Conscription, and those who objected for religious, ethical or humanitarian reasons

As the war continued and the high number of casualties became known, volunteers were less keen to enlist. The New Zealand Government found it more difficult to fulfil the commitment it had made to Britain to provide reinforcements; by October 1915 this annual commitment had risen to more than 30,000 men. As a result conscription was introduced in 1916 and initially covered unmarried men, widowers with no children and men married after 4 August 1914.  The conscripts were called up by a monthly ballot. Individuals, or their employers, could appeal for exemption on the grounds that their service would be contrary to the public interest, or would cause undue hardship to themselves or others. 

Civilian Military Service Boards were set up to hear the cases of those who were appealing against military service. The Defence Act allowed for religious objectors, but for appeal against military service to be successful objectors had to belong to a denomination that had pacifism as a central tenet of belief. The only communities that qualified were the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends), the Christadelphians, with the Seventh Day Adventist Church successfully arguing that it be included the following year. Such objectors also had to be willing to do non-combatant work in the Military Medical Corps or Army Service Corps. Many religious objectors refused to do so because though non-combatants they would still be under military orders.

Public feeling against those who objected to military service, popularly known as ‘shirkers’, was extremely hostile.

War regulations meant that the peace movement was effectively silenced because to speak or write against conscription or the war effort was ‘seditious’ and punishable by imprisonment.

The number of political prisoners, or conscientious objectors (COs), imprisoned in Aotearoa New Zealand during the war is not known but is estimated to be between 300 and 400. At the war’s end there were 273 COs in prisons throughout the country with 60 at Paparua Prison near Christchurch.

Read more about conscientious objectors on the NZHistory website