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Turning boys into soldiers


A Certificate of Merit for bayonet instruction, presented to a Wellington College cadet, 1915 

Voluntary cadet groups existed in many schools prior to 1909, when the Defence Act introduced compulsory military training. This act required nearly all boys aged between 12 and 14 to undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Initially, this training was supervised by their teachers. 

A School Rifle Volunteer Cadet Corps had been established at Wellington College in 1870, and school cadets were to remain an integral part of life at the school well into the 20th century. J.P. Firth, principal from 1892 to 1920, placed great emphasis on the cadets and the importance of being physically fit. Photographs of boys in the military uniform of the school’s cadet corp or shooting teams make the transition from schoolboy to soldier more plausible. Many of the more than 1600 college old boys who served overseas during the war had learnt to handle a gun, salute and march in formation on the playing fields of the school. Students were even awarded merit certificates in bayonet instruction.

Many schoolboys were also Boy Scouts. The Boy Scout movement began in New Zealand in 1908. While preparing boys for war is not something we associate with the modern scouting movement, its founder, Robert Baden-Powell, had been a lieutenant-general in the British Army. His principles of scouting, published in Scouting for boys (1908), were based on his earlier military books. The movement aimed to teach boys ‘peaceful citizenship’ – moral values, patriotism, discipline and outdoor skills – through games and activities and to produce patriots capable of defending the British Empire. These principles were heartily endorsed by Firth and were key ingredients in his leadership and management of the school.


Wellington College Archives

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Turning boys into soldiers, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated