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Policing the war effort

Page 1 – Introduction

Arrested under the War Regulations
Arrested under the War Regulations

In 1914 the New Zealand government moved quickly to strengthen the rule of law and keep the country focused on winning the war. It used the Post and Telegraph and Defence departments to monitor mail communications and newspaper reporting, and gave the police and courts broad powers to arrest and punish those who obstructed the achievement of the government’s priorities. From late 1916 Police and Defence shared responsibility for enforcing conscription, with defaulters ultimately facing incarceration in a public prison. These enforcement efforts took all those involved into new territory.

Gallery of rogues

To help maintain national security, the government passed the War Regulations Act in 1914, giving it wide-ranging powers over communications, 'enemy aliens', political gatherings, military personnel, anti-social behaviour and public opposition to the war. Hundreds were arrested for contravening wartime regulations, including the people in these police 'mugshots'.

The War Regulations Act, passed in November 1914, extended the government’s ability to monitor and suppress activities which might undermine the war effort. The Act allowed it to issue regulations prohibiting ‘acts … injurious to the public safety, the defence of New Zealand, or the effective conduct of the military or naval operations of His Majesty during the present war.’ [1] Dozens of new regulations under this Act appeared in each year of the war, each outlining new control measures.

Mail and press censorship

Post and Telegraph began censoring telegrams and wireless messages as soon as the war began, appointing censors at the main cable and wireless stations, which were placed under armed guard. From December 1914 censorship was extended to regular mail, and envelopes were henceforth delivered stamped ‘Opened by the Military Censor’. Censors were instructed to stop any communications which could compromise the imperial war effort by giving the enemy valuable information.

The Chief of the General Staff, Colonel C.M. Gibbon, acted as Chief Censor, supported by a Naval Advisor and a Deputy Censor based in the General Post Office in Wellington who oversaw day-to-day management. Assistant censors managed teams of clerks at the four main post offices and two main cable stations, their work cloaked in secrecy. The censors were a mixture of Defence and Post and Telegraph staff, but they were directed exclusively by the Defence Department. As the war progressed the censors added names to the list of banned correspondents, mail addressed to whom was not allowed to leave the country.

Gibbon’s role extended to press censorship. News of military campaigns was already heavily censored by the time it reached New Zealand, but now information about local military activity and shipping movements – which would normally be reported in the  newspapers – was also restricted. Gibbon issued memos to newspaper editors outlining their responsibilities, but many inadvertently published stories the Defence Department found unacceptably informative (such as noting the arrivals and departures of troopships). Defence discouraged such offences by instigating prosecutions under the War Regulations. From July 1918 Gibbon could order editors to submit their entire publication to him before it was printed.  

Suppressing sedition

The War Regulations gave Defence and the police broad powers to root out all forms of possible sedition or espionage. From November 1914 police (and military police) could arrest any suspicious person at will, and search any building or ship suspected of being used for illegal purposes. Anyone could be arrested for spreading ‘false reports’, trespassing on military land or a telegraph station, possessing telegraph equipment without permission, signalling with lights at night, or publicising information of value to the enemy. The regulations were extended in September 1915 to cover the incitement of ‘lawlessness’ and the carriage of guns or explosives without permission.

Eberhard Focke

Wartime censorship led to the downfall of German-born businessman Eberhard Focke. Arrested for corresponding with the enemy - his brother in Germany - he was interned on Somes Island in November 1914. Granted parole in January 1915 due to ill-health, Focke remained at home until early 1916, when the government, apparently under public pressure, ordered that he be sent back to Somes Island. Read more.

The introduction of conscription in August 1916 created a new atmosphere of resistance to military service in some parts of the community. Anti-militarists, particularly labour leaders, criticised the government for infringing civil liberties and exploiting the working class. Desperate to prevent large-scale public resistance to conscription, the government moved to silence its critics by classifying criticism as ‘sedition’, thereby preventing public debate of the issue.

In December 1916 the government broadened the definition of ‘seditious’ activities to include creating ‘hostility between the classes’, interfering with the manufacture of goods for the war or the recruitment, training or despatch of troops, and ‘excit[ing] disloyalty’ in general. [2] This was extended over the next two months by banning places from being used for ‘disloyal’ meetings and classifying strikes which might undermine the war effort as seditious. The police quickly arrested many of conscription’s most prominent critics, and constables attended public meetings to shut down ‘seditious’ discussions. The police investigated 36 ‘disturbing meetings and congregations’ in 1916/17 and 52 in 1917/18.

