NZ’s WWI conscientious objectors commemorated

There were a number of conscientious objectors during World War 1, who were treated disgracefully.

Historian Tim Shoebridge led a project to compile lists of imprisoned conscientious objectors, convictions for sedition, and  military defaulters, as well as collating a number of personal stories of objectors.

NZ History: Conscientious objection and dissent

While most New Zealanders supported their country’s participation in the First World War, a small but significant group opposed it on religious, political, philosophical or personal grounds.

Conscripted men who refused military service were known as ‘conscientious objectors’, because their refusal to serve was based on their personal beliefs (or consciences). About 600 men declared conscientious objections, of whom around 286 were ultimately imprisoned in New Zealand as an example to other would-be objectors (others accepted non-combatant service or were exempt). Fourteen imprisoned objectors were forcibly despatched overseas in July 1917, with some ultimately transported to the Western Front and subjected to military punishments and incarceration.

The principal critics of conscription were people from labour organisations and Christian sects with pacifist leanings.

Imprisoned objectors by type
Reason for objection Number imprisoned
Religious 141
Socialist 59
Religious/socialist 11
Irish 23
Irish/socialist 6
Non-religious, not specified 20
Philosophical pacifist 3
Waikato Māori objections 14
Not a reservist 3
Not recorded 6

The 14

In mid-1917 the Defence Department reviewed the objectors then incarcerated and decided that those who still rejected all forms of military service would be sent overseas on the next troopship. The department labelled such men ‘defiant objectors’, believing they were motivated by stubbornness rather than ‘genuine’ religious scruples. The conscription process was intended to ensure equal sacrifice across society, so 14 imprisoned objectors were selected to be sent abroad to be treated like any other soldier. Their forced deportation would be proof of the department’s commitment to buttressing the conscription system against those trying to find a way around it.

The 14 men had been amongst the earliest to make a stand against conscription. More than half of them had been called up under the ‘family shirker’ clause rather than selected at random by the ballot – they had been deliberately singled out by the military authorities of their district to make an example of them as unpatriotic objectors. The group was drawn mainly from labouring and industrial workers, and included three brothers – Alexander (Sandy), Archibald and John Baxter of Brighton, Otago.

1. List of imprisoned conscientious objectors, 1916-18

This spreadsheet lists the 286 conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for rejecting military service during the First World War. It lists the dates they were balloted, sentenced and released, and provides other biographical and procedural information. It also records their reasons for rejecting military service, where this information is available. The list is based on original research by NZHistory.

2. List of New Zealanders convicted of sedition, 1915-18

This spreadsheet records the wartime convictions of 102 New Zealanders for making seditious statements or supporting a ‘seditious strike’. It lists names, occupations, approximate years of birth, charges, dates and places of prosecution, and date of release from incarceration of each individual. The list is based on original research by NZHistory.

3. Report of the Religious Advisory Board, 1919

In 1919 the government appointed a Religious Advisory Board to interview the conscientious objectors who had been imprisoned during the First World War. The board was asked to provide a list of all the objectors whose refusal to serve had been motivated by religious concerns. These men, whom the government judged to have a more defensible rationale for rejecting military service than those with political motivations, would be released from prison early without further punishment. Those objectors not categorised as religious by the board remained in prison and were placed on the defaulters’ list, losing certain civil rights for 10 years.

The board’s report provides the most detailed analysis of individual objectors and is an important source for First World War researchers and genealogists. It includes (1) a summary of the board’s recommendations by individual; (2) notes on the interviews with each objector; (3) a list of all the objectors released in August 1919 as a result of the board’s report.

The report covers only the 273 objectors who remained incarcerated in early 1919.

Archives New Zealand
AD1 734 10/407/15


4. Military Defaulters List, 1919

In May 1919 the government published a Military Defaulters List, containing the names of men it considered had failed to perform their civic duties under the conscription system during the First World War. This included men who had directly refused military service (conscientious objectors), those who deserted from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and those who failed to present themselves for military service when called upon to do so. Conscientious objectors who had refused military service on religious grounds were exempt from inclusion in the list.

The original list published in May 1919 included 2373 names, of which 99 were subsequently removed on appeal. Forty-six names were subsequently added, making the final total 2320.

There are also links to a number of personal stories.

  • James Allen
    Defence Minister James Allen was the person most directly responsible for administering the conscription process.
  • Archibald Baxter
    Conscientious objector Archibald Baxter was one of the 14 men deported to the front in 1917, and his memoir We Will Not Cease provides a graphic account of his experiences.
  • George Billings 
    Auckland electrician George Billings refused military service on religious grounds and was imprisoned for two years as a result.
  • Mark Briggs 
    Mark Briggs endured imprisonment, illness, and physical punishment as one of the 14 men deported to the front in 1917.
  • Alfred Davis 
    Alfred Davis was sentenced to three months in prison in 1918 for helping his brother avoid military service.
  • Peter Fraser 
    Labour leader – and future prime minister – was imprisoned for 12 months for ‘seditious’ anti-war comments in December 1916.
  • Joseph Jones
    Waterside labour Joseph Jones served prison sentences for an anti-war speech and later for refusing military service.
  • Rua Kenana 
    The police arrested Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana in 1916, probably suspecting he was dissuading his followers from enlisting in the armed forces.
  • Roy Lambess 
    Labourer Roy Lambess deserted from training camp on four occasions between 1916 and 1918.
  • Ernest Lynd 
    Russian watersider Ernest Lynd, sentenced to 11 months in prison for seditious comments, complained that the police harassed him because he was a foreigner.
  • Duncan McCormack 
    Socialist objector Duncan McCormack recalled his wartime imprisonment for Radio New Zealand in 1979.
  • John O’Neill 
    John O’Neill served a prison sentence for sedition before evading the draft for several months. Finally forced into uniform, O’Neill died at Trentham Camp in the influenza pandemic of November 1918.
  • Alphonsus Parsons
    Alphonsus Parsons served prison sentences for both seditious utterances and refusing military service.
  • Thomas Simpkins 
    Bushman Thomas Simpkins was sentenced to 12 days in prison in May 1918 for failing to enrol for the ballot.
  • Patrick Webb 
    One of conscription’s most prominent critics, parliamentarian Paddy Webb served prison sentences for both seditious utterances and refusing military service.
  • Tom Young
    Union secretary W.T. Young served three months in prison in 1917 for ‘inciting a seditious strike’. Young maintained that the government was using the war regulations to silence its political opponents.
Leave a comment


  1. Kitty Catkin

     /  26th April 2018

    I can have a lot of sympathy for deserters, I am sure that I’d have been one.

  2. Gerrit

     /  26th April 2018

    I have no sympathy for deserters or those who had a conscious objection to carrying and using a weapon whilst refusing to serve as a non combatant.

    I have total respect for the Desmond Doss’s of this world who refused to fight but served regardless. Desmond Doss received the USA Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during WW2. He never picked up a weapon, never fired one but served and followed his conscious.

    Watch the movie Hacksaw Ridge for his bravery.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  26th April 2018

      Read “We Will Not Cease” for the Kiwi experience.

    • Blazer

       /  26th April 2018

      the irrefutable facts..banned on FB…

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  26th April 2018

        Oh, don’t start that again.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  26th April 2018

          Gerrit, after months (assuming that someone survived that long) of the Hell that was WWI, I wouldn’t blame anyone for cracking and not being able to take it any more. You must have seen films and photos of it. Can you say that you could go through that and not at least WANT to run for the hills ? I heard very old men reliving it in their minds. I am amazed that more didn’t break down at the time. Some ‘deserters’ were not deserters, like the two who sat down under a tree on their way back from leave, dropped off to sleep and slept through the time that they were supposed to be back at the barracks/trenches/wherever it was. Pleas were made for them from various officers as they had excellent records and were good soldiers who had never done anything wrong. Too bad.They were not unique, as I understand it.

          Have a little imagination and empathy !

  3. Blazer

     /  26th April 2018

    Irish as a..’type’….

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  26th April 2018

      Indeed. Do you find it odd that an Irishman would not want to fight for England, given their history ? I don’t.

  4. phantom snowflake

     /  26th April 2018

    A bit of a tangent but animals also paid a high price in World War 1. Large numbers of horses were sent from New Zealand to the war, and very few returned. Of those that survived the campaign, the majority, I believe, were shot at its conclusion.


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