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
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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.

Sweden warn’s about “security situation in neighborhood”

Sweden is bringing back conscription and is sending out leaflets urging citizens to prepare for “different kinds of attacks on society and Sweden”.  One concern is “Russia aggression”.

CNN: Sweden to publish leaflets warning citizens over potential war

Sweden is preparing to issue leaflets to 4.7 million households this spring amid growing fears it could be dragged into the perils of war.

The leaflets, which urge citizens to prepare for “crisis and catastrophes in peacetime, but also for different kinds of attacks on society and Sweden,” is the latest step in the country’s revamped defense strategy in response to perceived Russian aggression.The pamphlet is prompted partly by the “security situation in our neighborhood,” meaning the Baltic area, a Civil Contingencies Agency spokesperson told CNN on Wednesday.

The leaflets, which will be published later this year, aim to educate Swedes on how to prepare in case “their world gets turned upside down,” and ask municipal regions to ready previous Cold War bunkers.

According to a spokesperson for the Civil Contingencies Agency, the literature will also provide practical tips to ensure citizens have all the necessary food, water and blankets stocked at home.

The country suspended conscription in 2010 and instead adopted a recruitment system which relied on volunteers.
But it changed tack in March 2017, announcing conscription would return in 2018.

In May 2017 Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told CNN: “The Russian regime has showed they are ready to use military powers to fulfill political goals.”

We often don’t appreciate how lucky we are here on the other side of the world.