Search for a First World War Conscientious Objector

19 August 2014

Do you know someone or have a relative from Wellington who was a conscientious objector during the First World War?

Manners Mall / Cuba Street intersection in the 1920s.

Historian Hannah August is looking for a Wellington conscientious objector from the First World War as part of a bigger project to launch Wellington City Council’s WW100 commemoration programme in October.

Lest We Forget is a free outdoor multimedia event that has been designed to remember the city and its people during the war years and to offer Wellingtonians an exciting way to connect with our local history. The event will take place over a period of two weeks reaching from Welllington’s suburbs and into the heart of the CBD.

When Hannah was offered the task of profiling a wide-ranging section of Wellingtonians who were involved in World War One, she grabbed the opportunity to hunt through the city’s rich archival collections with both hands.

“Part of my brief was to make sure that we also profiled someone who wasn’t involved in the war – who objected to it on religious, moral or political grounds.”

This turned out to be harder than Hannah expected. “Plenty of New Zealanders had been vocally opposed to the war, and particularly to the idea of conscription, which was introduced in November 1916. But few of the voices who were loudest seemed to belong to those who were born and bred in Wellington.”

None of the 14 men who were sent to war against their will on the troopship Waitemata in July 1917, some of whom were subjected to the notorious “Field Punishment No. 1”, had been born and bred in Wellington.

Wellington-based MPs and unionists who were opposed to the war on socialist grounds had come from Australia or Britain. New Zealanders with Irish backgrounds who didn’t want to fight on the side of the British given the conflict in Ireland tended to be based on the West Coast.

Māori opposition to the war was centred in the Waikato and prominent Quaker voices against the war were based in Canterbury.

Hannah enlisted help from Archives NZ but after exploring a number of promising leads the researchers arrived at dead ends, leaving one remaining question: where are Wellington’s conscientious objectors?

“Some of them are undoubtedly on the list of ‘Military Defaulters’ published in the Dominion on 23 May 1919,” says Hannah, “men who were morally or politically opposed to the war but who did not meet the narrow criteria for exemption from conscription based on religious affiliation to the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Christadelphians or the Seventh-day Adventists."

We thank the people who came forward with names of their relatives who were conscientious objectors during the First World War. We have now found a Wellington conscientious objector, who you can read all about from 11 October.