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March 9, 2009 | by  | in Books |
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Field Punishment No.1

Field Punishment No. 1, by historian and Wellington College teacher David Grant, is the story of Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs, who refused to fight in the First World War and were punished by being forcibly shipped to France, dragged (literally) through the trenches and strung up on poles (the titular punishment) where their hands and feet went blue as shells whizzed by—yet neither man gave in. While many New Zealanders like to pretend that our country has a less violent history than other Western nations, the sad fact is that during WWI, we treated our conscientious objectors worse than any allied nation.

This story has been told twice before – in Baxter’s memoir We Shall Not Cease, and in Paul Baker’s history of all aspects of conscription in the war, King and Country Call. Opening Grant’s book, I was a little apprehensive as to whether he could really add anything to the story. We Shall Not Cease is a harrowing, personal ordeal, and stands alongside Owls Do Cry and The Bone People as the most powerful of our nation’s literature. King and Country Call’s detailed research reveals so much pain that the New Zealanders of the 1910s inflicted on one-another that you feel betrayed by your own people. Field Punishment No. 1 reaches neither the personal passion of Baxter nor the historical breadth and scope of Baker, but it does add several important details to the story.

First of all, because Baxter (the religious objector) wrote an important memoir and had a famous son (poet James), he is far better known than Briggs (the socialist objector), even though the latter took on more leadership duties among their fellow objectors, and Grant seeks to redress this imbalance. Secondly, Grant spends the last third of his book putting Briggs and Baxter into an “anti-militarist tradition” stretching from Parihaka to the present: this helps us to understand where their strength came from, and what they have inspired. Thirdly, the book comes with sixteen pages of colour prints showing Bob Kerr’s paintings of the ordeal; Kerr’s haunting work is perhaps the book’s major selling point. And finally, if the book sells well, it will help inform another generation of the time in our history when Pakeha were crueller to our own kind than in any other era – equal with the racist treatment of Maori and Chinese in the 19th century as the most damning indictments of my people’s character.

By David Grant,
Paintings by Bob Kerr

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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  1. William Lee says:

    On looking up my Uncles Records as to what he did in the 1st World War as a Driverwith the ASC.I noted that in 1916 he was Court Martialled for Insubordination to a Senior Officer and Received 28 days No 1 Field Punishment.Later in 1918 he whilst on Active Service he did not comply with an order given by a Warrant Officer,he was then awarded 14days loss of Pay and had his Good Conduct Badge Forfeited..

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