More than a Military Force: New Zealand’s 1909 Decision to Form a Citizen-Soldier Army

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Copyright: Mackie, Ross
The limited scholarship concerning New Zealand’s military forces in the decades before the First World War has identified the strategic and imperial reasons for the military reforms of 1909. This thesis employs a ‘new military history’ or ‘war and society’ approach that recognises military and non-military reasons. While the post-1909 military system sought to create a pool of trained men who would volunteer for service overseas, it also needed to address the public’s expectation that training would mitigate perceived societal shortcomings. Thus, New Zealand’s citizen soldiers were more than a military force. The decades around the turn of the twentieth century saw profound changes in social values, the economy, demographics, communications and attitudes in New Zealand. Respect for military service, muscular Christianity and social Darwinism grew, as did concerns about urban youths. A new attitude to the empire and its defence developed. By the mid 1910s the public were increasingly insistent that broadly inclusive military training would remedy the decline in the behaviour, attitudes and physical condition of young males. In 1907 the New Zealand government began to accept that its support for imperial defence needed to be more than vocal. Prime Minister Ward’s 1909 decision to donate a battleship to the Royal Navy was applauded by the public. His intimation that the volunteer system might be replaced with compulsory or universal military training met with warm approval. For the first time in decades military and naval matters dominated public discourse. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff informed Ward that wholesale military reforms in New Zealand were required. Thus, government acceptance that it needed to make a tangible contribution to imperial defence, an empire-minded public, advocacy of military training for social remediation reasons, and professional military opinion led to the Defence Act of 1909. The operation of the new military system has been overlooked in the historiography. Sections of the public became upset that only half of those liable for training received it and that one-third of trainees were prosecuted in criminal courts for Defence Act offences while the vast majority of those who did not or refused to register did so with impunity. In 1914 it became clear that the territorial system would not provide the balanced force of trained volunteers as intended. Territorials were, however, relatively well-trained, five times more likely than non-territorials to volunteer for expeditionary service, and the staff and administrative systems that had been established proved effective. New Zealand’s post-1909 military system had two aims: social remediation and to deliver a trained expeditionary force. It was partially successful at both.
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