Repatriation of returned servicemen

Returned servicemen embroidering in hospital
Returned servicemen embroidering in hospital

If recruiting, training and despatching to the front nearly 100,000 men had been an unprecedented logistical challenge, reintegrating most of them into the civilian population after the war presented a new set of problems. Cabinet minister A.L. Herdman wrote in 1916 that the issue should be tackled methodically, both because of the moral debt the nation owed the soldiers and because ‘the more rapidly and efficiently the reabsorption takes place the speedier will be the recovery from the losses resulting from the war’. [1]

To address this issue, in 1915 the government created a small specialised department which would eventually expand into a large and complex apparatus dealing with the varied issues facing returned servicemen. It worked with existing departments to ensure that the needs of every individual soldier were considered. The public service assisted soldiers by treating their ailments, facilitated training in civilian occupations and provided cheap loans and land to those who requested it. On one estimate, by 1921 the public service had loaned money or granted land to 43,000 men, and helped a further 31,000 to find work. By the end of the 1920s, however, critics were complaining that returned servicemen had suffered because the repatriation apparatus had been prematurely dismantled.

Repatriation begins

Most of the 24,000 soldiers who returned to New Zealand during the war were suffering from illness or injury that left them either permanently unsuitable for further service or in need of recuperation (1555 men returned to the front after medical treatment at home). The Athenic, the first troopship to return with invalided men, arrived in New Zealand in January 1915, and the initial trickle became a steady stream once the NZEF went into battle. By the winter of 1915 New Zealand had sent around 20,000 men overseas, and it was becoming obvious to the government that an administrative system would have to be created to manage their return home – especially once the war ended.

The most pressing priority was catering to the ill and wounded, and as Gallipoli casualties multiplied it became clear that the public hospital system could not manage either their numbers or their specialised requirements. These men were treated in public hospitals before being sent to either the King George V Hospital in Rotorua (opened in January 1916) or the Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs (May 1916) to recuperate. These hospitals were run jointly by the Defence and Public Health departments and operated under military law.

About 700 men had returned to New Zealand by the time the government opened the Discharged Soldiers’ Information Department (DSID) in August 1915. The department was managed by John R. Samson, previously a senior clerk in the Government Life Insurance Department. Returned men remained the Defence Department’s responsibility while they underwent medical treatment, leaving the DSID to focus on finding employment for discharged men who were able to work. Because of the growing shortage of manpower, the government was eager to return men to gainful employment as soon as possible.

DSID staff interviewed each man to clarify his intentions. This information was entered on index cards compiled with the voluntary assistance of Samson’s Government Insurance colleagues. These cards were sent to voluntary committees around the country which tried to find suitable work for the men. The government also instructed the Labour Department to give priority to returned servicemen when job opportunities came up.

After the public service commissioner told government departments to consider returned servicemen for vacancies whenever possible, the public service absorbed many veterans. This evidently created an expectation of public service appointments for all, prompting Herdman, the minister in charge of the DSID, to clarify in 1917 that ‘While the State will help to the utmost of its ability, it is impossible to supply every one with a Government billet – that way lie disappointment and disaster.’ [2] Just under half the 908 men appointed to the public service between 1917 and 1920 were returned servicemen.

The DSID also arranged training opportunities which helped younger men learn a trade and those incapacitated by war find employment appropriate to their reduced physical capabilities. It arranged free places for soldiers in technical school classes and created opportunities for farm training and for training in office work and accounting. The department urged the government and other public bodies to undertake major public works schemes after the war. Tens of thousands of men could be employed on these schemes while they decided what they wanted to do in the longer term.

The length of the war at least gave the DSID a useful period of preparation for the inevitable influx of returned soldiers at its end. With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, New Zealand prepared itself for the imminent return of the 56,000 servicemen still overseas. In early December the government relaunched the DSID as the Repatriation Department, which was managed by a board comprising the ministers of Repatriation, Railways, Agriculture, Education and Lands, the departments most closely involved in the process. The Repatriation Department oversaw an expanded and streamlined version of the old DSID programme, and functioned as an information bureau publicising the assistance and opportunities offered by the public service.

Getting back to work

The government’s wish to reintegrate able-bodied men into the workforce underpinned much of its repatriation work. The sooner these men were back at work, the sooner the national economy could return to maximum production. The government decided it could best encourage this by helping men into private employment. Herdman had noted in 1917 that ‘When peace is declared and our men return to their homes it is essential that every one should realize that the speedy recovery of the country from the sacrifices it has made is in reality dependent on every one setting about his own individual duties with all the energy and ability that he is capable of.’ [3]

The Repatriation Department worked in collaboration with local boards and committees in the main centres and regional towns to find employment for those requiring assistance. The government feared a period of major unemployment and discontent when the men returned, but thanks to labour shortages most men were reabsorbed without difficulty. Initially about 15% of the men sought the Repatriation Department’s assistance, but by August 1921 its local offices had placed nearly 25,000 in employment. Of these, some 8000 had been absorbed by the various branches of the public service.

