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Veterans’ assistance

by Mark Derby

The government has often assisted war veterans onto farms and into work, as well as providing rehabilitation and pensions where needed. However, veterans of some conflicts have had to campaign to receive government support.

War pensions

New Zealand and South African wars

Since the 19th century New Zealand war veterans and their families have been given special government assistance to acknowledge the risks of their military service and their role in the country’s development.

After the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, the Military Pensions Act 1866 granted pensions to wounded or disabled members of the colonial forces, and to the widows and families of troops killed. The amount of each pension was calculated on the basis of the soldier’s rank and degree of disability. A panel of doctors also decided whether the veteran was ‘deserving’ of a pension. Pro-government Māori troops were eligible for this war pension, but at a lower rate than Pākehā veterans.

The amount of these pensions was generally low, and many veterans and their families were excluded from receiving them. The same pension scheme was used after the South African War of 1899–1902, the first war in which New Zealand troops fought overseas.

First World War

The large numbers of New Zealand troops taking part in the First World War, and the heavy casualties they suffered, required a more comprehensive war pension scheme. The War Pensions Act 1915 set up a network of war pensions boards to decide whether a veteran’s death or disability was due to their military service. The requirement for veterans to be ‘deserving’ was dropped, and Māori veterans received the same pension as Pākehā veterans.

Second World War

The War Pensions Act 1943 improved pension rates and made it easier for war veterans and their families to receive compensation for death, disability or financial disadvantage. From 1951 this pension scheme was integrated into the social security system, and veterans qualified for extra benefits such as free travel. Veterans’ associations and the media campaigned for further veteran assistance, and a commission of inquiry recommended a range of improvements in pension rates and conditions. These were incorporated in the War Pensions Act 1954.


Jayforce, the 12,000 New Zealand troops who served in Japan as a peacetime military force from 1946 to 1948, were later treated differently from Second World War veterans. Their military service was at first not officially recognised, and until 1964 they were not eligible to receive war pensions or join the RSA (Returned Servicemen’s Association). A special medal for Jayforce veterans, the New Zealand Service Medal 1946–1949, was finally issued in 1995. By 2010 this medal had been awarded to nearly 5,000 veterans or their surviving families.

However, veterans of Jayforce were only granted the same pensions and benefits as Second World War veterans after many years of lobbying.

Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand

From the late 1980s war pension boards were abolished and pensions were assessed by representatives of the Social Welfare Department and the RSA. In 2008 responsibility for war pensions was transferred to Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand, a unit of the New Zealand Defence Force. Veterans with a disability resulting from war service before 1974 were paid a war disablement pension and received free medical care. Those who qualified for New Zealand superannuation could also receive an additional pension. Both civilians and military veterans held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War could receive a one-off payment of $30,000. These pensions were also paid to the surviving spouses or partners of veterans.

In 2010 surviving veterans of the Second World War still made up the majority of the veteran community, although war pensions were also paid to veterans of recent deployments, such as in Afghanistan.


New Zealand veterans who have had operational service, and their spouses, are eligible for burial in a Services Cemetery. Veterans’ Affairs may also provide a headstone or plaque, free if the death is attributable to war service, and otherwise at a subsidised rate.

Economic rehabilitation

New Zealand and South African wars

As well as paying war pensions for disability or death, New Zealand governments have provided economic compensation to help veterans return to work after their military service. Traditionally, rural land was regarded as the most suitable compensation since it was assumed to provide both a financial return and physical and social rehabilitation. Some veterans of the New Zealand wars were given grants of confiscated Māori land. A small number of South African War veterans were also settled on farmland, while others were given preference for jobs in government departments.

Fencibles settlements

Some of the earliest soldier settlement schemes in New Zealand were the Fencibles villages of Panmure, Onehunga, Ōtāhuhu and Howick, all in Auckland. These were occupied between 1847 and 1852 by about 700 retired veterans of the British army and navy and their families. The Fencibles were intended to defend Auckland against attack by ‘rebel’ Māori. They were called to action only once, in 1851. A party of Ngāti Pāoa from Waiheke Island, whose chief had been arrested by mistake, landed at Mechanics Bay, Parnell. The war party returned home without incident.

First World War

The Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1915 created a system to provide farm settlement schemes and vocational training to First World War veterans. Farmland was allocated by a ballot system, mainly to Pākehā soldiers, as Māori veterans were assumed to have tribal land already available to them. More than 10,500 men were assisted onto the land by 1924, with another 12,000 helped to buy or build houses in towns and cities. However, land for settlement was often selected regardless of the soldiers’ own wishes or farming experience. Many of these farms were on marginal or remote lands and they often failed to provide the returns their settlers hoped for.

Disabled servicemen

The economic depression of the early 1930s condemned thousands of disabled New Zealand veterans to unemployment and poverty. The Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment League (later renamed the Disabled Servicemen’s Re-establishment League) was formed in 1931 to provide veterans with rehabilitation and employment. Businesses were encouraged to employ and train disabled ex-soldiers. Three artificial-limb factories were opened, to both employ and provide improved equipment for war amputees. Other disabled servicemen made furniture, souvenirs and other goods, sold through a chain of league shops around the country.

