The success and failure of Harry Holland’s campaign against conscription

The initial purpose of the anti-German campaign following the sinking of the Lusitania was to boost flagging recruitment to the army. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, recruitment had dwindled far below the insatiable needs of the war machine for replacement troops. Huge losses had been incurred at Gallipoli, and many more through illness in the unsanitary military camps of Egypt. The patriotic campaign failed to produce the necessary numbers of fresh recruits, nor was the subsequent campaign to shame ‘shirkers’ any more successful; the government then took the first steps towards implementing wartime compulsory military service, announcing a National Register of available men in August 1915. The Maoriland Worker raised the alarm.

Wounded soldiers being evacuated from Anzac Cove. Government had difficulty replenishing lost troops. Photo: Australian War Memorial

For the next few years, Holland devoted his energies to the anti-conscription campaign before all else. A labour conference to organise the fight against conscription was convened by the United Federation of Labour in Wellington in January 1916. Holland participated as the delegate for the Wellington Social Democratic Party. The conference was very broadly supported, encompassing  not just the UFL and Social Democratic Party, but also some unions and Trades and Labour Councils which had stood aside from the 1913 unity movement.

Cartoon showing a ‘Shirker’ evading recruitment by taking refuge in a church. Image: NZ Observer 1 July 1916

Responding to hypocritical argument that Conscription would ensure equality of sacrifice in the war, delegates to the conference pointed out that the capitalists were demanding that working people sacrifice their lives, while sacrificing not a penny of their capitalist fortunes. They issued a manifesto demanding the conscription of wealth before the conscription of life: “Conscription of Wealth means that the land, mines, mills, factories, ships, banks, and all collectively-used means of wealth production shall be seized and operated for the collective benefit of the people during the war and shall remain the property of the people after the war.”

“We are convinced that Conscription is desired, not so much for the purpose of winning the war as to effectively hold the workers in subjection when the critical after-war period is reached. Already the Trade Unions, which are the bulwarks of our industrial liberties, have surrendered many of their privileges and rights, won through long years of struggle; already our political liberties are being dangerously invaded…”

On this platform, the anti-conscription movement grew rapidly throughout 1916. Anti-Conscription Leagues organised public meetings across the country; unions met and passed resolutions of opposition to conscription. Adela Pankhurst, a suffragist leader from England who had emigrated to Australia, toured New Zealand speaking against conscription. When the government brought a Military Service Bill before Parliament in May, opposition intensified further, especially among the coal miners of the West Coast, who threatened industrial action should the Bill become law. Such was the strength of opposition, Prime Minister Massey was obliged to respond to these charges. The anti-conscription campaign drew strength from a parallel campaign in Australia, of which one of the leaders was Holland’s son Fred in Melbourne.

Adela Pankhurst in about 1908

The government increasingly turned to slander, censorship and other repressive methods to counter the movement. A government MP, Thomas Field, used the parliamentary debate on the Military Service Bill to smear the Maoriland Worker by association with “a German-American labour association called the IWW, which… has its tentacles in Russia and in France, no doubt, as it has its tentacles in New Zealand, even in Wellington, but the body of this octopus is said to be in Berlin.” Its editor [Harry Holland], Field said, was “a very able man,” “truly German in [his] arrogance,” and “exceedingly clever in keeping on the sunny side of the law.”

Permission to use public facilities like town halls was refused for meetings opposed to Conscription. Malicious prosecutions were brought against Holland, Webb, and Adela Pankhurst for obstructing a Wellington street during a rally against conscription, while pro-war rallies that caused far greater disruption to traffic were left unmolested.  The secretary of the Manawatu Flaxworkers Union was prosecuted under the expanded definition of sedition in the War Regulations Act, for possession of a letter containing a resolution to strike if the Military Service Bill were enacted. Later, the Fusion Parliament postponed general elections twice, giving itself a two-year extension to its term of office, and depriving electors of one further means of expressing their opposition.