The Defence and Repatriation departments shared responsibility for delivering vocational training opportunities to returning soldiers. In December 1918 Defence appointed a director of vocational training to oversee the training of men before they were discharged. In practice this mainly meant working with men who were recovering in hospital and would not be discharged until they were able to rejoin civilian life. Hospitals and convalescent homes hosted classes in low-impact trades such as leatherwork, basketmaking, woodcarving and weaving for the seriously incapacitated, alongside carpentry and farming for those with more physical capacity.

The Repatriation Department offered an expanded post-discharge training programme at technical schools and other training institutions. Here men could enhance their knowledge of a trade or learn a new one better suited to their reduced capabilities. More than 90% of the 7193 men who took these courses completed them successfully.

Other men chose to take up the rural training opportunities offered at state farms or the ‘repatriation farms’ which specialised in branches of farming suited to incapacitated men. The department also subsidised the wages of semi-trained men in private workplaces, making it more practical for employers to take on men who were not yet fully efficient, and issued more than 19,000 cheap loans to assist the setting up and equipping of small businesses.

The soldier-settler scheme

The Lands and Survey Department administered what would prove to be the most ambitious strand of the official repatriation programme. In October 1915 Parliament passed the Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Act, which allowed returned servicemen to be granted farmland on generous terms and apply for cheap finance to develop it. This extension of existing land settlement programmes diverted the greater part of the land administration infrastructure towards meeting the needs of soldiers for a few years. The government emphasised that, like all the repatriation schemes it offered, success in the soldier-settler scheme would ultimately depend on the hard work and initiative of the men themselves in converting initial benefits into long-term success.

Lands and Survey initially set aside a number of large land blocks to be subdivided into smaller farms and allotted to individuals as a ‘soldier settlement’. During the war years the government gradually expanded the scheme, extending eligibility to those in camp at the time of the Armistice, war widows, camp instructors, nurses and men who had served in other forces. It also allowed applicants to purchase farmland anywhere, so soldier settlers were soon scattered from one end of the country to the other rather than clustered in ‘soldier settlements’. Applicants could also purchase established homes or sections in towns under this scheme.

More than 12,000 people applied for land during the three years after the Armistice. Potential applicants visited a Lands and Survey office to be apprised of the relevant regulations and given information about the land available. Each application was forwarded to the district’s commissioner of Crown land, a senior departmental official, who decided whether the applicant had the ability to succeed as a farmer. He forwarded the approved applications to the local Land Board, which either allotted land or held a ballot where there was more than one suitable applicant. Of the 15,060 applicants between 1915 and 1930, only 4018 were allotted land under the scheme. The scheme also placed new demands on the Valuation Department, which set the values of the properties; Public Works, which built the roads to them; and Agriculture, which provided support and advice to the farmers.

The greatest burden fell on the Lands and Survey Department, which, like the rest of the public service, was under-staffed after four years of war. Returning staff were rapidly posted to departmental offices, and many junior employees of other departments were drafted in to assist. The work of the Crown land commissioners expanded dramatically as they took on wide new responsibilities for managing securities, mortgages, title registrations and a myriad of other legal and financial tasks associated with the scheme. The department appointed supervisors of soldier settlements in each district to visit the farms and make recommendations about pasture development, stock purchase and other practical matters. Other district officials managed the scheme’s financial aspects.

The annual number of land applications under the scheme peaked in 1921 at 5396 and steadily declined thereafter. In 1935 there were just eight new applications. By 1926, Lands and Survey had made loans totalling more than £22 million to 22,483 returned soldiers, to finance land development and purchase land and dwellings. From 1926 it was forced to limit its loans to a few seriously disabled men. Shortly thereafter, the residual work of the soldier settlement scheme was absorbed into the department’s normal work.

Health care and pensions

The public hospital system had dealt with returned servicemen during the war years, despite criticisms that civilian surgeons lacked expertise in soldiers’ injuries. The government had encouraged local patriotic societies to establish ‘convalescent homes’ supported by public funds, and many had sprung up by the war’s end. From early 1918 the Defence Department began to take more direct control of veterans’ health care, taking over the King George and Queen Mary hospitals and operating them under military discipline. It began closing most of the smaller convalescent homes shortly after the Armistice so it could implement its own dedicated medical system.

