Merchant marine

Page 8 – Politics, patriotism and protest

Although New Zealand seafarers served in many hostile theatres, some questioned the politics of the First World War. In late 1913, less than a year before the war began, many trade unionists had fought a bitter strike against the shipowners and the Reform government. Although there was little open opposition to the war, some on the political left detested the government and its involvement in an ‘imperialist bloodbath’. They wanted wealth to be conscripted as rigorously as labour.

The ANZACs under the good old Southern Cross make history while Fat stretches himself and soothes his soul (if he ever had one) thinking of our dear boys at the front!

W.T. Young, Federated Seamen’s Union secretary

In late 1916, after the government introduced conscription, the unions representing deck officers, engineers, seamen and cooks and stewards sought exemptions for their members. Britain had exempted its seafarers, but Minister of Defence James Allen refused the maritime unions’ request. Instead, he told seafarers to make individual applications. Later, however, a renewed approach secured an important concession. The secretaries of the four unions could apply on behalf of their members and the minister expected that the Military Service Board ‘would give effect to these applications.’

The outcome was that most members of the seagoing unions, some of conscription’s harshest critics, gained exemption, although in a politically charged atmosphere this was a delicate balancing act. Men not in uniform sometimes felt self-conscious; in Britain, the officers’ union, the Merchant Service Guild, demanded badges for its members to denote their service. Ships’ officers wore their uniforms while on leave to assert their patriotism. In 1917 the New Zealand Merchant Service Guild told the Union Company that it would leave it to shipowners to appeal on behalf of men caught up in the ballot, ‘as we do not want to make shirkers of them.’

Guild members raised money for war relief, refused to work with New Zealanders of German or Austrian descent, and inscribed honours boards. But political views and the lure of monetary rewards encouraged some seamen to smuggle deserters out of the country, usually to Australia.

We do not know how many seafarers served in the army or navy, or what motivated them to do so. Some may have joined up because they had little choice. In 1915 the Institute of Marine Engineers reported that the wartime fall-off in trade had increased unemployment and that 25 members of its Wellington branch had enlisted. The Guild’s annual report for 1917 noted that of the six members (out of 557) who had resigned to join the services that year, four had joined the army and only two the navy.

How to cite this page

'Politics, patriotism and protest', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Oct-2014