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April 19, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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To fight or not fight: Conscientious objection and the Anzac tradition

Salient feature writer Matthew Cunningham investigates the history of conscientious objection and the part it plays in the narrative of Anzac Day in New Zealand.

“He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them … I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation … I was alternately burning hot and shivering with cold, and the constant pain in my joints woke me whenever I did doze off from exhaustion … When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood.”

So wrote Archibald Baxter of his experiences during the First World War. This incident, however, did not occur in a German prisoner of war camp. It was called ‘Field Punishment No.1’, and it was the ultimate disciplinary measure of the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Baxter was one of a small handful of individuals known as ‘conscientious objectors’—people who refused to obey the commands of their superiors rather than fight in a war that they did not believe in. His story is one that few people are aware of. Indeed, in the greater narrative of the Anzac Day tradition, the experiences of objectors are often swallowed up by stories of patriotism and sacrifice. And while the Anzac tradition is undeniably a valuable one, the stories of those who oppose war are just as noteworthy.

A conservative nation

Turn-of-the-century New Zealand was a far more conservative place than it is now. Strong ties to Great Britain and a powerful church made for a state with a hand in both the political and moral character of the nation. New Zealand had demonstrated its loyalty to the ‘mother country’ during the Boer War in the 1890s, and the state began to push for a robust defence force of its own in the following decade. This led ultimately to the introduction of compulsory military training (CMT) in 1909 for all men over the age of 11.

The roots of conscientious objection lie in the CMT legislation. It was opposed by a minority of religious leaders, socialists, and pacifist groups, who claimed that the legislation denied civil liberties and would lead to the militarisation of the nation’s youth.

“It was sort of … a test ground for what later emerged,” says Steven Loveridge, a PhD candidate at Victoria University studying the New Zealand home front during the Great War.

When war broke out in August 1914, many of these groups disbanded or perished.

“Most of the pacifistic societies … realised they weren’t going to win the mainstream over at the time,” Loveridge explains. Organised labour was also split between those who supported the war and those who saw it as a capitalistic struggle. The majority of the country, however, was unanimous in its support for Great Britain.

It was initially hoped that enough men would volunteer for service as to make conscription unnecessary. Indeed, 14,000 men had enlisted within the first week of the war. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1916 the flow of volunteers was beginning to dry up; word began to reach home of the harrowing conditions on the front, along with the horrific injuries of the first returned soldiers. In August 1916 the government decided to take the plunge—it passed the Military Service Act approving conscription.

Who were the ‘conchies’?

Conscientious objectors (or ‘conchies’) were known by many derogatory names during the First World War—shirkers, cowards, loafers, parasites. Whatever the label, it is important to note that conchies were not a unified group. They came from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, and their reasons for refusing to be conscripted were varied.

Not all conchies were anti-war, either. “People confuse pacifism and conscientious objection,” says David Grant, a prominent New Zealand historian on conchies.

“Conscientious objection is where a person refuses to be a part of the military establishment, by refusing to train under compulsory military training or refusing to join the army during wartime, on grounds of conscience.

“Pacifism is anyone who has an objection to war, but may or may not be [a] conscientious objector.”

The typical objector was either Pakeha, Maori or Irish, and they objected on religious, political, ideological, or anti-militarist grounds.

“You’d want to whittle out those who were motivated by not wanting to fight in a British fight, like the Irish and Maori,” argues Loveridge.

“They weren’t necessarily pacifists—they just wanted to pick their fight.”

Loveridge adds that the most vocal objectors were “miners and militants—those who objected to the war because of their view that it was a capitalistic struggle”.

Nevertheless, the state held all the cards in the conscription debate. With the passing of the Military Service Act and the War Regulations, those who openly protested against conscription risked imprisonment. Indeed, many individuals were charged with sedition and sentenced to hard labour for speaking out against the act, including Labour MP Paddy Webb.

The narrow provisions of the Military Service Act exempted only those who could demonstrate that their religion defined war as “contrary to divine revelation”. This left a broad swathe of conchies without a leg to stand on.

Defiant to the end: The story of Baxter and Briggs

Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs were, for all intents and purposes, ordinary men. Baxter came from a working-class background, having left school at the age of 12 to help support his seven siblings. A pacifist and a Christian, he would later assert that “passive resistance to evil is the power that will yet conquer the world”. Briggs, in contrast, was a socialist and a radical unionist. The experiences of these two men represent the apex of state persecution of conscientious objectors during the Great War.

Baxter appealed for exemption as a conscientious objector after being conscripted in 1916; however, because he was not a communicant church member, his application was denied. He was transported to Trentham Military Camp where he refused to obey any orders issued to him. Over the following months he was moved between various gaols and barracks in the Wellington area, where he received a variety of punishments including solitary confinement and bread-and-water rationing.

