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Signing up the shirkers: Conscription in the First World War

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Signing up the shirkers: Conscription in the First World War

When the New Zealand government followed Great Britain in declaring war against Germany, they had the backing of almost the entire population. But as the war dragged on, a shortage of recruits led to the introduction of national conscription. ​

Volunteer recruits marching up Queen Street, 1914.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-PR-DU436-1214-D538-1.

The shirkers

By 1915, the number of new recruits was falling. In December the government undertook a war census to assess New Zealand's reserves. The results - 109,000 men willing to serve and 34,000 unwilling - sparked debate across the country.

Attitudes hardened towards eligible men who had not enlisted. This group were presented in newspapers as undeserving 'shirkers' and 'slackers' who should be forced to serve. 

Women were urged to do their bit to encourage men to enlist. 

The White Feather Brigade was particularly active in their patriotic fervour. Although not widely endorsed in New Zealand, members aimed to shame men into enlisting by presenting them with white feathers. Sometimes their actions were misdirected. The New Zealand Herald (30 June 1915) reported an instance of an elderly woman who stopped a young-looking man to ask why he had not gone to war. His reply was terse and pointed: "Because I have not yet found anyone willing to keep my wife and five children while I am away." 

Armbands of honour

In early 1916, as part of their recruitment drive, the government issued armbands to discourage unwanted attention from those who felt compelled to question men out of uniform. The coloured armbands identified men as returned soldiers, men who had enlisted and were waiting to leave for the front, men who not been refected for medical reasons or those who were engaged in essential industries. 

The government issued armbands for men who were exempt from service.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. W2906 (left), W3049 (right).

But badges are better

The look of the armbands wasn't popular. Members of the Auckland Returned Soldiers Association (RSA) refused to wear them. They had their own silver badge (which was later replaced by the New Zealand RSA badge). Those who had been 'honourably discharged' could choose to wear the British Silver War Badge.

Falsely obtaining a badge or armband was punishable by prison and wearers had to carry an authorisation card.

Men wearing war badges or armbands had to also carry a card of authority.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1995x2.205, N1557.4, Old:11/1.

Here comes conscription, but not in Australia

By the end of 1915, the shortage of volunteer recruits prompted the prime minister, William Massey, to announce a new recruitment scheme. The plan was for local 'canvassers' to locate eligible men and encourage them to enlist. But the lack of volunteer canvassers and the reluctance of 'eligibles' to sign up meant that the government's final drive for voluntary enlistment was a failure.

Reinforcements leaving for the front in March and April 1916 scrambled to meet requirements and last minute recruits were not properly trained.

The Military Service Act introduced conscription in New Zealand.

Papers Past, Evening Post, 5 August 1916.

The country (and the government) was divided in its opinion of conscription. But New Zealand's politicians voted to follow Great Britain and introduce compulsory military service. The Military Service Act became law on 1 August 1916.

By contrast, Australian Prime Minister William Hughes put conscription to a popular vote, and it was rejected.

Earlier, as Australia's attorney general, Hughes had said a country that sent men to fight against their will "would be rotten to the core, and not worth fighting for".

A list of eligible men

Preparations for conscription began immediately, including an update of the existing National Register. All men aged between 20 and 46 were required to register, although in practice this was a near impossible task. 

Marbles drawn from a ballot box on 16 November 1916 marked the beginning of conscription in New Zealand.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1998.81.264-c.

Posters advertising the Military Service Act 1916 described the obligations of men to register.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. EPH-PW-1-97.

The first ballot took place on 16 November 1916. Balloted men were examined by the Medical Board before they were mobilised into training camps. The lack of an accurate register slowed the conscription process. Single men were the first to be conscripted, but towards the end of 1917, married men were included in the ballot.

In June 1917 conscription was extended to include Māori. But subsequent ballots applied only to those living in the Waikato-Maniapoto District. As the first names were being drawn from the ballot, Te Puea - the granddaughter of the Māori king - made her marae at Mangatāwhiri a shelter from conscription.

In June 1918, seven men were arrested at Managatāwhiri. More arrests followed in July and August. Many men were imprisoned for refusing to wear uniforms and some were sentenced to hard labour. 

Of the 552 Waikato-Maniapoto men called up, 74 agreed to enter camp, while 111 were imprisoned. 

The sudden end of the war in 1918 meant that neither Māori or married conscripts made it as far as the front.

With the introduction of conscription, refusal to enlist could result in imprisonment and a number of conscientious objectors were sent to the front line. In addition, any public statements against the war resulted in charges of sedition.

Cite this article

Young, Rose. Signing up the shirkers: Conscription in the First World War. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 18 July 2016. Updated: 1 August 2016.

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