Enemy aliens

The government believed that Germans and other enemy nationals based in New Zealand posed a significant threat to the empire’s war effort, and moved to restrict their ability to aid their home nations. Mail censorship and the posting of armed guards at vulnerable places was increasingly complemented by the supervision of individual ‘aliens’.

Any person born in a country at war with the British Empire – including those who had subsequently been naturalised as British citizens – was classified an enemy alien. (From May 1916, so were their New Zealand-born wives.) From December 1914 they were expected to register with the police and inform them if they were intending to travel more than 20 miles from home. Centralised registration of all enemy aliens was introduced in September 1917. All enemy aliens were liable to summary arrest and detention if suspected of espionage, and faced execution if convicted of this crime.

Aliens lived in a climate of suspicion and dread, viewed with fear and, in some cases, hatred, by a nervous public. The government convened an Alien Enemies Commission in June 1915 to consider public claims about ‘disloyal’ enemy aliens, and from that September the Minister of Defence had the discretion to intern any enemy alien at his pleasure. By the end of the war around 500 aliens had been interned on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour and Motuihe Island near Auckland. Most of those detained were reservists in enemy forces, passengers and crew from visiting ships, and locals suspected of sympathising with the enemy.

From early 1916 the government began to restrict the property rights of enemy aliens in New Zealand, reasoning that under certain circumstances assets should be liquidated to help fund the British war effort. Regulations issued in February 1916 banned the redistribution of enemy property through wills, and from April the Attorney-General (a Cabinet minister) was empowered to appoint the Public Trustee as custodian of enemy property. Aliens were required to register their property with the Public Trustee, and ‘enemy companies’ had to surrender their income to the government (these were mainly overseas companies with interests in New Zealand).

Policing the recruits

The Defence Department believed that training military recruits in New Zealand was key to maintaining the flow of volunteers. Because reinforcement drafts overlapped, the ‘discipline and soldierly spirit’ inculcated in each intake would influence the next, and in turn act as a positive influence on men who had yet to enlist. ‘This aspect of the problem [of discipline] is a most important one’, C.W. Gibbon noted in May 1918, ‘since the slightest tendency towards disorderly conduct reacts unfavourably on recruiting throughout the Dominion.’ [3]

The department was therefore eager to ensure soldiers behaved themselves when on leave, a logistical challenge given the large number who descended on Wellington and Auckland cities every weekend, particularly on Saturday nights. Some inevitably drank to excess and caused disturbances about which residents complained in letters to the editor. Military police accompanied each group of troops on their evening leaves, patrolling the streets and pubs to pick up troublemakers.

The government used the War Regulations to restrict soldiers’ drinking, generally by limiting how and when alcohol could be sold to them. From February 1915 soldiers in uniform could only consume alcohol on the premises where it was bought, and from August 1916 no one could ‘shout’ soldiers a drink (this was thought to be a major cause of drunkenness). The task of enforcing these restrictions fell to the police, who patrolled the pubs and asked licensing boards to revoke the licences of publicans who ignored transgressions.

The police attributed the decline in alcohol-related convictions from mid-1916 to the influence of the War Regulations. The police strictly enforced the anti-shouting regulation, and magistrates imposed heavy fines on those caught breaching its provisions. The police noted that drunkenness prosecutions dropped by more than 2000 between 1917 and 1918, through a combination of the War Regulations, the introduction of 6 o’clock closing, and the steady drop in the number of young men in New Zealand.

Prostitution presented another problem, since men infected with venereal disease could not be sent to the front until they were cured. The authorities grew concerned that prostitution was increasing, and with it cases of venereal disease amongst soldiers. Once again, the War Regulations were used to clamp down on the problem. From August 1916 no woman could enter or remain near a bar after 6 p.m., and legal loopholes allowing prostitutes to evade prosecution were closed. The police watched and raided brothels, and by the end of the war felt they had significantly reduced the problem.

Policing conscription

The introduction of conscription in August 1916 brought a new dimension to the process of recruiting men to fight. So long as enlistment was voluntary, a prospective recruit could change his mind at any point until he had signed up for the duration of the conflict. The conscription system, on the other hand, had to make provision for the rounding up of absconders and ultimately for their imprisonment if they could not be persuaded to serve.

The Defence Department required all men of military age to be registered and thus available for calling up. The police were empowered to demand that any man present his military paperwork and – from July 1918 – to arrest him on the spot if he could not. Military-aged men were banned from leaving the country without permission, and Customs and Marine Department officers kept an eye on comings and goings at the ports.

Men who failed to appear when called up were investigated by regional Defence Department officers. If this inquiry drew a blank, Defence issued a warrant for the man’s arrest and police officers executed it. The police also kept an eye out for men who had gone into hiding after their number came up in the ballot. By March 1919, police had arrested just over half of the men for whom Defence had issued warrants (580 of 1133).

