Exactly a century ago, when New Zealanders marked the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, they would have been heartily sick of war.

Any sense of adventure their young men had felt at the outbreak of war in Europe would long ago have given way to the horror of daily casualty lists in their newspapers. The sight of men who had returned as invalids, often shell-shocked, and the telegrams that families feared to receive.

The war that many thought would be over by Christmas, 1914, was not going well for Britain and its allies by 1916. Their attempt to force the Dardanelles had failed and it was now clear there was no way around the direct confrontation with Germany on the Western Front.

All countries involved would have been heartily sick of the war by 1916, hardly remembering why it started, but there was no end in sight. And no strategy for winning except to keep sending men into the line of fire and hope the other side ran out of men, or morale. By 1916, some places were running out of volunteers. In January, Britain introduced national conscription for the first time in its history. New Zealand followed suit in August that year.


The subject of conscription would have been under intense discussion on that first Anzac Day. The New Zealand Division in France needed 2000 men a month. When the Military Service Act 1916 was passed it divided the eligible male population into two categories: the first comprised all single men, including those with dependents, the second category was for married men classified by the dependents. Those with the fewest children were called up first.

If a province could not fill its monthly quota from volunteers, a ballot had to be held for conscripts. Young New Zealanders continued to volunteer in such numbers that no ballots in the married category were needed until October 1917 and by the end of the war nobody with more than two children had been called up. Conscription was supported by all political parties except Labour, which marks the centenary of its own beginning this year. By World War II, when Labour was in power, conscription had become the norm and compulsory military training in New Zealand continued in peacetime until 1972.

Honouring the spirit of national service today, we make no distinction between those who volunteered and those who waited for the call. Nor can later generations pass any judgment on those who refused conscription in World War I on grounds of conscience, or those who handed out "white feathers" to men they thought were shirking their duty. We can only be grateful that few alive today have had to face the tensions and terrors of a nation at war.

The centenary of the Great War is not yet halfway through and already we have probably read enough of it, just like those who were living through it. But they could not simply put the subject aside and get on with life. They did not know when it would end, or how it would end. Theirs was an ordeal we must never forget.

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