A ‘gamble in human life’: military conscription begins 100 years ago

In 1916, after two years of fighting, it was clear that New Zealanders’ loyalty to ‘King and Country’ was competing with other concerns – and fewer men were volunteering.

History curator Kirstie Ross takes a look at conscription – introduced 100 years ago to ensure a constant supply of New Zealand soldiers for military service in the Great War.

‘An epoch making event’

On 16 November 1916, two rotating wooden barrels spun into action for the first time, playing a key role over the next two years in the conscription ballot (compulsory enlistment in the armed forces) of almost 140,000 Pakeha men for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Conscription ballot barrel or box, Gift of the New Zealand Immigration Service, 1989, GH003641/1-5. Te Papa

Conscription ballot barrel or box, Gift of the New Zealand Immigration Service, 1989, GH003641/1-5. Te Papa

One of the two barrels (above) has survived the century and is in Te Papa’s history collection, currently on display in Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa.

The barrel is tangible evidence of what one newspaper of the day called a ‘gamble in human life’ in an ‘epoch making event in New Zealand’s history’.

The ballot by numbers

  • The first ballot took 20 hours and 15 minutes over three days (16-18 November 1916).
  • 3,799 Smiths, 2,075 Wilsons, and 1,929 Browns were in the first ballot.
  • 27-year-old Peter Liddell was the first man in New Zealand to be conscripted.
  • 23 ballots were drawn between November 1916 and October 1918.
  • 138,034 New Zealand men were conscripted.
  • 18,548 conscripts eventually served overseas.
  • Around 20% of all men who served overseas during WWI were conscripts.

The story behind the ballot

The two ballot barrels were put into service because, by 1916, supplies of volunteers to fight on the Western Front were beginning to dry up.

After two years of fighting it became more likely that men would have to be conscripted to meet demand.

The Military Services Act, which came into force on 1 August 1916, created the legal and bureaucratic framework for conscription. In November, after the quota for the 23rd and 24th Reinforcements fell short by 1300, it was implemented for the first time.

Poster detailing enrolment procedure for Expeditionary Force Reserve, 1916, GH017655. Te Papa

Poster detailing the enrolment procedure for the Expeditionary Force Reserve, 1916, GH017655. Te Papa

In reserve: a pool of potential conscripts

The men whose names went into the ballot were part of the ‘Expeditionary Force Reserve’ and were known as reservists (see poster above). The reserve was based on a military census that had been taken in 1915, of men all living in New Zealand between the ages of 17 and 60.

Initially, only the names of unmarried reservists (and those who had married after 1 May 1915) would go into the ballot. But eventually, after this so-called ‘First Division’ was exhausted, conscription would be applied firstly to childless married men and then to those with children.

Creating a system

Malcolm Fraser, the government statistician, devised a convoluted but impartial balloting process that used two barrels to randomly select conscripts.

There were 94 marbles in one barrel. The order in which these came out determined the order in which 94 alphabetically arranged drawers were pulled from file cabinets. The order in which 500 marbles were drawn from another barrel determined the order in which reservists’ registration cards were pulled from these drawers.

Subject to a lottery

On the day of the first ballot, dread of the unknown frayed the nerves of many New Zealanders. The Oamaru Mail wrote that the moment was, for many homes, ‘fraught with serious, even terrible, possibilities’.

Boy Scout leaders and a clergyman, circa 1910. David Cossgrove is the centre, front, 1/2-041264-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Boy Scout leaders and a clergyman, circa 1910. David Cossgrove is the centre, front, 1/2-041264-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

And, as David Cossgrove, the Director of Recruiting (also Chief Commander of the Boy Scouts – see above) later put it:

‘For the first time in the history of the English speaking people of the world the single men of military age of a British community found themselves subject to a lottery, the prize of which might be anything from Home Service in New Zealand to death on the battle-field’.

Security for the ballot was tight and public interest was high. The government statistician and a magistrate plus two other male observers were present in the room, along with members of the press and a cameraman.

Watch a historic film of conscription barrels in action from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision

Losing a marble

Those who held the fate of the men in their hands appeared to be anxious: one official fumbled nervously and dropped a drawn marble, sending two others scrambling to retrieve it from the floor.

However, and surprisingly, just the one marble appears to have been dropped during the marathon effort it took to draw enough names for the two drafts.

The names of these conscripts were published in newspapers and the Government Gazette.

Some would fail their medical examinations while others would appeal their call-up; a handful would skip the country.

The troopship Devon carrying the 24th Reinforcements, 1917, by David Aldersley, PS.002977. Te Papa.

The troopship Devon carrying the 24th Reinforcements, 1917, by David Aldersley, PS.002977. Te Papa.

But a fair number had their fates sealed: they were destined to march into camp for training before departing in March and April 1917 on the troopships Ruapehu, Corinthic, Devon and Pakeha (above), with the badges of 23rd and 24th Reinforcements (below) on their lemon squeezers. 

4 Responses

  1. Olwen Mason

    This is grim stuff!
    Was NZ the first English-speaking country to use conscription, before Britain, America, Australia etc?
    Were only Pakeha conscripted? What was the thinking behind that?
    This was very interesting, thank you.

    • Kirstie Ross

      Hi Olwen
      Thanks for reading the blog and commenting – and asking these questions. Conscription was passionately debated in Australia. Two referenda were held on the issue but it was never introduced. I think that Cossgrove was fudging it a bit: in the UK, the Military Service Act which introduced conscription was passed in January 1916, then amended in May. It had various exemptions due to age, profession and nationality. I’ve been searching for when the first men were actually called up under the act, but haven’t found the exact date yet. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. For the conscription of Maori in New Zealand, I’d recommend you read this online article: http://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/maori-in-first-world-war/introduction. Maori participation in the First World War was entangled with diverse iwi experiences of colonisation and the New Zealand Wars. Participation was voluntary for Maori but in June 1917 the Minister of Defence decided applied conscription to iwi in the Waikato-Maniapoto land district only.
      Kirstie Ross

  2. David Woodings

    Very interesting, you may be interested in seeing my suite of work ‘Conscientious Objection’ on my web site, done to recognize those ‘Conchies’ who were sent to the western front by NZ in 1917. My other work ‘Somme/Silk Road’ is currently on show at the National Army Museum until Feb 6th 2017.



    • Kirstie Ross

      Hi David
      Thanks for reading the blog and sharing your work based on WWI embroidered postcards.
      Kind regards
      Kirstie Ross

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