Briggs was conscripted in the March 1917 ballot. After refusing a medical exam and repeatedly disobeying orders to drill, he was court martialed and sentenced to 84 days’ hard labour in Mount Cook prison. He gained a reputation among the other conchies as an unyielding objector who refused to obey even the most trivial of orders.

Believing that internment on their home soil was an inadequate deterrent, the government decided in 1917 that conscientious objectors should be sent overseas to the front. As a result, Baxter and Briggs—along with 12 other conchies—were rounded up and sent to the Wellington docks. The entire affair was conducted in secret—the Captain of the Waitemama, the troopship that would take the men to the front, was unaware of what was happening until the conchies arrived.

After being physically dragged aboard the ship, the men were forced to strip and don military uniform. Briggs initially refused to do so; however, he was given little choice when his clothes were thrown overboard. Handcuffed in a small cabin and taunted by the troops aboard the ship, Briggs and Baxter nevertheless remained recalcitrant. Briggs in particular refused even to walk where ordered, forcing his commanders to drag him wherever he had been ordered to go on the ship.

Upon reaching Europe, the 14 men were sent to Etaples base in France. Once there they were split up, confined, given reduced bread-and-water diets, mocked and threatened repeatedly with execution. Baxter and Briggs were singled out as the ringleaders of the group, with Briggs refusing to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. On one occasion he was beaten by a group of volunteer soldiers when he refused to salute a sergeant.

Some of the conchies broke—sentenced to five years’ hard labour at a military prison in Dunkirk, they relented and became stretcher-bearers. For Baxter and Briggs, however, the situation only got worse. They were sentenced, along with two other objectors, to ‘Field Punishment No.1’, the most brutal penalty in the military arsenal. Bound hand and foot to a pole in the barest of clothing, the men were left for hours each day to the mercy of the winter elements. “The cold was intense,” Baxter would later write. “A deadly numbness crept up till it reached my heart and I felt that every breath I drew would be my last. Everything grew black around me.”

Somehow, the men survived their ‘crucifixion’. Baxter and Briggs were then sent to the section of the trenches experiencing the heaviest shelling, where they were beaten and denied food. Each day they were required to walk along the ‘duckwalk’ to the front. Naturally, Briggs refused, and was subsequently dragged on his back along 1000 feet of rough wooden planks and unforgiving ground. His back and thigh were torn open by nails; however, in place of medical treatment, he was thrown in a pool of freezing water and told to drown.

In 1918, the two men were made to march to the Somme. Briggs, still recovering from his injuries, could barely walk, while Baxter discovered that it had been ordered that the two of them were not to be fed. Half-starved and freezing, Baxter collapsed halfway to the Somme and was left behind. When he was finally found by a troop of British soldiers he had, despite the intense cold, removed his military uniform.

Baxter and Briggs were both discharged in April 1918—the former for exhibiting “mental weakness”, the latter with muscular rheumatism. Baxter would only write about the experience in 1939 at his wife’s insistence. In contrast, Briggs never spoke of his experiences again.

Evaluating the conchie experience

What made Baxter and Briggs stand out over their fellow conscientious objectors? “Stubbornness,” says Grant, “[and] a determination that they would not fight under any conditions.

“Despite the privations, despite the intense program that was hurled at them—number one field punishment, beatings, dragging up to the front line—they survived, they stuck it out to the end. The other 12 succumbed at various times, understandably.”

Grant does not consider the two men to be heroes. “I’ve been taken to task by a couple of my reviewers [for that],” he laughs. “I’ve tried to portray them as kind of ordinary men, because they had very ordinary backgrounds.

“But I think that they underwent an extraordinary experience and they handled it in an extraordinary way, so I think that their actions were extraordinary,” he says.

“Conscientious objectors… were treated with huge derision and anger by many other people in the populace. These people had not meted up as ‘true and proper citizens’ of the British Empire, and the treatment that they received would have been accepted as being correct by the vast bulk of the populace.

“These two stand out because they survived all those privations.”

The conchie legacy and the Anzac tradition

Baxter’s book, titled We Shall Not Cease, was a rallying point for anti-Vietnam war protestors. “The second edition happened to come out around 1968,” says Grant. “There’s no doubt that it was a stimulant for anti-Vietnam War protestors.” But what of some of the more recent anti-war protests? How do they fit into the dual traditions of Anzac and conscientious objection?

In 2007, members of Peace Action Wellington (PAW) held a protest against the Anzac Day dawn service in Wellington. They held banners stating that conscientious objectors were “the real war heroes” and burnt two New Zealand flags. Two members of the group were subsequently arrested and charged with offensive behaviour.

