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Socialist and labour opposition to conscription

'Conscript wealth as well as men'

Many socialist and labour leaders criticised the First World War as an imperialist war and strongly opposed conscription. New Zealand workers, they argued, had no quarrel with German workers. The New Zealand Labour Party, founded in 1916, said that conscription should not be introduced unless it was accompanied by the conscription of wealth. In December 1916, party member (and future prime minister) Peter Fraser was arrested, charged and convicted of sedition for advocating the repeal of the Military Service Act. He served 12 months' imprisonment for the offence.

Bob Semple, Tim Armstrong, Jim O'Brien and Paddy Webb, all future Labour cabinet ministers, also went to prison for their opposition to the war or conscription.

'You must do your duty'

The war effort saw the government dispense with many established rights. When Bob Semple was imprisoned for 12 months after advising miners not to be 'lassoed by that Prussian octopus, conscription', he was denied a jury trial under the terms of the War Regulations.

Irish opposition

The British crushing of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 made opposition to conscription an Irish nationalist issue. A number of the high-profile trade union leaders in New Zealand had strong Irish links and were reluctant to defend the British Empire. They also objected to fighting alongside an army that had executed Irish Nationalists in the wake of the rising.

The West Coast trade unionist Jim (Briney) O'Brien highlighted this sentiment. Raised as a Catholic and of Irish descent, he initially opposed military conscription because he believed that while the workers fought, the capitalists prospered. His opposition to conscription grew as the conflict in Ireland intensified.

The Coast's large Irish population meant sectarian issues were never far from the surface. Paddy Webb's victory in the 1913 Grey by-election was denounced by indignant Protestants as the result of an 'unholy alliance of socialists and Catholics'. Many on the Coast saw the conscription controversy after 1916 in pro-Irish/anti-British terms.

Paddy Webb

Paddy Webb suffered more than many of his fellow socialist and labour leaders as a result of the introduction of conscription.

When the war broke out, Webb publicly stated that New Zealand should resist the Prussian onslaught on Flanders and Belgium but strongly opposed any suggestion of compelling men to fight. He opposed the national register of manpower compiled by the government in 1915 as the first step in preparation for military conscription. When conscription was introduced he demanded its immediate repeal, but he stopped short of advocating mass resistance to the Military Service Act. As a result, some union leaders and activists accused him of having lost his socialist sympathies.

The first strike over conscription took place in late November 1916 when miners at Blackball on the West Coast sought repeal of the Military Service Act as well as a pay rise. Watersiders and miners began a go-slow against conscription in January 1917. When miners' leaders were arrested in April, all West Coast miners went on strike.

Webb praised the miners' struggle against conscription as a battle for democratic freedom. He was arrested and charged with seditious utterance, and he served three months in prison. The strike ended at the end of April when Minister of Defence James Allen agreed no charges would be laid against those responsible for starting the go-slow or strikes.

Its large Irish population and entrenched trade union tradition made the West Coast a stronghold for the anti-conscription movement. It also offered plenty of hiding places for men avoiding the ballot as they found many people willing to help them avoid arrest. A number of men were spirited off the Coast to Australia where conscription had not been introduced.

Webb's opponents on the West Coast, including both local newspapers, had urged him to volunteer for service. They contrasted his 'cowardice' with the 'heroism' of T.E.Y. Seddon, the Member of Parliament for Westland (and son of former premier Richard John Seddon), who had volunteered in August 1915. As luck would have it, Webb was called up for military service in October 1917. He decided to seek a mandate from his electorate to stay home and resigned as MP, challenging the government to a by-election on the issue of conscription. The government refused, and Webb was returned unopposed.

Declining a non-combatant role, Webb was court martialled and sentenced to two years' hard labour. His parliamentary seat was declared vacant in April 1918, and it was won in a by-election by another Labour member, Harry Holland. Webb spent two years tree planting on the Kaingaroa Plains, and he was deprived of his civil rights for 10 years.

How to cite this page

'Socialist objection', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/first-world-war/conscientious-objection/socialist-objection, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017