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Pre-War Anti-Militarism and the Passive Resisters Union

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The pre-war peace movement began in response to the 1909 Defence Act which introduced compulsory military training or ‘Peacetime Conscription’. Boys as young as 12 (later raised to 14) were obliged to drill regularly and this continued up to the age of 21 (later raised to 25).

Christchurch was the centre of resistance to compulsory military training with three organisations forming in three years: the Anti-Militarist League founded in 1910, the National Peace Council founded in 1911, and the Passive Resisters’ Union (PRU) founded in 1912. The Canterbury Women's Institute and labour organisations also supported this early peace movement.

While the Anti-Militarist League and the National Peace Council worked in traditional ways with meetings, letters, deputations, and the printing and disseminating of educational material, the PRU carried out a programme of civil disobedience. Only the young men who were affected by the Act could join the union and when their members began to be imprisoned and lose their civil rights the union published its own very effective publication, The Repeal.

The PRU with a membership of more than 400 led an effective campaign of resistance to the Act. Several hundred young men throughout the country refused to drill and were imprisoned for non-payment of fines imposed by the courts. Their campaign was supported by the wider peace movement which could justifiably claim that the Defence Act had become unworkable.

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The response of the Labour Movement to conscription: political objectors to military service

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In the early part of the 20th Century, Christchurch was an absolute hotbed of socialism, and the advent of World War One rallied the movement around class-consciousness.

The Socialists espoused the belief that "New Zealand workers had no quarrel with German workers"—paraphrasing the pioneering British Labour politician Keir Hardie—and at the same time, on the other side of the world, German workers were saying the same thing amidst massive socialist street rallies.

Some socialists were imprisoned on Ripapa Island for refusing to register for Compulsory Military Training (CMT), some were imprisoned in Lyttelton Gaol for sedition, and others were incarcerated in Paparua Prison for conscientious objection. The conscientious objectors lost their rights as citizens for ten years following the War. Several of the seditious socialists and conscientious objectors went on to become prominent local and national Labour politicians. One became Christchurch East's MP for twenty years, and another Prime Minister of New Zealand. Together these men formed a government that built one of our country's finest achievements: the Welfare State. They cleared slums and built public housing, hospitals and schools. 

The Canterbury socialists refused to participate in a foreign imperial war, but one hundred years ago they were at the very epicentre of a class one.

Keith Locke marks the centenary of the first men to be jailed for sedition when they spoke out against conscription

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