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World War One – Acts of Protest

This article explores various WW1 protests in New Zealand; Te Puea Hērangi, consientious objectors, and protests by active soldiers abroad & at home.
black and white photograph showing the inside of a prison building. A stairway is in front of the viewer, cells lining the sides
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

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.

An aged poster with black and red text. It alerts people that they must by law register for the conscription ballot, and outlines all requirements.. Of note are headings in red reading, ‘Remember! It is your duty to enrol. Remember! You must do your duty’. 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

Māori conscription

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
A sepia toned old photograph showing dozens of Māori soldiers, in uniform, kneeling. They have their helmets raised in the air and are cheering. Members of the Māori Pioneer Battalion (volunteers) giving a rousing farewell to visiting Prime Minister William Massey and Deputy Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward, 30 June 1918. Archives NZ. CC BY 2.0.

Targeted conscription

In 1917 the Government agreed, but selectively, only enforcing conscription on Māori of the Waikato–Maniapoto district. These iwi had been at the centre of the Kīngitanga movement for Māori sovereignty, only a generation distant from those who had vigorously fought the Crown’s control in the 1860 Land Wars and had their ancestral lands stolen from them in retaliation.
Consequently, Māori from here had markedly lower volunteer rates, recognising WWI as a British war, not theirs. They had a Māori king, and after the Land Wars had embraced pacifism, in deference to former King Tāwhiao’s words forbidding Waikato to take up arms again. Waikato leader Te Puea Hērangi led the passive resistance to Māori conscription in the region.
“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
Hērangi offered refuge to those refusing to respond to their ballot conscriptions at Te Paina pā (Mangatāwhiri), amid Government denunciation that she, and they, were “0seditious traitors”. Eventually, in June 1918, police arrived at the pā, and read out the names of those conscripted to come forward. When no one moved, police began arresting men and boys at random and carrying them bodily from the meeting house – many of whom had not been conscripted, including two 16 year olds (one the brother of the Māori King), and a 60-year-old.
One attendee recalled, “If Te Puea had but raised her little finger there would have been bloodshed.” She remained true to her passive resistance though, quietly telling her people to remain calm and telling the police to “Return to your Government and tell them what I have said. I am not afraid of the law or anything else excepting the God of my ancestors … I will not allow any violence or blood to flow through my fingers … Go in peace and goodbye.”


Prisoners were taken to a military training camp and after refusing to don uniforms, were imprisoned, fed only bread and water and had bedding withheld. Hērangi stationed herself outside the prison, and her presence, glimpsed on visits to the toilet, gave the men hope:
”[We would] invent an excuse to go to the whare mimi. The fact that she was there gave us heart to continue.”
On his visit to a nearby marae in 1918, hoping to convince the Tainui iwi to abandon their resistance movement, Dr Pōmare was met with a derogatory haka (war dance) composed for his visit, and a customary insult; a whakapohane – men and women baring their behinds at him. In a telegram to Dr Pōmare, Hērangi wrote, “Laugh from your exalted position at my people, who are being imprisoned like slaves in accordance with the works of the Pākehā.”
By 1919, only 74 of the 552 Tainui men called up had been sent to the camp, and none were ever sent overseas. When the war ended, all outstanding warrants were cancelled. Those who remained imprisoned were quietly released, though the now decades-long grievances between Waikato-Tainui Māori and the Crown remained.
A black and white photograph of a young Māori woman in a blouse and headscarf, standing in front of a carved pou post. She looks past the camera with a serious expression. Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Herangi. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 : Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001920-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22825076

