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What was the first national organization of First World War veterans?

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It is more than one hundred years ago that the first national organization of First World War veterans was formed-up in Wellington, New Zealand.

In late July 1915, Captain Donald Simson had returned to New Zealand with the first ship of New Zealand wounded soldiers of the Gallipoli Campaign. Simson then devoted the following months to recruitment for the war and the organization of local Returned Soldier Associations (RSAs) throughout the country. In April 1916, Donald Simson finally convened a national meeting of returned soldiers in Wellington that established the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association (NZRSA).

Delegates from throughout the country assembled at the Wellington Soldiers’ Club at 290 Lambton Quay, on 28 April 1916 -- three days after the first Anzac Day commemorating the anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli. Indeed, Simson and the returned soldiers received a message of goodwill from General Sir William Birdwood, the ANZAC Commander, as well as the New Zealand Minister of Defence James Allen (who had lost his own son at Gallipoli). The delegates looked to Captain Simson for leadership and he was unanimously elected to chair the conference and as their first president of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association, with headquarters in Wellington, and branches throughout the rest of the country. A good deal of the delegates’ time during the two-day meeting was devoted to matters that would continue to be central to the history of the RSA – membership, support for returned soldiers and families, and remembrance.

A second conference in late July 1916 dropped the provisional idea of a centralised branch structure in favour of independent local associations loosely affiliated with the NZRSA -- it was to be all about the local RSA. This second conference also dropped Donald Simson as president in favour of a Maori officer William Pitt. The outspokenness and political aspirations of Simson had unsettled returned soldiers who feared he would harm the public image of the newly formed organisation. Simson departed New Zealand for Britain in late 1916 and after the war was linked with the foundation of the British Legion (the Royal British Legion today) and British Empire Services League (Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League) both formed under Lord Haig in 1921. In New Zealand, Simson is best known as the founder of the modern Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association in 1916. A hundred years later, on 9 October 2016, over 200 people participated in a parade marking the centennial anniversary of the NZRSA, at Pukeahu National Park in Wellington. Today, the RSA movement has 183 local RSAs nationwide, with a total membership of over 100,000 people.

Shown in the photograph, taken by the late Robin Morrison, is the iconic image of a rural RSA at Te Aroha, New Zealand. In July 1931, barely thirteen years after the end of the First World War, and in the middle of the great depression, sixty ex servicemen of the Te Aroha district formed the Te Aroha District Returned Soldiers Association and became incorporated on 19 October of that same year. Although meetings were originally held in various town offices and halls, the first memorial clubrooms were built in 1947 with a major expansion in 1992-93. These additions have been made in keeping with the original Art Deco 'California Spanish' style.

Other Ex-Services organizations formed as a result of the First World War:

-- Returned & Services League of Australia, June 1916

-- American Legion, 1919

-- Royal British Legion, 1921

-- South African Legion, 1921

-- Royal Canadian Legion, 1925

On this day, 28 April 2022, we commemorate the 106th anniversary of the first national organization of First World War veterans that was formed-up in Wellington, New Zealand.

Stephen Clarke and André M. Levesque

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