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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XV. — Views on Various War Problems

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Chapter XV.
Views on Various War Problems.

Agitation for repeal of Conscription—Australian experienceProsecutions for sedition—Bell's argument with Mr. McCombs, M.P.—His defence of Sir James AllenSoldier settlers.


According to some critics, the long battle fought by Bell on behalf of the religious objector may not after all have yielded any great benefit to those he sought to protect; for, while the religious objector was exempted from actually bearing arms, there was still much military work he could be called on to do.

In any case, the fate of the religious objector was soon overshadowed in the eyes of the Government by more far-reaching industrial problems; for Massey and Ward had no sooner left for the Imperial Conference in September, 1916, than in various quarters an active and vigorous campaign was launched for the repeal of the Military Service Act. This campaign was stimulated by the result of a referendum in Australia which had rejected conscription. Yet, curiously enough, had conscription been imposed in Australia by the Government in the same way as in New Zealand, it is highly possible that it would have been acquiesced in by the page 132people of Australia. I may illustrate this from a small incident that occurred on the day the Australian referendum was held. I happened to be in Sydney, and in conversation with a taxi-driver about the problem he said:

"Yes, I have just voted against conscription, though I know we are short of reinforcements, and I have two brothers wounded in France. If Billy Hughes passed a law to conscript us we would take it like mother's milk, but it is not fair to ask a man to vote to send himself to the Front. All we want is for the Government to tell us what we have to do as your Government did in New Zealand."

There is plenty of food for thought in this remark, and it perhaps helps to explain why, in a time of crisis, dictators so easily gained power in Europe. In normal times a democracy is jealous of its privileges, but when it is faced with novel and overwhelming problems it is content to follow any leader who is bold and resolute.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand itself, class feeling was growing bitter. The workers saw that the farmers were reaping high prices, and therefore called more and more insistently for the conscription of wealth. The centre of disaffection was the coal-mines, where strikes broke out from time to time. By the end of 1916, the Government found it necessary to issue regulations which made punishable, by twelve months' imprisonment or fine, seditious utterances or publications which interfered with recruiting, discouraged the prosecution of the War to a victorious conclusion, or encouraged opposition to the enforcement of laws relating to conscription. Some prosecutions of anti-conscriptionists followed, and the maximum penalty of twelve months' page 133imprisonment was imposed. This infuriated a section of the workers, for most of the defendants had merely advocated the repeal of the Military Service Act.


One of the reasons why Bell was personally popular with members of the Labour Party was that he always replied to their complaints by reasoned argument, and not by stereotyped official letters. The following incident furnishes a good example. In January, 1917, a Labour M.P. had been convicted of sedition and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. One of his fellow-members, Mr. J. McCombs, M.P., forwarded a report of the trial to Sir Francis Bell, with the following request:

"I want you to carefully read the enclosed and honestly say what excuse you have to offer for your share in the prosecution and gaoling of honest men. Your political opponents are surely entitled to an element of fair play."

Bell to Mr. McCombs, M.P., January 29, 1917:

"You ask what excuse I have to offer for my share in the prosecution and gaoling of honest men. Part of the answer clearly is that the honesty, whether of life or of purpose, of a man so charged is absolutely irrelevant and immaterial to the issue. Many an 'honest' man has committed murder—honesty is only material where the defendant is accused of some dishonest act. The other part of the answer is that the duty of requiring observance of the law is imposed upon the Executive, and that my share in the proceedings is that I am one of those at the moment entrusted with that duty.

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"This law, be it a good or a bad law, is that which a majority of the representatives of the people have either enacted in Parliament or have empowered the Executive in time of war to define; and those who disobey that law, whether honestly or dishonestly, challenge the Executive to enforce it. Do you suggest that the Government should ignore its duty to enforce obedience to the law?

"But how can you, a trade-unionist, justify your present complaint—where is your consistency? A trade-union, by a majority, arrives at a certain resolution as to procedure and conduct of its members in a dispute with employers. The minority 'honestly' differs, and members of the minority disregard the resolution and continue work on the old conditions. Do you, or do you not, treat such men with every indignity, however' honest' they may be in their convictions? Do you not call them ' scabs ' and hold them up to all forms of obloquy? Whether trade-unionists are right or wrong in the course they adopt in such cases, how can you consistently complain of the enforcement of the will of a majority upon a recalcitrant minority?"

But there were other cases in which Bell seems to have been uneasy as to whether the law was being properly applied. In writing to one correspondent, he emphasized the distinction

"between advocacy of the repeal of the Military Service Act, and advocacy of resistance to that Act. The first cannot be sedition however you take it, and yet in my view the Magistrates are dealing out the page 135same sentences in respect of speeches whick to my untutored mind seem not to go beyond the constitutional right of advocacy of repeal."