Maintaining the Police Force

The war placed a huge burden on police. Superintendent Wright of the Dunedin district spoke for all officers when he noted ‘the enormous amount of extra work which has been thrown upon the Force in connection with the war … What with inquiries respecting returned soldiers, inquiries for shirkers and deserters, making inquiries for Military Service Boards, and many other inquiries too numerous to mention, the police have had a busy time.’ [4]

Alongside schools and post offices, police stations were one of the most visible signs of the public service in New Zealand communities. Most stations were manned by only one or two officers who, like the local postmaster, also performed other public service functions. Police Commissioner O’Donovan referred to the force, with some chagrin, as ‘the “handy men” of the whole Government’. Other departments regularly called upon officers for help, and in rural areas they often doubled as factory or fishery inspectors, registrars of births, deaths and marriages, bailiffs, Customs officers, registrars of electors, Crown Lands rangers, or in other capacities. These roles multiplied during the war.

Enforcing conscription and curbing drinking by soldiers were two important new areas of policing. Early in the war police registered and monitored aliens, but as the complexity of war administration increased, so did demands on police time. The police helped the Department of Internal Affairs control war-related charitable funds from October 1915 and issue passports from November 1915. Officers also helped administer the wartime beer duty and collect agricultural statistics.

The police had to meet these additional challenges in an environment of ever-decreasing manpower. The Police Force refused to give officers leave to serve in the NZEF, forcing those determined to enlist to resign. In doing so they lost their rank and superannuation benefits. Between 20 and 40 officers ‘resigned voluntarily’ in each year of the war, presumably in most cases to enlist.

Recruitment also diverted young men from the police training programme, making it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies. In December 1916 the department stopped recruiting military-aged men and closed its training depot. Since that August it had been authorised to enlist temporary constables ‘to assist in the preservation of peace and order, the prevention of crime, and the apprehension of offenders.’ [5] This was a useful stopgap, but – like the other temporary public service employees – many were untrained, too old, or otherwise unsuitable.

The police commissioner warned in 1917 that, despite the employment of temporary officers, ‘a critical condition will be reached if the regular Force suffers further depletion’. [6] The Dunedin superintendent noted that only a drop in drunkenness and other petty crimes had allowed his office to cope with its workload. ‘Were it not for the decrease in what may be termed police work proper the depleted staff would not have been able to cope with the inquiries which are daily undertaken for nearly every branch of the military organization.’ [7]

Back to business

Police numbers reached their lowest point in late 1918 and early 1919. Police Commissioner O’Donovan felt that this decline had vindicated the decision to ban police from serving in the NZEF. Permitting enlistment would have seen the Police Force ‘practically reduced to the residue consisting of men above the military age or otherwise disqualified. I need not point out what straits the public services would be placed in had any different policy been pursued.’ [8] By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, it was clear that the reduced Police Force had, by and large, successfully maintained peace and good order.

Demobilisation in 1919 – and the appointment of more temporary constables – enabled the ranks of the Police Force to be slowly replenished. Former officers who had served in the NZEF were invited to rejoin the force, and in November 1919 Parliament voted to restore the rights and superannuation benefits of those who did so within six months of their discharge from the military.

Further information

This article was written by Tim Shoebridge and produced by the NZHistory team. It was commissioned by the State Services Commission. A fully footnoted version is available to download as a pdf here.

Primary sources

War Regulations published in the New Zealand Gazette, the annual reports of government departments published in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), and Statutes of New Zealand provided most of the information for this article.

Books and theses

  • John Anderson, ‘Military censorship in World War I: its use and abuse in New Zealand’, MA thesis, Victoria University College, 1952
  • Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge, New Zealand’s First World War heritage, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2015
  • Tim Shoebridge, Index of New Zealand wartime laws and regulations, 1914-21, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Wellington, 2014


[1] War Regulations Act 1914

[2] Additional regulations under the War Regulations Act 1914 and its amendments, NZ Gazette, 4 December 1916, pp. 3751-3

[3] C.M. Gibbon’s evidence to the Defence Expenditure Commission, pp. 1275-6, LE 681 1918/14 pt 3, Archives New Zealand

[4] Police Department annual report, AJHR, 1917, H-16, p. 9

[5] War Legislation Amendment Act 1916, s. 32

[6] Police Department annual report, AJHR, 1917, H-16, p. 7

[7] Police Department annual report, AJHR, 1918, H-16, p. 11

[8] Police Department annual report, AJHR, 1918, H-16, p. 6

How to cite this page

Policing the war effort, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated