This is an interesting article on Conscientious Objectors during the First World War. Although its written and recorded in Australia it pays generous homage to the New Zealand Conscientious Objectors who made very brave stands for their beliefs-in particular Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs. This article and programme details were written by Annabelle Quince from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation . Thanks Annabelle for a fascinating narrative.
What happened to conscientious objectors during World War One
Here in Australia, the First World War conjures up the image of the ANZACs—young men volunteering and travelling across the globe to serve the nation. There is, however, another side to the story—what happened to those who didn’t volunteer. Annabelle Quince explores the brutality directed at conscientious objectors.
Unlike most nations during the First World War, Australia did not introduce conscription. However, it was not for want of trying. Twice Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes asked the people of Australia in a referendum to grant the government the power to compel citizens to serve overseas during the war. The referenda were held on 28 October, 1916 and 20 December, 1917, were rejected both times by a slim majority.
It was a very different story overseas, where conscription was introduced in Britain, New Zealand and the United States. While most men accepted conscription, there were a number of men who, for either political or religious reasons, refused to enlist. Establishing the exact number of people who resisted conscription is difficult, but in the UK it’s estimated that about 20,000 men sought to be made exempt from the draft, plus a substantial minority in the US.
Both Baxter and Briggs carried on to the end and suffered considerable brutality. Both men were strung up on poles. This was called ‘Field Punishment Number One’.David Grant, author
Many of those who refused conscription into active service were prepared to take on non-combat roles either at home or at the front. However, there were a few men who refused to take part in any aspect of the war, refusing even to put on an army uniform. They were typically known as absolutists. These men were usually court marshalled, imprisoned and in a number of cases brutalised. David Grant, author of A Question of Faith: A history of the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society, says absolutists were initially a small minority.
‘There were very few New Zealanders against the Great War when it broke out in August of 1914, a small handful of Christian pacifists,’ says Grant. ‘But they were very much … swimming against the tide, the feeling was that we needed to go and support the mother country in times of stress.’
‘People rushed to enlist in the period from the outbreak of war up to the landing at Gallipoli, there were plenty of men to fulfil the requirements of a volunteer army to go and fight the Turks and the Germans.’
By the end of 1915, however, things had begun to change. Of the 8,556 New Zealanders who served at Gallipoli between April and November 1915, 7,473 were injured and 2,515 killed. This number includes those who died from bullet and bayonet wounds, but also those who died from untreated and infected wounds, and diseases such as influenza, measles, typhoid, and dysentery.
By 1916, as reports of the stalemate at the front and casualty numbers began to filter home, the number of volunteers in New Zealand and Australia declined.
‘The British government required New Zealand to send so many troops to fulfil its obligations to the war effort,’ says Grant. ‘Then we had significant numbers of large engagements with the Germans again, with significant death and injury, and the realisation that these requirements were not being met. They had some discussion for some time before the bill was passed in August of 1916 and enacted in November of 1916.’
In New Zealand, the government simply used its power and passed the Military Service Act, which introduced military conscription in August 1916.
When balloting commenced in November 1916, close to 10,000 New Zealand soldiers had recently been injured at the battle of the Somme and two reinforcement contingents were short of around 1500 men. The government was worried that there could be resistance to conscription, but the great majority of young New Zealand men who were called up in the ballot did enlist. However, there was a minority who did not.
‘There was opposition to its introduction,’ says Grant. ‘There was quite vigorous opposition, mostly from left-wing Labour people who opposed it. They believed [that] if you’re going to have conscription of men, you must have conscription of wealth. But there were also a significant numbers of others: Irish people living in New Zealand [who believed] it wasn’t their fight, there were some Maori people who believed it wasn’t their fight either. These [were] mostly from the tribes that had been devastated in the land wars of the 1860s and 1870s and lost a lot of their land. There were a number of fundamentalist Christian people who felt that it wasn’t their war, [that] there shouldn’t be war and they weren’t going to fight. But the great bulk of them were people of extreme left-wing persuasion.’
Two such men were Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs. Baxter was one of New Zealand’s better-known pacifists. His book, We Will Not Cease, recorded his opposition to the war, was and was, in his words, ‘the record of my fight to the utmost against the military machine during the First World War’. Baxter rejected the war both as a pacifist and as a Christian socialist. He was balloted for service and arrested just after conscription was introduced in New Zealand in November 1916. He also persuaded his family that the war was wrong, and six of the seven Baxter brothers would eventually go to prison for their beliefs.
Baxter applied for exemption from conscription but was denied because he was not a member of a church that had declared military service ‘contrary to divine revelation’. He still refused to serve and was arrested and imprisoned. At the end of 1917 he was being held in the prison attached to Trentham Military Camp near Wellington, one of over 100 objectors in prisons and prison camps throughout the country.
Briggs was called up in early 1917 and refused to serve on the grounds that he was a socialist. He also applied for exemption and was denied and on 23 March 1917. After he rejected an army medical examination in Palmerston North, he was escorted to Trentham Military Camp. Refusing all military orders to drill, he was court martialled and sentenced to 84 days’ hard labour. All those who applied for exemption as conscientious objectors had to go through an appeal board process.
