World War One – Acts of Protest
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Although the Second World War saw important protest from various religious, ethical and political objectors in Aotearoa New Zealand, the first instance of forced conscription into military service was during the First World War. This drove significant and concerted resistance efforts, many of which connected directly to various other protest movements covered in this course, so that period is where this step focuses. In both World Wars, Aotearoa New Zealand was the only country in which conscientious objectors/convicted defaulters were deprived of voting rights and civil employment or office for ten years.
At the start of WWI all the Kiwi soldiers were volunteers. But by 1916, as recruitment numbers began to dwindle, compulsory military conscription by ballot was introduced for all men between 20 and 45 years of age.
Conscription poster, 1916. New Zealand Expeditionary Force [NZEF] – Recruiting posters – Dominion of New Zealand – Military service Act 1916 – Enrollement of Expeditionary force reserve. Archives Reference: AAYS 8638 AD1 Box 1540 / 9/169/2/1. Archives NZ. CC BY 2.0
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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand
Two Māori leaders at the time; Dr Māui Pōmare and Te Puea Hērangi, granddaughter of the second Māori King and niece of the third, had very different views on Māori conscription. For their whole lives, both passionately pursued the best interests of Māori as they saw them, and Hērangi and her peoples’ earlier support had secured Pōmare’s election to Parliament. With conscription though, their views diverged dramatically.
At the outbreak of the war, indigenous people were not allowed into imperial forces, and special permission was granted for a Māori contingent to join Aotearoa New Zealand’s war effort. Dr Pōmare had chaired a committee to encourage voluntary Māori recruitment as a means to demonstrate that Māori deserved to be recognised as full citizens.
Once conscription had come into effect for Pākehā men, Dr Pōmare pushed for it to be extended to Māori, initially exempt. In their voluntary ‘native’ battalions, they had proved themselves fierce and respected warriors on the front line. His view was that their inclusion in conscription couldn’t fail to ensure their full acceptance into colonial society on their return and that the spilling of Māori blood on the front line already demanded utu, or retribution, by their fellow Māori.
“The Pākēha and the Māori today stand side by side, fighting together with one common object.”
– Dr Māui Pōmare
“They tell us to fight for King and country. We’ve got a King, but we haven’t got a country. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it.”
– Te Puea Hērangi
”[We would] invent an excuse to go to the whare mimi. The fact that she was there gave us heart to continue.”
Unionists and resistance
“[The soldier administering the punishment] was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation … I was alternately burning hot and shivering with cold, and the constant pain in my joints woke me whenever I did doze off from exhaustion … When I was taken off, my hands were always black with congested blood.”
Archie Baxter, Field punishment no. 1 sculpture at Frank Kitts Park, 2016. Created by Peace Action Wellington, Photo by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (15868 & 15872).
”Songs and jokes relieved some of the sense of being controlled by the structure of military life. As Les Cleveland put it, while authority over the troops might be virtually omnipotent, it could still be mocked by the powerless who can draw upon the total resources of popular culture to ridicule their leaders and assert their personal dignity.”
”Once men reach the point where death is familiar, fear of death has less effect.”
Protest at Étaples
Historians Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas wrote that the Anzacs (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) were ”contemptuous of the narrow discipline to which British troops subscribed, and were led by officers who had invariably first shown their qualities as privates in the ranks”. They were, they say, “a band of adventurers”(many of them early volunteers) frequently in trouble, and the “bane of authority”.
One such example is the 1917 mutiny at Étaples Base. Notoriously poor conditions and brutal drills were compounded by cruelty and heavy suppression of dissent by instructors and military police. Soldiers frequently snuck across the river to the nearby French town for a reprieve, returning via their surreptitious route before the tide blocked their escape. The seething resentment within the camp came to a head when a Kiwi bugler in the NZ Rifle Brigade missed the tide, and was caught on his return by the military police, receiving the standard beating.
This was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Kiwi regiment. A group of his comrades stormed the police hut in protest and things turned ugly quickly. A member of the military police shot a popular Corporal, and in response, a full-blown mutiny involving thousands of British, Scottish, and Kiwi soldiers broke out with regular demonstrations and marches. The mutiny was quelled with the arrival of hundreds of hundreds of military reinforcements with machine guns and vickers guns. Though several protestors were arrested, and one executed, conditions at the camp were significantly improved after the protest, and the hated commander and military police were replaced.
Upon their return to Aotearoa New Zealand after the war, the Returned Servicemen’s Association lobbied for more specialised and appropriate care for servicemen suffering from ‘shell shock’ – what we would today recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In Horrocks’ paper, there is a discussion that “shell shock can be regarded as a defensive response for some of them… an involuntary protest against military service”.
He writes that although much of society was sympathetic to these soldiers, there remained a struggle in some quarters to reconcile their condition and symptoms with the New Zealand “masculinist tradition of not showing pain or weakness”. That the servicemen’s association should have to protest for the betterment of treatment for returning ‘heroes’ is emblematic of how far society has come in its recognition of mental health, illness, and treatment.
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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand
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