WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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Where Britain goes, we go?

Steve Watters - Senior historian & educator at Ministry for Culture & Heritage

When Britain declared war in August 1914, did this automatically mean New Zealand was also at war?

Detail - Politicians and a crowd, outside Parliament Buildings. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22472392

On Tuesday 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany following Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality. Word of the declaration of war by King George V was received in Wellington, New Zealand, on 5 August 1914. The governor, Lord Liverpool, announced the news from the steps of Parliament to a crowd of 15,000 people.

As most New Zealanders regarded themselves as British, and Britain as home, there was little hesitation in supporting the ‘Mother Country’ in its moment of crisis. But, emotion aside, did the British declaration automatically mean New Zealand was also at war? Or did New Zealand joining the war require a separate action by our government?

Declaration of war with Germany. Photograph by Sydney Charles Smith. Ref: 1/2-045239-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22472392

The answer lies in the fact that at the time we were not an independent sovereign state, but a dominion of the British Empire. This conferred the privilege of domestic self-rule. But all external relations, including the power to make war, remained the sole prerogative of the British Government in London.

When the British government declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 it did so on behalf of the entire British Empire, including the dominions of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Newfoundland.

No separate declaration of war by New Zealand (or any of the other dominions) was required – or indeed possible under the imperial constitutional framework that existed then. After Britain’s declaration of war it was simply a question of how New Zealand would contribute to the Empire’s war effort, not if.

Date added: 09 January 2014 | Last updated: 11 January 2014