To reflect on the issue of conscription 100 years on, the First World War Centenary Programme Office (WW100) asked several emerging artists aged between 18 and 25 to respond to film footage of the first conscription ballot now housed at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.
These diverse artists offered their views on this significant chapter of the First World War through dance, illustration, song, film and playwriting. Their works allow young New Zealanders to connect with and think about First World War conscription from a contemporary perspective; possibly inspiring students to create their own.
First World War conscription
By 1916, two years after the First World War had begun, the number of men volunteering to join New Zealand’s military forces overseas had fallen dramatically. To make up the shortfall, in August of that year the New Zealand Government introduced conscription (or compulsory enlistment for military service).
Three months later, on 16 November 1916, the first monthly ballot was held in Wellington. Film footage shows registration cards with census data of almost all New Zealand men between the ages of 20 and 45 being laid out in boxes on long tables. Their numbers were transferred onto wooden balls which were placed in a rotating barrel and randomly selected. These men were informed by letter a few days later that they were legally in the army. In total, 19,548 New Zealand men were conscripted and sent overseas in 1917 and 1918.
Further information on conscription:
- Conscription - NZHistory - Learn more about conscription in the First World War with the fantastic articles and resources available on NZHistory.
- 'Fraught with serious even terrible possibilities’: Conscription in WW1 - Kirstie Ross, historian and curator at Te Papa, looks at the introduction of military conscription 100 years ago, and its impact on James and Sophia Dempsey.
- Māori objection to conscription - NZHistory - Explore the reasons a significant number of Māori objected to conscription during the First World War.
- Fraser and the First World War - After conscription was introduced in 1916, nearly 100 people were imprisoned for opposing it. Some of them would go on to have notable political careers – none more so than future prime minister Peter Fraser.
- Why did some New Zealanders fight to stay at home? - Some 43,500 men chose to appeal their conscription during the First World War – representing around one-third of those called-up. Why did this large group of New Zealanders fight to stay at home?
- “Why do we commemorate?” – The peacemakers - Margaret Lovell-Smith, lead researcher for the Voices Against War project, urges people to consider the peace perspective during centenary commemorations.
- The arrest of Rua Kēnana - Did you know that Rua Kēnana, a prominent Tūhoe leader, was arrested in 1916 for discouraging enlistment in the war?
- New Zealanders who resisted the First World War - Resources to research those New Zealanders who protested against - or resisted military service in - the First World War.
The creatives and their work
The Fading Puppet dance represents the two players in the conscription ballot: the powerful government and the powerless conscripted soldier. The government is portrayed as dominating and upright while the soldier is merely a puppet, manipulated into wielding a gun and going into battle against his will. Even after he has fallen, the only place the soldier can fall is onto the government’s shoulders. Akshay's dance weaves Indian and Kiwi culture, drawing on hip hop and Bollywood music and dance influences.
Fall in Line mixes found audio with film to build a narrative of the Māori war effort; focusing on those fighting for King and Country and those fighting against imperial subjugation. Kauri's film represents that duality between fighting for and against the crown during the First World War while also commenting on its effects among Māori and Pacific men one hundred years later.
Medium: Short play reading
What does it mean to be the one who draws the numbers from the ballot? To send your loved ones to war? Written to show the absurdity of conscription, Those Left Behind shows a group of women performing their civic duties despite the part they might end up playing in their own family or friends being sent to war. Though the scenario seems like a distant horror to New Zealanders today, viewers might be reminded of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games or Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.
Medium: Digital media
Etanah's work combines collage with digital media to portray the emotional journey of groups affected by conscription. It seeks to capture the links between the unexpected results, errors, manipulation, corruption or otherwise, and the mass glitch in the conscription ballot alongside the embedded use of the internet in our lives today. At the same time, it casts a light on the price paid by those who opposed conscription.
Medium: Ink Pen, Digitalised, Photoshop
Three Stages represents and interprets the lottery of life and death through different stages of conscription: being at home, going to war and the end of the war. One hundred years ago the word ‘lottery’ meant gambling on your life. Today it's more akin to winning prizes that might benefit your life. Moana's work features ballot marbles, conscripted men, the women who drew the registration cards, and New Zealand and Pacific plants representing the return home.
Luck of the Draw is an original music collaboration featuring hip hop artist MC Oblique and Pacifica soprano Madison Nonoa. The lyrics use conscription as a metaphor for modern life and being dealt cards which put people in situations out of their control. The theme is about facing and overcoming the burdens and challenges created by conscription.
Conscripted 19,548 is a semi-psychedelic flurry of scenes of ‘minimal moments’ between the ballot box and the battlefield. Liam uses a mix of hand-drawn, stop-motion animation and motion tracking to illustrate core conscription themes such as the ballot, getting a medical check, and the order to the battlefield.
We have put together a series of discussion points that you can use to engage your students with conscription in the First World War. You can download a PDF of the discussion points at the link below.
Submit your own response
Have your students created their own artistic response to the conscription ballot film? Submit it here and we'll feature it on the WW100 website.
If you experience any issues submitting your response, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.