Under the Defence Department’s post-war system, Trentham Camp hospital became a diagnostic centre where the health needs of returning men were appraised as soon as they marched – or were carried – off the hospital ships and troopships. Soldiers with orthopaedic problems were referred to the newly specialised King George V Hospital in Rotorua, or to Trentham Camp hospital, Chalmers Hospital in Christchurch, or Dunedin Public Hospital. Sufferers of pulmonary tuberculosis were referred to the Pukeora Sanatorium, a military hospital opened near Waipukurau in late 1919, or to the military wing of Cashmere Sanatorium in Christchurch. Featherston and Narrow Neck camp hospitals treated men with heart problems. Reconstructive surgery was carried out at Dunedin Hospital, while Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs treated psychological and nervous conditions. Many men were treated as outpatients at public hospitals for years after their ostensible recovery.

By 1921, the majority of ill and wounded men had been discharged from the military hospital system and returned to private life. Civilian sufferers were being accommodated in the military hospitals, and during 1921–22 the Defence Department transferred its hospitals back to the Health Department. These hospitals continued to treat soldiers, but only in their capacity as private citizens.

In August 1915 the government decided to grant ‘war pensions’ to veterans who returned disabled by their military service, and to the dependants of those who died while enlisted. Veterans and their families applied to the local registrar of pensions, who referred the application to head office for investigation through military records. The pension rates for incapacitation were calculated according to the severity of the injury – the loss of two limbs warranted 100% of the pension, total deafness 70%, the loss of a right hand 65% (a left hand was only worth 60%), and the loss of an index finger 20%. A War Pensions Board would ultimately approve or reject each case.

The volume of applications exploded during 1919 as men were demobilised. By 1920 the Pensions Department had received nearly 55,000 applications, mainly in the previous two years, all of which had to be investigated. It was paying out 34,571 pensions, more than two-thirds of which were temporary pensions for men recovering from injury or illness. The volume of work placed great pressure on the Pensions Department, and some soldiers complained of long delays in getting disability pensions. Applications slowed significantly after 1920, and by 1930 just under 21,000 pensions were still being paid. 

The end of repatriation

By 1922 most returned servicemen had been reabsorbed into civilian life, and fewer and fewer required the services of a specialised repatriation system. The Repatriation Department cut its staff by almost half between 1921 and 1922, closing all branches outside the four main centres. The government then decided that since ‘the work of re-establishing our discharged soldiers in civil life is nearing completion’, the Repatriation Department would close in December 1922. [4] Its functions as an employment bureau and overseer of training programmes would end, while its financial assistance role would, at least in part, be taken over by the State Advances Office.

Most of the remaining repatriation services were gradually folded into the general business of government departments in the early 1920s. The Defence Department shifted its military hospitals and their patients to the public health system, and as soldier-settler applications dropped away it was easier to run this programme through Lands and Survey alongside normal Crown tenancies. The Pensions Department and its successors would continue to support disabled soldiers and their dependants for the rest of their lives, and to oversee medical treatment for war-related illness and injury.

The 1920s proved to be a rocky decade for both veterans and the rest of the community. Many soldier-settler farms failed, other veterans fell on hard times, and the plight of unemployed veterans became a national scandal. In 1929 the government appointed an Ex-Soldiers Rehabilitation Commission to ‘inquire into and report upon the position of physically and economically incapacitated soldiers’, and if necessary recommend action to help them. [5]

The commission found that the closure of the Repatriation Department in 1922 had left the remaining repatriation functions scattered across various government departments, without the overall co-ordination necessary for the system to function efficiently and in the best interests of the men. It proposed the establishment of a Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment League to carry out some of the Repatriation Department’s former functions. Parliament obliged in 1930, with the league coming under the authority of the Minister of Pensions. It reintroduced some of the vocational training schemes abandoned in 1922.

The problems the commission investigated, weighty as they were, concerned only a relatively small proportion of veterans – around 6%, it estimated. The broader picture was one of success, with the men using the opportunities and advantages offered by the repatriation system to re-establish themselves in civilian life.  The programme had been a major challenge for the public service, but – as with the recruitment and mobilisation process – several departments had rallied under difficult circumstances to produce a system that worked.

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

The annual reports of government departments for the years 1915-19 published in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) provided most of the information for this article.  


  • Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge, New Zealand’s First World War heritage, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2015


[1] Discharged Soldiers’ Information Department annual report, AJHR, 1916, H-30, p. 1

[2] Discharged Soldiers’ Information Department annual report, AJHR, 1917, H-30, p. 7

[3] Discharged Soldiers’ Information Department annual report, AJHR, 1917, H-30, p. 7

[4] Repatriation Department annual report, AJHR, 1922, H-30, pp. 1, 3

[5] Report of the Ex-Soldiers Rehabilitation Commission, AJHR, 1930, H-39

How to cite this page

'Repatriation of returned servicemen', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-May-2016

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Repatriation of returned servicemen

What do you know?

Richard Fowler

Posted: 03 Apr 2022

Have lived in Anzac Valley Road Waitakere since 1980, on coming here several of the then "old timers" told me stories about the Anzacs they had known who had settled here as part of a repatriation scheme: is this true and what more can you tell me about it?