‘The men that were appointed to these appeal boards had an inbuilt bias against men who did not want to fight,’ says Grant. ‘They felt it was a failure of citizenship on their part and they were most unsympathetic. The government and the legislation said that the only people who had exemption … were two churches whose tenets exclusively said that they would not engage in warfare. They were the Quakers and a small American-based sect called the Christadelphians. So they were the only people that were exempted as a right and it was only a handful of people. In fact, a number of Quakers actually did go as stretcher-bearers, as non-combatants in the First World War.’
In 1917 both Baxter and Briggs were in the prison at the Trentham Military Camp.
The New Zealand minister of defence, James Allen, believed that men who had failed their appeal boards were part of the army, and if they refused orders they were locked up either in military lockups or civilian prisons. The lockups on military camps soon became overcrowded with conscientious objectors.
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‘One morning in 1917, Colonel Herbert Potter, who was the commandant of the Trentham Military Camp near Wellington, decided to divest his camp and also some of the prisons of 14 men who had fail their appeal boards and were regarded as military defaulters, but still in the army,’ says Grant. ‘There was a troop ship in Wellington called the Waitemata; it had some space. Potter decided that these men would wake up early in the morning and be frog marched down to the ship and taken aboard [to sail for] for Britain and then France. Allen’s belief [was] that when these 14 men saw the others fighting valiantly against the Germans in terrible conditions on the Western Front, they would automatically [change] their minds and serve alongside their fellows. That did not happen.’
Of the 14 who were sent over to Europe, 12 eventually took up jobs as stretcher-bearers or other non-combatant roles. Baxter and Briggs, however, still refused to submit.
‘Both Baxter and Briggs carried on to the end and suffered considerable brutality,’ says Grant. ‘Both men were strung up on poles. This was called “Field Punishment Number One”.’
Field Punishment Number One, often abbreviated to F.P. No. 1, consisted of the convicted man being placed in handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a gun wheel or fence post for up to two hours per day. In the early part of the war, it was often applied with the arms stretched out and the legs tied together, giving rise to the nickname ‘crucifixion’. It was usually applied for up to three days out of four, up to 21 days total. It’s been alleged that it was sometimes applied within range of enemy fire.
‘Archibald Baxter, once he survived and didn’t submit after the field punishment, he was told to march with his fellows into another part of the Western Front,’ says Grant. ‘By this time, weak, dazed and starving, he lost his way and became very disoriented and ended up semi-conscious in a field having divested himself of the uniform that they made him wear. He was found semi-conscious and close to death by some British soldiers and gradually nursed back to health. He later went into a hospital where there were a lot of other men who had been suffering shell shock and so forth. He was finally diagnosed as being insane, which was an out for the New Zealand army because I think that the army hierarchy had realised by that time that Baxter was never going to submit. He spent some time in two hospitals in France and another hospital in England before they sent him home.’
For his part, Briggs was dragged down a series of paths that led up to the frontline over muddy ground and potholes full of water.
‘The Red Cap [military police] sergeant had four men drag him along by their legs on his back,’ says Grant. ‘He suffered lacerations and deep holes. There was blood spreading everywhere when they did that. They pulled him through some deep puddles. He was in deep pain but refused to cry out. The soldiers later told him that they were forced to do this by the Red Caps and a particular army officer who was keen to break Briggs. Briggs’ spirit was unquenchable. He simply did not protest and he did not submit … he simply was one of those very stoic people who didn’t submit.’
Eventually, at the army’s instruction, a medical board found that Briggs had rheumatism and he was re-graded as C-2, unfit for combat action. Despite the brutality of the military police, whose job it was to ‘persuade’ the conscientious objectors to change their minds, many conscripted soldiers were more sympathetic.
‘There’s a wonderful story about this particular officer, who was unsympathetic to the protesters’ cause, ordering four conscript soldiers to lift Archibald Baxter up in the air and let him fall back first onto the ground on the duckboard,’ says Grant. ‘Now, these duckboards had nails. Some of the nails in the duckboards, they were protruding, and, of course, they can dig into the skin and cause pain. These four soldiers lifted Baxter up, and instead of letting him drop, they just gently lowered him down to the ground. This happened three times, and in the end, the officers simply gave up. They did have this kind of sympathy, not so much from the volunteer soldiers, but certainly from the conscript soldiers who all may not have agreed with this and were incensed by the kind of brutal treatment that they could see happening to these men.’
After their return to New Zealand both Briggs and Baxter successfully returned to ordinary life. Briggs became active politically, and in 1935, when New Zealand’s first Labour government came to power, Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour prime minister, asked him to be a member of the Legislative Council, or the upper house. Briggs initially declined, says Grant, because he didn’t think he was worthy of the honour. Savage asked him three times; he wanted him as an example, a conscience who was aware of the folly of war. Briggs eventually sat in the from 1935 until it was disbanded in 1951.
Much of what we know about Briggs’ and Baxter’s experience comes from Baxter’s book. The first edition was largely destroyed in the Blitz in 1940.
‘[The book] wasn’t republished again until the late 1960s in New Zealand, to a very different audience, who really couldn’t believe it was true,’ says Grant. ‘It was the most terrifying story of the state’s brutality to New Zealanders. The country simply didn’t know about that until that book came out, and since then, there’s been a lot more recognition that these men had a point and their story needed to be recognised.’
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