How New Zealand was saved from prohibition by its soldiers after World War I

Soldiers from New Zealand having a well deserved break during World War I. They would achieve their biggest victory by saving their country from abstinance in 1919.

Soldiers from New Zealand having a well-deserved break during World War I. They would book their biggest victory by saving their country from complete abstinence in 1919.

The First World War was for New Zealand the period of national awakening. The country with back then just over a million inhabitants in total sent more than 100.000 soldiers and nurses to the frontline. Many of them gave their life in the Battle of Gallipoli or at the Western Front. But their most important battle was yet to come. While these brave ‘kiwis’ were fighting on the other end of the world, the cowards of the New Zealand Temperance Movement back home tried to push through a nationwide prohibition of alcohol sales. By a referendum they even seemed to accomplish their goal, until the votes of the troops stationed abroad were counted.

New Zealand is named by many as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And you don’t have to watch the full Lord of the Rings trilogy to figure out why, a few minutes is already enough. The landscapes are simply breathtaking. What better place to grab yourself a beer and enjoy the view, right? Well, things could have been completely different if it was up to the New Zealand Temperance Movement, an evil organisation that tried for decades to cut the inhabitants off from alcohol.

The Temperance Movement was formed by the many protestant immigrants that came from Western Europe. You know, religious freaks who say that the same Jesus they claim to follow, was wrong when he said people should drink wine. In fact, the Temperance Movement decided it was best if nobody would be able to have a drink anymore. And unfortunately for the sane people in New Zealand this lobby got quite powerful too. With their own newspaper, they brainwashed the people with propaganda and tried to get them to vote for politicians that openly supported prohibition, rather than to follow a party line.

In 1911 they finally had enough politicians to agree on a national  referendum. In order to get a prohibition on alcohol sales, at least 60% of the voters had to agree with this. With 55.8% a majority voted for a dry New Zealand, but it wasn’t enough.

Three years later World War I started and as part of the British Empire, New Zealand dived right in as soon as England declared war on Germany. One tenth of the population joined, either in battle or as a nurse. When the ‘Great War’ ended in 1918, New Zealand lost 16.697 people on the battlefield, while 41.317 returned wounded. More than a thousand of those people would die within 5 years as a result of their injuries. Just to say, the First World War had scarred the population of just over a million in a horrible way.

Soldiers from New Zealand receive their daily rum ration in World War I.

Soldiers from New Zealand receive their daily rum ration in World War I.

While brave men and women were risking their lives on the battlefields on the other side of the world, the cowards of the Temperance Movement stayed behind and tried their best to demoralise the troops, as well as their relatives back home. They started a lobby to cut the soldiers off from alcohol completely. A strategy that could have been disastrous, as was shown by the Russian troops of Tsar Nicholas II. The Temperance Movement also demanded total abstinence in the homeland ‘at least during the war’ to establish ‘national efficiency’. The government did not want to go as far as a total prohibition, but no bar could be open after 6 o’clock in the evening. This idiotic rule that was known as the Six o’clock swill stayed until 1967 (!).

As soon as the Great War was over, the prohibition supporters got themselves another referendum. Like many other countries after World War I, including of course the United States of America, New Zealand seemed to be heading for a dry spell, especially since this time 50% of the votes would be enough to pass a law to prohibit all alcohol sales. With the majority of the votes counted it was almost a tie, with a small advantage for the prohibition supporters. The 40.000 votes of the troops that were still stationed abroad turned out to be decisive.

It became their most glorious victory of the past 5 years. About 80 to 90% of the troops voted for a ‘well hydrated New Zealand’ and with that they saved their country from all the drama that would follow in the United States during their prohibition: an enormous loss of tax money, increased crime rate and a terrible economic crisis. As many New Zealanders saw how prohibition in the US became a disaster, the Temperance Movement slowly lost support. The threat of complete abstinence was avoided, thanks to a few thirsty soldiers who reduced the amount of ‘yays’ for prohibition to 49%, just 1% too short to ruin a piece of paradise on Earth.

Micky Bumbar


Related articles on Lords of the Drinks:

How alcohol played a key role in warfare around the world

Mahatma Gandhi killed thousands with call for prohibition

Lewis Redmond, a modern Robin Hood and moonshiner

Queen Mother Elizabeth, a heavy drinker who lived 101 years

Winston Churchill, war prime minister who loved to drink

6 thoughts on “How New Zealand was saved from prohibition by its soldiers after World War I

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