When the New Zealand Government announced it was joining Britain in the war against Germany in August 1914, most New Zealanders greeted the news with wild enthusiasm. Volunteers flocked to enlist. It took real courage to go against this feverish tide of opinion but a few brave voices spoke out for peace.
Hundreds of young men chose to go to prison as objectors to conscription rather than compromise their beliefs, both in the pre-war period when compulsory military training was introduced and during the war.
On this website we highlight the stories of some of those courageous individuals who became political prisoners during this tumultuous period. Some served time in the old Lyttelton Gaol, some in the new prison at Paparua and others endured military detention in Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island.
Public sentiment was against the objectors. Usually referred to as ‘shirkers’, they suffered vilification at the hands of the press, discrimination in their workplaces, and in some cases the loss of civil rights for up to ten years. By also telling the story of the anti-militarist movement that began in Christchurch in 1911 we are marking the origins of the Pākehā peace movement in Aotearoa New Zealand. The labour movement was almost wholly anti-militarist and we also tell the story of those men jailed for breaching the government regulations that said it was sedition to speak out against conscription or war.
Women were not directly involved in compulsory military training or conscription, but some were involved in the anti-militarist organisations. They supported the men who were taking a stand, while also taking a courageous stand themselves to uphold what they saw as the British tradition of freedom of conscience. Maori were initially exempted from conscription. Later the Act was amended to include Maori though conscription was imposed only on Tainui Māori.
In telling these stories, many of which have not been told before, we are not seeking to dishonour or detract from the bravery and commitment to duty displayed by the thousands of men who served in the New Zealand expeditionary force. But these stories of Canterbury’s forgotten history have a place too and are an important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s response to the First World War.