Schools and the First World War

Page 5 – Turning boys into soldiers

In 1900, thanks in part to enthusiasm generated by the South African War, a Defence Amendment Act introduced military cadet training in schools. The Defence Act 1909 made military training compulsory for nearly all boys from the year they turned 12. This involved 52 hours of training each year as junior cadets.

Cadets often drilled twice a week on school grounds wearing uniforms and carrying dummy rifles or broomsticks. Drill included marching in formation, skirmishing, taking part in fake battles, shooting practice and in some schools bayonet instruction. Teachers were encouraged to become school cadet officers to strengthen the link between the school and cadet training.

By 1910 the junior cadets were a 30,000-strong miniature army which included ambulance and signals detachments and rifle battalions. The military training of young boys attracted growing criticism from educationalists who felt that it endangered their moral, physical and emotional development.

As a consequence in 1912 the junior cadet system was disbanded and replaced by physical drill under the newly formed Department of Physical Education. Compulsory military training now began at 14 and senior cadets were transferred to the control of the Defence Department. A number of secondary schools retained their cadet force.

It is obvious that every boy at a secondary school will have to serve later on in the Territorial Forces, and that secondary schools will form an excellent material for the provision of officers. It is therefore extremely desirable to create a real military keenness and knowledge in secondary schools.

Major Temperley, General Staff, quoted in Report of the Board of Governors, Wanganui Collegiate School, AJHR, 1914, E-6, p. 32

Upon the outbreak of war young men flocked to sign up; at last they would be able to act out their dream of becoming imperial heroes like those they had read about at school or had acted out during their time in the cadets.

During the war the cadet system helped ensure that a ready supply of replacement officers and men was available for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) overseas. More than 8000 boys enrolled annually in the cadets between 1914 and 1918. They helped provide 10,000 new territorial soldiers each year, the majority of whom transferred to the NZEF.

How to cite this page

'Turning boys into soldiers', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 28-Aug-2014