As Minister of Defence from 1912 until 1920, James Allen was responsible for the organisation of New Zealand’s military forces during the First World War.
James Allen was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1855, and raised in Dunedin for a short while before being educated at boarding schools and Cambridge University in England. In 1877 Allen returned to Dunedin to manage his late father’s substantial commercial interests in the city, where he soon became a well-known resident.
Allen also entered national politics, representing Otago electorates. Never an outstanding orator, he impressed by his solid dependability, intelligence, and practical good sense. He eventually became deputy leader of the Reform Party. When Reform took power in 1912, Allen was given the ministerial portfolios of defence and finance.
His most notable peacetime achievement was the creation of the New Zealand naval forces in 1913. Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Allen’s considerable administrative skills were clearly demonstrated as he oversaw the development and maintenance of New Zealand’s war effort. For almost two years between 1916 and 1919, Allen also served as acting prime minister. He was effectively New Zealand’s war leader, and had to deal with a succession of industrial and war-related crises.
Following the war, he was responsible for war pensions and the rehabilitation of repatriated soldiers, and became New Zealand’s first minister of external affairs. In 1920 he became high commissioner in the United Kingdom, and on his return he was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1927.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Ian McGibbon