Conscientious Objectors

Many conscientious objectors emerged during the WW1 war effort and conscription, including those who objected on religious grounds, socialist grounds, or, in the case of the Waikato-Tainui Māori (and also of many Irish immigrants to Aotearoa New Zealand), because they refused to fight on the side of the British who had occupied their ancestral land. Few were exempted (only those of a few religious sects). Of around 140,000 men conscripted, 20–30% appealed for various reasons, including 600 conscientious objectors. Of these 600 men, 286 were ultimately imprisoned, most sentenced to hard labour to deter other would-be objectors. Thousands more agreed to take up non-combatant roles.
Australia had voted against conscription, and Aotearoa New Zealand Minister of Defense James Allen put this down to the openness of their debate. To quell any such resistance at home, strikes or public criticism of conscription was swiftly banned, with even mild remarks made punishable by prison sentences. Over one hundred people were charged under these acts and most of them imprisoned, many of them labour leaders.
A further 580 men were arrested for avoiding service by either fleeing the country, faking illness, going into hiding, or deserting from training camps, with more than a thousand more outstanding warrants by War’s end.
Two sepia photographs. They show a man in army uniform with a rifle tied to his shoulder and wrist. He is downcast. Another soldier reaches for him in one photo and grabs him in the other. Wanganui inmate and Irish-born objector, Thomas Moynihan, undergoing punishment. Moynihan had refused to drill, so according to his statement, he was stripped, beaten, forcibly put in uniform, and taken to the ‘slaughter yard’. A rifle was then tied to his wrist, but as Moynihan refused to hold it, the gun kept slipping down. Guards allegedly smashed it several times against the side of his face “till the blood was streaming down.” It was finally attached to his shoulder, and he was pushed, punched and forced around the yard for close to an hour, only stopping to have these photographs taken. Wanganui Detention Barracks 1918. Archives NZ. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Unionists and resistance

Coming as it did on the heels of the rise of militant unionism that drove the Great Strikes of 1912 and 1913 (covered previously in the course), many unionists and socialists were loath to be conscripted forcibly into war for the very capitalist system and leaders which they had been fighting against for years. Their allegiance, they said, was to the working classes worldwide, not to capitalist leaders.
The government meanwhile, was enacting wartime legislation to shut down resistance and imprison those who ignored their conscriptions. Paddy Webb, an MP of the Social Democratic Party opposed conscription from the start, taking a public stand against it.
When several unions, including miners and watersiders, undertook industrial action in 1916 and 1917 against conscription he spoke in their favour, describing it as a battle for democratic freedom. For this, he was charged with making a ‘seditious utterance’, and imprisoned for three months. He refused his own conscription and was court-martialed and sentenced to two years of hard labour, and deprived of the right to vote or hold public office for ten years. He returned as a Cabinet Minister for Labour in 1935.
Future Prime Minister and unionist, Michael Savage, also spoke against conscription, on the grounds that conscription of wealth should be the focus, rather than the conscription of men.

The Fourteen

Of those imprisoned men who continued to resist any attempt to comply with any form of military service, fourteen were to be sent overseas regardless. Notably, most of these men had not been conscripted randomly by ballot, but had been targeted for conscription within their region to be made an example of as ‘unpatriotic objectors’. It included three brothers from a single family; Alexander (Sandy), Archibald, and John Baxter from Otago.
The men were sent to war locked up on a warship in 1917, and forced into military uniforms. Illness and poor conditions convinced three to submit on arrival in England and another was recognised as having ‘genuine’ religious objections and sent home. Four more were persuaded to submit upon arrival in France, three served sentences in Dunkirk Prison that NZ History describes as ‘exceptionally brutal’.
Sepia photograph of dozens of men, crowded around and sitting on makeshift fences to watch as a man is dressed by two others in the centre of the crowd. Forced dressing of Conscientious Objectors into uniform, 1918. Archives NZ. CC-BY-SA 2.0.
After all of this, four still resisted. These four were subjected to extreme physical punishment, tantamount to torture. They were bound to slanted poles for hours in all weather with the weight of their bodies entirely hanging on their constrained hands (‘field punishment No.1’, known colloquially as ‘the crucifixion’. In his 1939 book, ‘We will not cease, Archibald Baxter, one of the two objectors who held out to the last, reflected:
“[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.”
At this point, one agreed to serve as a non-combatant stretcher bearer. The torture continued for the remaining three, now including being sent to the trenches of the front line. They were starved, beaten, sent into enemy fire, dragged across barbed wire, near-drowned, and denied medical treatment.
The abhorrence many, both civilians and soldiers, felt at such treatment of obviously principled men is still felt today. 100 years later, in 2016, at the annual Anzac day commemoration for New Zealand and Australian servicemen, several guerilla sculptures appeared, later revealed to be the work of Peace Action Wellington – three soldiers bound to posts around the city, lashed into field punishment no. 1.
A full sized human figure in a soldier's uniform and cap, made of stuffed cardboard, tape, jeans and boots, all painted an army green. The figure is tied by hands, feet, waist and neck to a white post. Its arms are crossed behind the pole, feet together, and head bowed. Photo taken from the side with Wellington harbour in the background A full sized human figure in a soldiers uniform and cap, made of stuffed cardboard, tape, jeans and boots, all painted an army green. The figure is tied by hands, feet, waist and neck to a white post. Its arms are crossed behind the pole, feet together, and head bowed. Photo taken from the back with Wellington harbour in the background
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).
Sent home as ‘insane’ after such treatment (a classification he rejected), Baxter and his wife dedicated the remainder of their lives to the peace movement. Their eldest son was arrested as a conscientious objector in WWII. Their second son, James K. Baxter, went on to become one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most famous poets, as well as a vocal critic of the Vietnam War. The other objector who held out against his torture until he was invalided out, Mark Briggs, was appointed to the legislative council in 1936. In 1940 he voted against the introduction of military conscription in WWII – the only MP to do so.
The front cover of an aged book., ‘We will not cease, the autobiography of a conscientious objector’. A blurb under the title reads, ‘This day by day record of the sufferings, torments, anguishes and privations of a Conscientious Objector in World War I is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1939. It is written ‘In memory of those days that we can’t yet afford to forget’, and for those who like Archibald Baxter believe that war does not provide an answer to anything, this book is a moving reminder of the kind of courage needed to remain true to the dictates of belief and conscience.’ Front cover, We will not cease by Archibald Baxter. The Caxton Press, 1968 authorised by Cape Catley Limited. NZETC. CC BY SA 3.0 CC NZ.

Soldiers’ protest

Once on the front lines too, dissent at conditions or orders was suppressed. Letters home were subject to significant censorship, and soldiers were often reluctant to tell the true horror of their situation to worried loved ones. Expressions of protest seldom reached beyond a soldier’s own trench comrades. There though, it was often expressed by bawdy songs, jokes, and poems.
To quote from a paper by J Horrocks, Shell Shock and Dissent in World War One:
”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.”
Protest via direct action by Aotearoa New Zealand soldiers was rare but did happen – not at the front, but at various training camps. Protest in a wartime military environment carries a different tone to peacetime protest. As author Dave Lamb matter-of-factly and chillingly puts it in his work Mutinies:
”Once men reach the point where death is familiar, fear of death has less effect.”

Protest at Étaples

Black and white photo of soldiers in the trenches. One leans out the top to shoot. New Zealand soldiers in the front line on the Somme, La Signy Farm, France, 1916. Reference: ACGO 8398 IA76 7/13 H474 (R24203999) via Archives NZ. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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.

A sepia toned photograph of hundreds of soldiers in lines, facing away over rolling lines of more soldiers and buildings in the distance. In the foreground are a row of memorial crosses. New Zealand troops commemorated the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Étaples on 4 August 1918 (the year following the mutiny). Archives NZ. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Shell shock

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.

Further resources

A misguided WWI protest in Aotearoa New Zealand – the persecution of Professor George Von Zedlitz, and other German immigrants.

Te Papa blogs on various aspects of WWI.

Māori and the First World War, NZ History

Conscientious objection and dissent, NZ History

Biography of Dr Māui Pōmare, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Biography of Te Puea Hērangi, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Māori at Gallipoli – TedX talk “Forgotten grandfathers: Māori men of WWI”

How conscription changed Aotearoa New Zealand society 100 years ago

Men of conscience, Otago Daily Times

Short documentary by Frank: Archibald Baxter – The Life of New Zealand’s Foremost Pacifist

Trailer for the television docuseries series following Archibald Baxter as he was deported to the front as a conscientious objector, ‘Field Punishment No. 1 (2014).

Military log for conscientious objector Mark Briggs, including an issuance for 28 days of field punishment no. 1

Social Conflict and Control, Protest and Repression (New Zealand), International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

The untold story of the man who started the Great War mutiny

1917: The Étaples mutiny

Mutinies 1917–1920 – Dave Lamb

Riot at Sling Camp

The Limits of Endurance: Shell Shock and Dissent in World War One, John Horrocks, 2018. The Journal of New Zealand Studies

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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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