First step towards conscription: the War Census of 1915

Individuals and organisations were prosecuted for expressions of opinion. Egerton Gill, secretary of the Freedom League, was fined £50 in November 1915 for circulating leaflets declaring the League’s intention to oppose Conscription if it were introduced. The magistrate declared that this would be ‘likely to interfere with recruiting of His Majesty’s forces”. The prosecutor read into evidence a parody of the song “Onward Christian Soldiers” that appeared in one of the pamphlets of the League:

Onward Christian soldiers, making evermore
Costly preparations, for murdering by war,
Battleships, torpedoes, arms guns and shells,
Anything for slaying foes, the provider sells.

Newspapers for lying, when the truth costs dear,
Fools to do the dying, patriots to cheer,
Rulers, priests and preachers, hypocrites galore,
Praying to the Prince of Peace for victory in war.

Christchurch shopkeeper William Reynolds was fined £50 in February 1916 for displaying some items in his shop window, including a picture which “showed the shadowy form of a woman with a scythe, mowing men down, and the Accused had written over it: Wanted. Thousands more.” Later that year, Reynolds was sentenced to three months hard labour for circulating an anti-war leaflet. Reynolds was an agent for the Maoriland Worker. The Denniston Miners’ Union sent a message protesting the ‘unreasonably cruel and harsh’ sentence.

The immediate effect of the repressive measures was to solidify opposition to conscription and cement the unity of the labour movement.

In this context, the next step towards the political independence of labour was taken: following a conference of the United Federation of Labour in July, a joint conference of the UFL, the Social Democratic Party, and the Labour Representation Committees (the organisation supporting the United Labour Party Members of Parliament) agreed to come together to form the New Zealand Labour Party, with repeal of the Military Service Act at the centre of its platform.

The Fusion of capitalist parties in support of the war and conscription had produced its opposite: a fusion of working class forces opposed to conscription. This Labour Party was quite unlike the party operating under Labour signboards across the Tasman. The New Zealand Labour Party was in fact a party of the whole working class – with all the political heterogeneity that that implies. Its executive included many of the central class-struggle leaders of the past decade, including Semple, Fraser, Parry, Ross, Glover, and Harry Holland, along with leaders of the class-collaborationist trend.

The Labour Party was a parliamentary formation above all; its Labour Representation Committees were to serve as electoral support for the parliamentary fraction rather than as a rounded political party. Aside from opposition to conscription, its programme consisted of a series of limited reforms. The Social Democratic Party continued to function, and most political discussions among the class-struggle forces continued in the framework of that party. However, this decision was not a reversal of the mistake made when the Socialist Party dissolved itself into the SDP; in the changed circumstances, maintaining the separate existence of the SDP only served to reinforce the electoral character of the Labour Party. The class-struggle wing of the party, including Holland, increasingly conceived of the working class struggle for political power exclusively in terms of an electoral fight for the ‘treasury benches.’

The final step of forming a Labour Party was a relatively minor event; it merely registered the progress that had been made in struggle, particularly in the years 1912-13. It was nonetheless a watershed – the completion of working class political independence at the level of organisation. This was the highest conquest of the fighting labour movement that had emerged in 1907, all the more remarkable in that it was achieved less than thirty years after the workers of New Zealand had first formed themselves into a class. Whatever its weaknesses – there were many, and they would soon prove fatal – it was a major accomplishment. Holland’s goal of a united party encompassing the whole of the working class, the ‘one big working class party,’ was now a reality. While it was clearly not a revolutionary party, Holland had firm hopes that as the war crisis intensified there would arise opportunities to transform it in that direction.

The choice facing the working class in these years was never ‘industrial action versus political action’ as it has often been framed by historians, reformists and syndicalists alike. The choice was an independent working class political organisation, or politics under the continuing tutelage of the Liberal Party. Whatever the limitations of the Labour Party’s programme, whatever the contradictions and equivocations of its position on the imperialist war, the question that must be asked is: would the working class have achieved greater clarity had it remained politically subordinated to the Liberal Party?

Just as the fight against conscription brought the New Zealand Labour Party into being, in Australia, at almost the same moment, the same fight against conscription split the party masquerading as “Labor” wide apart. Harry Holland had good reason to feel pleased with both of these developments.

