consecutive days, nor during more than twenty-one days in all.
(c) Straps or ropes may be used for the purpose of these rules in lieu of irons.
(d) He may be subjected to the like labour, employment, and restraint, and dealt with in like matter as if he were under a sentence of imprisonment with hard labour.

In 1917, the British War Office produced a drawing of one method of attaching a person to a fixed object in carrying out the punishment.  Another sketch shows a man with his hands secured to a wheel.  A painting depicts Archie Baxter enduring the punishment, tied to a pole.  According to The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Baxter and two of the other conscientious objectors who were sent to the front “were tied to a post in the open with their hands bound tightly behind their backs for up to four hours in all weathers. The poles were tipped forward, and the ropes cut into the flesh, cutting off blood flow.”  After also having endured being starved, beaten, and “sent into dangerous areas in the apparent hope he would be killed,” Baxter was eventually sent back to New Zealand in August 1918, following a medical examination in which he was found to be “insane” (which he later contested).  He was “one of only two men to resist service until the end.”

The Literary Twist

A few years after the war, in 1921, Archie Baxter married Millicent Brown, a fellow pacifist whose pacifism had in fact been inspired by Archie a few years earlier.  The Baxters had two sons.  One of these sons was James Keir Baxter, who went on to become both a pacifist and one of New Zealand’s most famous poets.  The Library of Congress holds various publications by and about James K. Baxter and featuring his works.  In one of these publications, Lives of Poets, the author, Michael Schmidt, states that Baxter “was one of the most precocious poets of the century, whose neglect outside New Zealand baffles me.”  (p. 869.)  He goes on to say that, as a young man, Baxter’s “father’s pacifism set the family apart, and this exclusion told on the boy.”  (p. 870.)  One of James K. Baxter’s poems, about a young man who died in battle in North Africa during the war, is set out at the end of this post.

Archie Baxter himself published a book in 1939 about his experiences during the war, titled We Will Not Cease: “a powerful account of dissent and its consequences, it has become a classic of New Zealand literature.”  This book is also held in the Library of Congress collections and has been made available online as part of the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.  A recent publication about Millicent Baxter is also held by the Library.

Further Resources

The following are a selection of additional resources related to conscription, Military Service Boards, and conscientious objectors in New Zealand during World War I:

Articles and theses:


Other research sources:

Finally, the following is a poem by James K. Baxter, the famous son of famed conscientious objector Archie Baxter, titled Elegy for an Unknown Soldier (also published in Collected Poems of James K. Baxter (J.E. Weir ed., 1979), at p. 67.)  It contains references to several aspects of New Zealand life and landscapes: mountains, farming, rugby, beer, and even isolation from other parts of the world.

There was a time when I would magnify
His ending; scatter words as if I wept
Tears not by own but man’s. There was a time.
But not now so. He died of a common sickness.

Nor did any new star shine
Upon the day when he came crying out
Of fleshy darkness to a world of pain,
And waxed eyelids let the daylight enter.

So felt and tasted, found earth good enough.
Later he played with stones and wondered
If there was land beyond the dark sea rim
And where the road led out of the farthest paddock.

Awkward at school, he could not master sums.
Could you expect him then to understand
The miracle and menace of his body
That grew as mushrooms grow from dusk to dawn?

He had the weight, though, for a football scrum
And thought it fine to listen to the cheering
And drink beer with the boys, telling them tall
Stories of girls that he had never known.

So when the War came he was glad and sorry,
But soon enlisted. Then his mother cried
A little, and his father boasted how
He’d let him go, though needed for the farm.

Likely in Egypt he would find out something
About himself, if flies and drunkenness
And deadly heat could tell him much – until
In his first battle a shell splinter caught him.

So crown him with memorial bronze among
The older dead, child of a mountainous island.
Wings of a tarnished victory shadow him
Who born of silence has burned back to silence.


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