The validity of the Conscription Act was challenged as being ultra vires, but this contention was disallowed by the Court of Appeal. In December, 1916, an anticonscription conference was held in Wellington, which demanded a meeting of Parliament to enable the Act to be repealed.

When the wharf-labourers adopted a "go slow" policy, and the employers declared a lock-out, the Government issued regulations empowering it to take over and work the wharves. Incitement to refuse service as a wharf-labourer, or utterances calculated to interfere with the handling of cargo, were made punishable offences. These measures were effective, and work was resumed.

In April, 1917, further serious trouble occurred in the coal-mines, where "go-slow" tactics were also adopted. Some miners were arrested for being parties to a seditious strike under the War Regulations, and thereupon all the men stopped work.

"We wish to state," said one manifesto, "that we have no quarrel with the companies whatever. In the present instance it is conscription and conscription alone."

The Government was severely criticized for its weakness in giving way to the miners, pardoning and releasing the convicted men, and agreeing that every essential worker in the mines should have his appeal for exemption from military service allowed.

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There was no Minister more continuously under attack during the War period than Sir James Allen, Minister of Defence. This was inevitable in view of great and unprecedented problems arising from the enlistment, equipping, and despatch of an army overseas. I may insert here an incident that occurred in 1918 in which Bell defended Allen from one critic. An Opposition member wrote to Bell as follows:—

"I think you know that I do not care a two-penny continental about any Party interest as compared with that of the Empire at this juncture. I should be quite content to resign my seat to-morrow and see your side in for the next twenty years, if it would help New Zealand and the nation, and I assure you in what I am about to say there is not a tinge of Party feeling. I am becoming increasingly concerned about Alien's handling of military matters. I recognize that he is an unsparing worker in a clear partisan sort of fashion. I believe that he is religious and believes that he is one of God's instruments for the preservation of the Empire, and prays for guidance in all his work, so that I admire his spirit and give him credit for sincerity and patriotism.

"One of the Ministers told me a few weeks ago that Massey is convinced that the New Zealand folk have every confidence in Allen. Well I wish Massey could hear friends of his Party here express their opinion, and it would disabuse his mind of that notion. We are bottling up because we are averse to raising trouble, but the dissatisfaction is extreme."

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The writer went on to complain that men were being sent to the front insufficiently trained, and he quoted reports that had reached him from France.

Bell to the Opposition M.P., January 30, 1918:

"The difficulty you obviously have in conveying, even in confidence to me, the impression which you think the public have formed of Allen's competence is far greater in my case. If I agreed, I could not say so. As I do not agree, I may write more freely.

"Allen's persistency and even obstinacy are great factors in the cause which so greatly concerns you and me. I know how those qualities of his have enabled us all to feel that New Zealand has tried to do her duty. So many men in his position would have given way here and there in matters which to an outsider seem non-essential and in respect of which the public were agitated and troublesome. I say quite deliberately that any attempt to fill his place with another man would probably result in the new man adopting a different view of our duty to England from that which Allen has maintained to the satisfaction of men like you so far. There is so great temptation to play to a gallery where the gallery is so full. We can trust Allen to play to no gallery. Let us assume, which I do not admit, that the methods might be improved. What gain would that be to you or me or to our country as against the mere possibility of a man being substituted who advocated Mr. Ormond's speech of last session as a gospel of the measure of New Zealand's duty. I do not suggest that there is any such man in the National page 138Government. I won't believe there is, but there is the gallery full and there is the temptation.

"I think you exaggerate the extent to which Allen allows religion to guide him. I confess to having always a distrust of the power of mind of a man who can accept as true the history of any 'Divine' revelation. All the more when the history is quoted from written testimony of witnesses hopelessly in conflict with each other. But in Allen's case I have found the exception. He has seemed possessed of a mind capable of dealing with mundane matters without the weakness indicated by the religious factor."

It may be added that after careful inquiry, Bell was able to satisfy his correspondent that if any troops had been despatched with insufficient training, this had been due to a temporary emergency, and the complaint had since been remedied. At a later date the whole administration of the Defence Department during the War period was reviewed by a Royal Commission, which gave unqualified praise to the work of Sir James Allen and to the unswerving tenacity with which he had carried out his great task.


For two periods of the War during Massey's absence in London, Bell was in charge of the problem of acquiring land for returned soldiers.

"We never had a greater responsibility," said Bell, "except the responsibilities of the War, and they, of course, were incomparably greater. But apart from them no other responsibility we ever had as a Govern-page 139ment was so great as that of accepting or discarding purchases of land for soldiers."

