NZRSA: The early years of working for soldiers
Soldiers returning from war experienced a variety of difficulties including money, employment and social adjustment. A variety of ad-hoc local clubs and associations had formed and disbanded since the Anglo-Boer War but the First World War triggered a desire to establish a non-political and non-sectarian national organisation whose sole focus was to protect the interests of returned soldiers. In 1916 the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association (NZRSA) was formed and Māori politician Sir James Carroll referred to the "splendid work being done on behalf of the soldiers".
Although a number of returned servicemen contributed to the development of the NZRSA, Captain (later Sir) Donald Simson is widely credited with being the driving force behind the movement. Captain Simson later served as the Honorary Secretary of the British Empire Service League, now the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League. For his efforts on behalf of ex-servicemen and women he was awarded an OBE in 1934, as well as a CBE and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1937.
In April 1916 a national conference of returned soldiers set up a constitution for the fledgling association and only nine months later the NZRSA boasted twenty affiliated branches across the country and a membership of more than four thousand men. Members received a silver membership badge, each of which was registered and not replaced if lost. Badges of deceased men and women could be retained by families, but not worn.
In 1920 the NZRSA agreed to admit British veterans of former wars. By now national membership had reached over 70% of returned service personnel. Membership peaked in the decade following the Second World War.
Members immediately got involved in fundraising and supporting the welfare aspirations of their association.
The 'soldier artist' Sapper Horace Moore-Jones embarked on a national tour exhibiting his original sketches of Gallipoli and giving descriptive lectures, with all proceeds going to the association's funds.
The NZRSA initiated Poppy Day in New Zealand in 1922 to raise funds to relieve unemployment among returned soldiers. Newspapers called it "the biggest social and philanthropic undertaking" yet by the association. The first poppies were purchased from France where Poppy Day originated, benefiting the widows and children who made the poppies. Poppies were later made in New Zealand but production was moved offshore again in 2010.
The poppy donation has remained core to NZRSA fundraising over the years, supplemented by a range of social, sporting and creative events.
Changed by their war experience, and lacking the personal or social resources to cope with the stresses of reintegrating into changed environments at home in New Zealand, many returning soldiers struggled to rebuild their lives. The NZRSA offered vital support and advocated on issues of health, employment and entitlements. The clubs promoted 'sociability', providing comradeship and emotional support.
After years of strong representation to government by the NZRSA and other organisations, the Soldiers Civil Re-establishment League was finally established in 1931 to provide rehabilitation and employment for disabled soldiers. The league became the Disabled Servicemen's Re-establishment League during the Second World War and has evolved into today's organisation, Workbridge Incorporated.
During the Second World War the NZRSA provided gift parcels for the Forces, a service that NZDF personnel stationed overseas at Christmas still receive.
The RSA also petitioned government to make 25 April a statutory holiday, an opportunity for the community to reflect upon and commemorate the sacrifices made in terrible conflicts. In November 1920 the NZRSA's persistence was rewarded with the passing of the Anzac Day Act. The day is an important annual date for the association and the poppy remains a visible and potent symbol of commemoration.
In 2016 the NZRSA celebrates one hundred years of service.
For more information about the centenary of the NZRSA, contact your local branch or visit www.rsa.org.nz
Cite this article
NZRSA: The early years of working for soldiers. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 June 2015. Updated: 17 February 2016.