First World War - overview

Page 3 – Preparing for war

New Zealand’s response to the outbreak of war was not only a matter of supporting Mother England; self-interest was also at work. New Zealand was dependent on the British market for the sale of the wool, frozen meat and dairy products that dominated its economy. Anything that threatened this market threatened New Zealand's livelihood. New Zealand relied on Britain’s naval power to protect its physical integrity and its trade on the long haul to the British market.

HMS New Zealand

In 1909, Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward reacted to the perceived German threat by announcing that New Zealand would fund the construction of a battlecruiser for the Royal Navy. Construction of HMS New Zealand cost £1.7 million ($275 million in 2014).

On the outbreak of war in 1914 HMS New Zealand joined the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet in the Baltic Sea. It saw action against the German fleet in all three of the major North Sea battles. During the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 Captain Green wore the piu piu (a waist mat or cape with long swinging strands of flax) and tiki (a neck pendant) presented during the 1913 tour, as he had in the earlier battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank. HMS New Zealand escaped significant damage and casualties and established a reputation as a lucky ship, which some attributed to the piu piu and tiki.

In 1919, Admiral Jellicoe took a Royal Navy fleet on another tour of the dominions to report on their defences, and he chose HMS New Zealand as his flagship. In New Zealand, crowds once more flocked to visit the ship. More than a third of the country’s population of 1.2 million people went aboard during the 11 weeks it was here. Jellicoe returned to New Zealand as Governor-General in 1920.

HMS New Zealand was decommissioned in 1922 and broken up in 1923.

Turning boys into soldiers

Ultimately, New Zealand's greatest contribution to the war effort was the supply of 120,000 service personnel, of whom nearly 100,000 served overseas. The foundations of this massive mobilisation had been laid in the years leading up to war through organisations such as the Boy Scouts and through the introduction of compulsory military training in 1909.

Boy Scouts

Preparing boys for war is not something we associate with the modern scouting movement. Robert Baden-Powell, a lieutenant-general in the British Army, held the first scouting encampment at Brownsea Island in England in 1907. His principles of scouting, published in Scouting for Boys (1908), were based on his earlier military books. Scouting 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.

In 1908, David Cossgrove and his wife Selina received Baden-Powell’s permission to organise the Boy Scout movement in New Zealand. Cossgrove, who had met Baden-Powell while serving in the South African War, was convinced of the value of such a movement for young New Zealanders. He wrote to the leading newspapers in the country explaining the nature of scouting. By the end of 1908, there were 36 Scout troops in New Zealand.

Compulsory military training

Growing international tension meant that there was little opposition to the passing of a new Defence Act in December 1909. This replaced the Volunteer Force with a Territorial Force. It also introduced compulsory military training. All boys aged between 12 and 14 had to undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets (this requirement was dropped in 1912). Teachers surpervised this training. Voluntary cadet groups had existed prior to the passage of the Defence Act.

How to cite this page

'Preparing for war', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017