When prices fell heavily in 1920-21 and many soldier settlers were threatened with ruin, there was widespread public denunciation of the Government for having paid excessive and extravagant prices for land. But it is easy to be wise after the event, and Bell's letters to Massey in London show clearly that no Government could have ignored or resisted the public demand that ample lands must be made available for soldiers. All that he could do was to take every precaution that expert advice could furnish, and to hold back from sale all Crown lands that might be suitable for settlement until the soldiers returned.

But when in the post-War period the Government were violently assailed for having bought land too dearly and encouraging feverish speculation in land, Bell pointed out that during the earlier years the accusation was exactly in the opposite direction. So far from having been accused of paying excessive prices for land, he had been under continual attack for being afraid to buy.

"The newspapers," he said," were full of the folly of the Government in turning down lands which were being bought up by private purchasers. They asked what sort of Government is that which has not the grit on behalf of our men to run some risk."

He showed that not only was every purchase carefully examined by an expert independent Land Purchase Board, but no single purchase was made without a resolution of Cabinet. The valuations of the property were read to all the Ministers with full estimates of what the land would produce and its value. Moreover, page 140he showed that it was not on the high-priced lands that the failures were made; in fact, it was on the highpriced dairy lands that the soldiers had the greatest success.


As early as November, 1916, Bell advised Massey that land prices were too high, and that he was refusing as many offers as he was accepting. But he pointed out that there would be endless trouble if shirkers were allowed to obtain Crown lands while the soldiers were absent. Hence he steadily refused to allow any Crown lands to be opened for settlement that could be reserved for the soldiers. He applied the same rule when pastoral lands were being subdivided.

"I am satisfied," he wrote, "that if you allow people who are staying behind to get the runs as against the soldiers it will be wrong."

Massey cabled from London, approving of the policy that was being pursued.

Bell to Massey, January, 1917:

"I had already anticipated your agreement with the policy of abstaining from buying at the present high prices anything but particularly desirable blocks. Indeed, I think I have only bought one since November, and that is a thousand acres of dairy land in the Rangitikei district at £39 10s. an acre, which we could easily sell again at a considerable advance if we wanted to discard it."

At this time another difficulty arose; prices for sheep and cattle had risen so greatly that it was difficult for the soldiers to stock up their land to its full capacity. "Of course," wrote Bell, "I can always help the page 141soldiers by remitting or postponing their rent. But if the prices of stock keep up to their present enormous rate, I shall have to allow the soldiers to sublet for a time for grazing to others."

At the same time he added that most of the soldiers were doing well and were satisfied.

As the demand for land increased, Bell advised Massey that on his return he would find himself compelled to look to the Native lands to meet the soldiers' requirements. He urged that all private dealings with Native land should be stopped, and that every acre of Native land when disposed of should pass to the Crown and automatically to the returned soldiers under Crown tenure.

Bell's letters show with what sedulous care he examined every phase of the problem, and he was delighted to find that Massey expressed every confidence in his temporary administration.


After the heavy fall in prices in 1921-22 it became necessary to make concessions to the soldiers by way of reduction of rent and mortgages. But Bell still insisted that many soldiers were meeting with success, and that only a small number were really in difficulties. Up till that date the enormous sum of £27,000,000 had been invested, of which about £9,000,000 was for houses, either in the country or the town. Altogether more than 15,000 houses had been provided. Over 4,000,000 acres of Government land were in the occupation of discharged soldiers but these did not include land bought by the soldiers themselves from private individuals. The total number of soldier settlers amounted page 142to 21,000. At that date the arrears amounted to only £600,000, representing arrears of both capital and interest. On the other hand, the majority of the men were able to meet their engagements, and the deficiency was not regarded as serious in view of the large number settled.

Bell admitted that some mistakes had been made in spite of the precautions he had laid down, but claimed that the mistakes were extraordinarily few, and that the prices paid by the Government were often lower than those being paid by private individuals.

One ground of criticism was that the soldiers had in many cases been given back-block land without adequate roads. Bell's answer to this was that many returned soldiers preferred back-block land rather than land near the railways because the price of the latter was too high for them. In the back country they had an opportunity of making their own capital with a rise in the unearned increment. As to the failure to make roads, it was impossible to hold back land once the settlers knew it was available. He himself had tried to hold back land for the main body, and had refrained from putting in roads in order to make it more easy to hold the land back. But not a single acre of it was left and people insisted on sub-division and the opening-up of the land.

"It is only platform stuff," he said, "to advocate holding back settlement until roads are made, and to talk of the inequity of giving a man only a bridle track. That is what the settler talks of after he has got there. But if you pointed out to him before he went that there was only a bridle track it would not stop him, and it would not stop the agitation to open page 143the land. It is idle to talk to settlers of waiting for roads and railways till they can go on the land. The answer of most of them is, 'what would have happened to the country if our forefathers had demanded roads and railways before they took up land?"