William Hughes had become leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister of Australia in October 1915, following the resignation of Andrew Fisher. Long a supporter of Conscription, he had visited London in early 1916 (stopping in New Zealand along the way for secret discussions with Massey) where he was feted as a major leader of the imperial war effort. “This war has done great things for the Empire. Amongst other things it has saved us from ourselves – it has saved us from the moral and physical degeneration that was setting in… The Empire was becoming flabby, and we were in danger of losing the ancient qualities and greatness of our race… This war, like the glorious beams of the sun on a gloomy day, was drying up the mists of suspicion between class and class,” Hughes said in England.

Australian anti-conscription poster mocks Hughes for his past statements

Hughes made it clear that the war he was fighting was for the Empire’s industrial and commercial supremacy. “… the great metal industry of Australia, the source to which the Empire might have looked for a supply adequate even for its abnormal needs, was completely dominated by German capital and German influence… The German agencies were not situated in Germany, but in London. They were, legally considered, British firms. Actually, they were for all practical purposes German. Under the cloak of naturalisation, our enemies were within the very heart of our citadel… All over the Empire German firms had been carrying on the commercial and industrial conquest by cloaking themselves with the nationality of the people they proposed to betray. To them the oath of naturalisation, the certificate of naturalisation, was a mere scrap of paper.”

He returned to Australia with redoubled enthusiasm for the war, and for extending compulsory military service to include conflicts outside of the Australian territory. But the ‘mists of suspicion between class and class’ had not entirely dried up; Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party in September 1916 by the New South Wales organisation, explicitly citing his support for Conscription as the reason. He took with him 18 of the old Labor Members of Parliament, including George Black and Holland’s former friend William Holman. These forces formed a new National Labor Party, which soon fused with the conservative Liberal Party, in a process that had many similarities to the Fusion in New Zealand. Hughes remained Prime Minister, and continued to press for Conscription in a referendum. The Australian vote for Conscription in December 1916 was narrowly lost.

1916 Conscription poster: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-1916-01

In New Zealand, despite the mass opposition, the Military Service Bill was passed into law in August 1916.  The campaign continued under increasingly difficult conditions. Holland later wrote1:

“When in December, 1916, the second great Anti-Conscription Conference, representing 50,000 workers, was sitting, detectives appeared with orders to demand admittance—a demand which was, however, not complied with. Mr. Peter Fraser (now M.P. for Wellington Central), secretary of the Conference, was arrested while Conference was sitting; and the arrests of Messrs. Brindle, Armstrong, and a number of others followed in rapid succession. Messrs. Semple and Cooke had been arrested a few days earlier. Almost half the effective platform propagandists of the Labour Movement were placed behind prison bars. Then the pursuit of the men who voiced Labour sentiments became still more determined. For months, at every meeting I addressed—it did not matter what the subject was—a “Hansard” [Parliamentary] stenographer took a verbatim report at the press table, while a detective took notes in the body of the hall (apparently for the purpose of checking the shorthand reporter’s notes), while two or three other detectives were also in the body of the hall.

“A system of far-reaching espionage became part of the official programme. The letters of the Government’s principal anti-militarist opponents were subjected to a censorship intended to be secret, but so clumsily carried out that it told its own tale. For considerably more than a year every letter which came to myself, whether addressed to my home or office, was opened and read and then reclosed neither neatly nor with regard for method or cleanliness. My letters were held up for periods which ranged from three days to a month. Letters to my wife from our sons in Australia were subjected to the same scrutiny. Even the Christmas cards which came addressed to our children did not escape. This was not my experience alone…

“Early in 1917 there came the first miners’ go-slow strike, constituting an effort to secure a 17½  per cent wages increase to enable the miners to meet, to some small extent, the enormous increase in the cost of living, which increase was largely the direct outcome of war profiteering. The Miners’ Executive members were dragged away to jail, and a new Executive came into office; whereupon the rank and file, going over the heads of the Executive, declared a strike against Conscription. The strike was eventually called off as the result of a bargain between the Acting Prime Minister and the Minister of Mines on the one hand and the Miners’ Federation on the other hand, practically guaranteeing that the miners would not be conscripted for the army, and that the men concerned in the strike would not be prosecuted.”

Paddy Webb, Labour MP for the West Coast electorate of Grey, voiced support for this action of the miners. He was arrested and jailed for three months.