The protest was widely condemned as disrespectful. The protestors were seen as dishonouring fallen soldiers and hijacking a day of remembrance. But was that the true intent of the protest? “These protests are not an attack on old soldiers or their relatives,” stresses Valerie Morse, a member of PAW.

“The purpose has been to communicate that New Zealand is involved in wars of occupation, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq … It is about recognising that while politicians spout phrases like ‘Lest we forget’, they are busily engaged in waging more wars.”

Morse highlights the thematic similarity between PAW and the conchies. “Peace Action is a united front, and as such has members from a wide variety of political perspectives.

“In the broadest sense, it can be seen as a continuation of a tradition of anti-war activism in New Zealand.”

Loveridge agrees that there are some similarities between the conchie tradition and recent protests. “In terms of the Iraq War, I think there’s a lot of connections between what you see in World War One and now. I remember one story about someone who refused to pay their taxes in Britain because they wanted to not be a part of … the war in Iraq.

“I guess it raises these questions of what extent you’re involved in society as a taxpayer, as a labourer, as a potential conscript, or as an ideological supporter.”

The protests undoubtedly upset and angered a number of Anzac supporters—but is that in itself enough reason to condemn them? “On one hand, one can view Anzac Day as a day of remembrance for the soldiers who died in war,” states Morse.

“On the other hand, one can view Anzac Day as political propaganda: it is attended by politicians and state officials who use the day as a means by which to link current New Zealand troop deployments with the fight against Nazi Germany.

“Flag-burning can be seen from the perspective that the government is not upholding the ideas embodied by the flag, and is therefore an appropriate symbol to attack.”

Open to questions

First and foremost, it should be recognised that Anzac Day is an important and valid commemoration in itself. Recognising those who have died in the nation’s wars is a good thing, and it should be encouraged. However, reserving the right to question the Anzac tradition is not only wise—it is essential.

The experiences of conscientious objectors during the First World War is one of those questions. Baxter and Briggs’s stories fly in the face of the traditional Anzac ethos. They were not humble, patriotic heroes, nor were they examples of the often-repeated ‘silent division’ stereotype. By refusing to participate in the war, these men thought they were fighting for freedom—and, in return, they were persecuted for their beliefs.

The PAW protests, however extreme, expressed several legitimate opinions. The protestors claimed that the Anzac tradition was being used to reinforce support for new wars. While Anzac supporters can—and should—reserve the right to rebuff these claims, they must first accept the right for them to be voiced in the first place. Nobody should ever be strung to a pole for disagreeing with the majority.

Baxter and Briggs demonstrate most of all the problem of overshadowing individual experience with collective legend. The men and women who fought—or refused to fight—in World War One did so for many reasons. By focusing on the high-level Anzac tradition, we risk losing these low-level, individual stories. In the end, how can we truly hope to appreciate the sacrifices made by the men and women who have fought and died for New Zealand if their stories are lost within the rosy haze of legend?

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Comments (5)

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  1. Magonagal says:

    One of the reasons for refusing to fight in WW1 was that many people felt conscription was illegal. A referendum had been held before the war broke out in which the vast majority voted against compulsory military service.

  2. Ben says:

    CMT is completely different to conscription.

  3. Barbara says:

    Pacifism is a long held view of the Society of Friends {Quakers] Hope you don’t mind my asking on this forum but can any one tell me how to trace my grandad who ended up in prison in NZ for refusing to fight. He did enlist but his meeting Friends [Society of Friends – Quakers] helped talk him into deserting on pacifist grounds. He was caught & I believe spent time in Waikeria Prison or similar. He talked of having to load ammunition on ships in Wellington harbour? He is long gone now
    Thanks, Barbara

  4. Hi Barbara,

    Good on you for taking an interest in your family history.

    There are a couple of online resources you can make use of. The first is ‘Cenotaph’, a database of military service information. If your grandfather enlisted, it’s quite possible his records are available there. You can find it at http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/130/cenotaph-database.

    There is also Archway, which is a collection of governmental department records: http://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/.

    Finally, if you’re REALLY keen, you can visit Archives NZ and pore through non-digitised collections: http://www.archives.govt.nz/research/doing-your-own-research. Or you can go straight to the defence department and order a copy of any records they have on your grandfather: http://www.nzdf.mil.nz/personnel-records/nzdf-archives/

    Good luck!

    Matt.

  5. Oh, you could also consult the records of the Society of Friends. I did a quick search on Tapuhi (the database for the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington), and found this: http://tapuhi.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/spydus/FULL/ARCHIVESNR/OPHDR/104/8811,8

    Cheers,
    Matt.

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