Conscientious inspectors: the police’s role in WWI

The New Zealand Police played a pivotal role during the First World War: tracking down people trying to avoid conscription

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, reckoned Gilbert and Sullivan in their comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. During the First World War, a policeman’s lot certainly wasn’t a quiet one, as will be revealed at a conference this week at Victoria University of Wellington.

The three-day Dissent and the First World War conference has been organised by Victoria’s Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and the Labour History Project, in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand.

Among its 40 lectures — on topics ranging from conscientious objectors to postal censorship to working-class radicalism — will be one by New Zealand Police Museum Director Rowan Carroll entitled ‘Policing the War: New Zealand Police 1914–1918 — The Invisible Military Machine’.

The police never received the accolades bestowed on military personnel, says Ms Carroll, yet played a pivotal role during the First World War.

This prompted John O’Donovan, New Zealand Police Commissioner from 1916–1922, to observe at the 1919 funeral of slain police officer Constable Vivian Dudding:

“Ours is not the duty of the soldier who gallantly takes up his weapons and goes forth, as we have seen lately, to fight the foes that threaten to overwhelm our countries, and even our civilisation. When that duty is done, once for all the soldier rests upon his honour in peace. But that peace applies only to the external foe. All that the soldier has achieved does not necessarily secure the internal national peace for whose preservation the police force exists.”

While a police officer’s work “is not entered upon with the pomp and circumstance attending the departure of the soldier to the front”, a constable is at all times “in the line of battle”, said O’Donovan — as demonstrated by Dudding’s death protecting a woman from family violence.

On top of their usual ‘core business’, police duties during the First World War included being vigilant against aliens, prosecuting seditious acts and discovering and monitoring aliens, says Ms Carroll, whose lecture will draw on research she and historian Dr Elizabeth Plumridge conducted for the Police Museum.

Added to those duties after conscription was introduced in 1916 was policing that and finding ‘shirkers’.

The numbers involved give a sense of the scale of this task.

Around 10,000 of the 100,000 men eligible out of a total New Zealand population of one million “went to all kinds of lengths” to avoid being conscripted, says Ms Carroll — but by war’s end half of them had been rounded up.

“If it had just been left up to the military to find these people and get them back into the churn it would never have happened,” she says, pointing out that at the beginning of the war the permanent Defence Force numbered only 500.

The police themselves were not permitted to sign up to fight unless they first resigned their job, forfeiting their pension and seniority, with no guarantee of re-employment.

“It became a huge job for the police. And at that time there were only about 880 police. There was no way without the police’s help they would have been able to turn the New Zealand population into a military machine, which was what was required.

“It wasn’t so much in enforcing recruitment, it was in finding those people who were resisting. There were a number of ways you could default or dissent and it could be as simple as changing your address and not telling anyone where you’d gone.

“There were those who were just making themselves scarce and then there were those who were really actively dissenting and changing their names and moving to completely different areas of the country. Trying to track them down was really hard.”

The police themselves were not permitted to sign up to fight unless they first resigned their job, forfeiting their pension and seniority, with no guarantee of re-employment.

This contrasted with other government agencies, which granted their staff leave, many of them allowing staff to keep their pensions, with some even being paid half their salaries.

“And they were told that when they came back they’d do so at the same seniority and pick up where they left off,” says Ms Carroll. “But the police were told no, they couldn’t do that.”

John Cullen, New Zealand Police Commissioner from 1912–1916, was worried that if police left en masse to sign up the country would fall over.

“And he was right to a certain degree. Because with so many government agencies’ men leaving, police had to pick up a lot of their duties. They also weren’t allowed to recruit men who were eligible for the draft. The men who were temporarily recruited were generally older men. And there were concerns around that as well, because on a lot of occasions they were policing the forces —including wayward young men who were away from their parents’ control and behaving badly.”

It was always men police officers, too: New Zealand may have led the way giving women the vote in 1893, but it trailed allowing them into the police force; the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany all had women officers in the First World War, but it wouldn’t be until 1941 during the Second World War that New Zealand followed suit.

The government agency duties the police picked up in the First World War were many and varied, including as collectors of agricultural statistics (although this process helped them track down deserters and conscription defaulters); inspectors of weights and measures; registrars of pensions; inspectors of fisheries; Kauri-gum rangers; and many more roles besides.

"They knew these people and, charged with upholding some very unpopular laws, often felt conflicted.”

“There were a lot of liquor licensing laws that came about,” says Ms Carroll. “Because they wanted to stop young people from mass naughtiness. So they did things like close the pubs at six o’clock, which of course went on for much longer. It also became illegal to buy a round. Because if you were in a group of people and you were buying a round it meant every single person in that group had to buy a drink for the next person.”

With 240 of the country’s nearly 330 police stations one-man operations, it was difficult for the police, says Ms Carroll.

“You were the only police officer in the town and there were five pubs — it was just impossible.”

The close communities in which police worked presented other difficulties too.

“They were very embedded; they knew these people and, charged with upholding some very unpopular laws, often felt conflicted.”

Regardless, though, “police performed their duty honourably for the citizens of New Zealand throughout the war”, she says.

And they sucked up the “extraordinary demands” made of them, although Commissioner O’Donovan did remark that “even public men and public officers seem to have the impression that whole squads of spare police men are kept in reserve awaiting their call, twiddling their thumbs”.

There wasn’t much chance of that.

Dissent and the First World War, 31 August–2 September, Victoria University of Wellington.

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