As the ballots were drawn and the unwilling recruits rounded up, a new task emerged: defending those who were being persecuted for refusing military service. Paddy Webb was one of the first balloted for service in October 1917. He refused, was court-martialled and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, with loss of civil rights for ten years. His parliamentary seat was declared vacant. From prison he maintained a regular correspondence with the Maoriland Worker – until the prison authorities banned him from mentioning any political matters in his letters.2

Conscientious objectors including Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs were tied to poles and left in the field of battle Image: Marama Mayrick

Many of these individuals refusing military service were class-struggle leaders of the labour movement, including Mark Briggs, the acknowledged leader of the group of conscientious objectors subjected to the inhuman punishment of ‘crucifixion’ at the war front. They kept up a determined individual and collective campaign of hunger strikes, refusal to participate in drills, refusal to don uniforms, and similar protests in their scattered places of detention. There were Maori, Irish, and other oppressed nationalities who objected to fighting for their oppressors. There were also many pacifist, deeply religious conscientious objectors, and it was the pacifists’ moral stance which ended up setting the tone of the labour movement’s campaign.

In its efforts to undercut organised opposition to conscription in the labour movement, the government held one more trump card, which it played to full advantage: the exemptions from the draft. Married men were exempted (at least to begin with) on the grounds that their families would be left destitute. Workers in the so-called ‘essential industries’ could also be exempted on the grounds that their absence would be too disruptive to the national economy. The ‘essential industries’ included mining, waterfront, and transportation – precisely those where opposition to the draft was strongest. In some cases this meant that entire single-industry communities, such as the West Coast coal mining communities, were effectively exempted from the draft, and became havens for those opposed to the draft.  The campaign against conscription continued on the West Coast – they were fighting not just for themselves but for the whole working class – but the exemption certainly drove a wedge into the campaign and blunted its effect. These exemptions were effective in pre-empting industrial action in opposition to Conscription.

Te Puea Herangi. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library PAColl-5584-58

There was one revealing indication of how far the labour resistance to Conscription had been weakened by the combination of union-busting, repression, and exemptions. Mass resistance to Conscription developed among Maori in both the Waikato and Urewera regions in 1916. The movement in the Waikato was led by Te Puea Herangi, in a region which had once been a stronghold of class-struggle unionism at the Huntly coal mines, and where the first alliance between Maori and the labour movement had been forged a few years earlier. Yet there is no evidence of any effort by the labour movement to link up with this movement. Fighting unionism in the Waikato had not sufficiently recovered from the continual victimisations – nor from the devastating blow of the 1914 explosion.

Tūhoe leader Rua Kēnana (front, third from left) after his arrest on sedition charges. Rua’s son was killed in the raid. Photo: Arthur N Breckon. Archives New Zealand (Archives Ref: AAQT 6539, W3537/20)

In these various ways, the working class vanguard’s opposition to the war was gradually narrowed to supporting the conscientious objectors, together with pacifist preaching against war in general. From revolutionaries organising to overthrow the warmakers, the role of the militants became one of bearing witness against the war and its brutalities. Political opposition to the war was reduced to moral opposition.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Holland’s indictment of the government over the question of war profits. Holland’s pamphlet The Scandal of War Profits, written and circulated widely in 1917, was perhaps the best attempt by any labour movement figure in New Zealand to explain the reactionary class character of the war itself.

With characteristic thoroughness, Holland assembles the data on New Zealand’s exports and domestic consumption during the war years. He demonstrates that the government had taken advantage of the war crisis to demand vastly inflated prices for New Zealand’s principal exports, including wool, dairy products, meat and hides, flax fibre, scheelite (an ore of tungsten) and other products. As a result, the “wool kings, the meat capitalists, the butter, cheese and wheat profiteers are enjoying a prosperity such as they had never dreamed of before this war came to swell their incomes millionwards.” He points out that these inflated prices also applied to the wool, butter and cheese consumed locally. This was not simply a case of the laws of supply and demand, however. While this profiteering was allowed and actively pursued by the government, the same government legally forbade workers from taking advantage of the wartime labour shortage to demand higher wages. The solution, Holland argues, is for the workers to strengthen their industrial and political organisation, in particular “the most revolutionary wing of the labour movement, its political wing” represented by the new Labour Party.