From 1969 the league worked with both ex-servicemen and civilians. In 1990 it changed its name to Workbridge, and operated as an employment service for people with disabilities.

Second World War

The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1941 to improve and coordinate the reintegration of Second World War veterans into New Zealand’s post-war society. Many thousands of veterans received low-interest business, housing and furniture loans, and preferential allocation of state houses. Trade training was provided, especially in the building industry. Those choosing to study at secondary school or university could qualify for fee and book allowances, although only for career training and not for purely ‘cultural study’.

A new Land Settlement Board aimed to build on the lessons of the earlier farm settlement scheme by settling only men with farming experience, and on economically viable properties. Almost 14,000 Second World War ex-servicemen were assisted to acquire farms by 1964, and buoyant export prices ensured that most were able to successfully develop these properties.

Later wars

Since the Second World War, New Zealanders involved in overseas conflicts have mainly been regular military personnel. Successive governments have generally not provided them with economic rehabilitation, to encourage them to remain in the armed services after their return to New Zealand.

Medical rehabilitation

New Zealand and South African wars

In the 19th century no special government assistance was given to troops injured or disabled from military service, and they often relied on public charity. However, in 1903 the Ranfurly War Veterans Home and Hospital was opened in Auckland to house and treat veterans who had fought for the British Empire in South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere. This was New Zealand’s first permanent medical facility specifically for veterans, and also served as a national war memorial. It was funded by the government and by donations from around the country.

Here, there and everywhere

From its opening in 1903 the Ranfurly War Veterans Home and Hospital in Auckland accepted elderly veterans of all wars fought by British and colonial forces. Of the 40 Ranfurly residents in 1906, one had taken part in the capture of Acre (then in the Ottoman Empire, now in Israel) in 1840, five had fought in the 1854–56 Crimean War, nine in the 1857–59 Indian rebellion (sometimes called the Indian mutiny), two in the Baltic and others in China, Afghanistan, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Egypt. Thirty of the veterans had also fought in the various New Zealand wars from 1845 to 1869.

First World War

Two new veterans’ hospitals were opened to deal with the huge numbers of casualties from the First World War. The Montecillo War Veterans Home and Hospital opened in Dunedin in 1918 and the Rannerdale Veterans Hospital and Home in Christchurch in 1920. Veterans suffering from psychological conditions such as ‘shell shock’ were initially sent to New Zealand mental hospitals, where their treatment was limited mainly to rest and confinement. This led to a public outcry, and the thermal spa at Hanmer Springs was converted into Queen Mary Hospital to treat First World War veterans with psychological conditions.

A New Zealand branch of the British Red Cross Society was formed in 1915 and set up convalescent homes and vocational training workshops for injured and sick ex-servicemen. Red Cross nurses also introduced new forms of occupational therapy to improve the rehabilitation of veterans in existing public hospitals.

Shock treatment

A high percentage of First World War veterans returned home with psychological conditions, widely referred to as ‘shell shock’. The public were concerned that these ‘broken heroes’ should be treated differently from mental-hospital patients, who were generally regarded as incurable. As a result the Queen Mary Military Hospital in Hanmer Springs developed a close relationship with its local community that did not exist in any other hospital treating the mentally ill. Many of the hospital facilities, such as its tennis courts and cinema, were also used by the town’s residents.

In 1922 the medical treatment of veterans, including convalescent hospital care and the provision of artificial limbs, was transferred from the army to the Pensions Department.

Second World War

During the Second World War the New Zealand Red Cross had responsibility for meeting the needs of returned service personnel. After the war this responsibility was taken over by the Patriotic and Canteen Funds Board, which administered the reserves from Patriotic Funds and the profits from armed-forces canteens. In the early 1950s the board took control of four veterans’ hospitals – Ranfurly, Rannerdale, Montecillo and the Levin Home for War Veterans. From 1999 these facilities again became independent of the board.

Nuclear-test veterans

More than 500 New Zealand navy personnel took part in British hydrogen-bomb tests near the islands of Kiribati (then the Gilbert Islands) in 1957–58. Many of these men later experienced a variety of health problems, including cancer, which in some cases led to deaths and to deformities in their children. After 1998 they received a compensatory war disablement pension, and all their medical care was funded by the government.

Vietnam War veterans

Some of the 3,400 New Zealanders who served in the Vietnam War were exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, and later they and their children experienced related health problems and increased death rates. In 2006, following a long campaign by the Returned Services Association and the Ex-Vietnam Services Association, the government announced that these veterans would receive a range of medical and other compensations, including:

  • one-off payments for affected veterans, their spouses or partners, their children and their families
  • an increased War Disablement Pension
  • ongoing financial support from the Viet Nam Veterans and Their Families Trust.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Veterans’ assistance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012