Memorial to fallen soldiers of First World War at Te Aroha. War memorials like this erected in provincial towns were shrines to the wartime rural prosperity.

The moral outrage Holland expresses in this pamphlet was no doubt shared by many workers caught in the vise between their frozen wages and skyrocketing food prices. However, it is difficult to imagine the target of his anger, the Liberal-Reform Fusion government of Massey and Ward, responding in any other way than with smug self-satisfaction. For while the principal beneficiaries of the scandalous war profits were indeed the ‘wool kings’ Holland describes – the richest capitalist farmers and merchants of farm produce – the high prices for farm produce were also enjoyed by the many thousands of small family farmers, who produced the big majority of dairy industry’s output as well as a substantial fraction of the wool and meat. After a brief period of dislocation and disruption to trade in its opening months, the Great War was a period of unprecedented prosperity for rural New Zealand, thanks to the guaranteed high prices paid by the Empire. The political wedge that Massey had driven between the workers and the exploited farmers was thereby widened and consolidated. Massey could not have been more delighted by the facts Holland enumerated in his pamphlet.

As a protest statement against the war, demonstrating the class character of the government waging an imperialist war, the pamphlet is accurate and effective enough. As a political statement, rallying the forces for political action to overthrow the warmakers, it is a failure. Holland fails to draw the class line between the exploited working farmers and their capitalist-farmer exploiters. The pamphlet represents a step backwards from Holland’s earlier pamphlets on militarism. It registers the blows that had been dealt to the workers movement, including its vanguard, by the failure of European socialism to oppose the outbreak of the war, and by the mobilisation of farmers against the working class, as well as the reactionary pressures exerted on the vanguard by the all-inclusive labour party. Above all, it demonstrated that the organisational independence achieved with the formation of the Labour Party in 1916 was insufficient. For the working class to become truly politically independent of the bourgeois parties, it needed – and still lacked – a working class political programme.

British troops at barricade during Irish rebellion of 1916. Photo: Ann Ronan pictures

The war crisis in Europe was already generating the anticipated revolutionary uprisings. The first was the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, whose brilliance flashed briefly across the news wires. “So far the people have been permitted to know but little concerning the revolution,” wrote Holland in May 1916. “The strict cable censorship has left us where we are only able to see as ‘through a glass darkly.’ We know —every student knows —the long historical processes that led up to the outbreak; but we know nothing of the immediate spark that started the conflagration, and still less of its magnitude. How many men, how many women, how many children fell before the guns of soldiers and civilians engaged in mortal combat, we do not yet know. We do not even know the full number of men and women held in prison. How many are being hunted down in the bogs and mountains we do not know…

James Connolly, Irish republican and socialist executed after Irish rebellion of 1916

“James Connolly’s connection with the revolt, and the fact that Liberty Hall—headquarters of the Transport Workers and General Labourers’ Union—was bombarded, demonstrates that the revolt had a deep working class significance. James Connolly was a clear-thinking Socialist of the Marxian school, with a long, loyal and brilliant record in the Irish working-class movement…. It is not going outside of fact to say that the summary executions of the Irish leaders after trial by court martial have shocked many thousands of people in NZ who were quite out of sympathy with the rebellion… Ireland will have recovered from the effects of the rebellion long before she will have recovered from the influences that will be born as a result of the executions.”

Less than a year later, an even greater event shook the world: the opening of the Russian revolution.



  1. Armageddon or Calvary by Harry Holland, 1919. p14. The title expresses the choice faced by those conscripts who opposed the war: between Armageddon – the war at the end of the world, and Calvary, crucifixion for refusing to renounce their ideas. After The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, this 188-page booklet is perhaps Holland’s most widely-read piece of writing. It remains one of the best accounts of the story of the three hundred Conscientious Objectors jailed in the Great War. It consists mostly of statements and letters by many of the Objectors, describing in detail the humiliations, punishments and unspeakable tortures to which they were subjected – especially those who continued to refuse Military Service even after they were sent to the front – and their courageous acts of defiance and resistance.
  2. ibid, p114



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