Pacifist objection - conscientious objection in the First World War

Pacifist and Christian socialists

Some New Zealanders opposed the war on Christian or moral grounds. Others believed in peaceful methods of solving conflict.

Some Christian socialists based their opposition to the war on what they saw as the egalitarian and anti-establishment message of Jesus Christ, who spoke against the religious authorities of his time.

Pacifism opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes covered a spectrum of views. These ranged from the belief that international disputes should be peacefully resolved, to absolute opposition to the use of violence, or even force, under any circumstances. Many of the pacifists who opposed the Military Service Act did so because they believed that war, and indeed any use of force or coercion, was morally wrong.

We will not cease: Archibald Baxter

Archibald Baxter (father of the poet James K. Baxter) is one of New Zealand's better-known pacifists from the First World War. His book We will not cease records his opposition to the war. In his words, the book is 'the record of my fight to the utmost against the military machine during the First World War. At that time to be a pacifist was to be in a distinct minority.'

Baxter considered enlisting for the South African War (18991902) before becoming interested in pacifist ideals. He rejected the First World War both as a pacifist and as a Christian socialist. He was balloted for service and arrested soon after conscription was introduced in November 1916. He persuaded his family that the war was wrong, and six of the seven Baxter brothers would eventually go to prison for their beliefs. The seventh was married and therefore had a case for exemption.

Baxter was denied exemption because he was not a member of a church that had, before the outbreak of war, declared military service 'contrary to divine revelation'. By the end of 1917 Baxter was in the prison attached to Trentham Military Camp near Wellington, and he was one of over 100 objectors being held in prison and prison camps throughout the country.

'Making an example'

Minister of Defence James Allen was adamant that men such as Baxter should be sent to war. Many in the community shared his belief. In July 1917 Colonel H.R. Potter, the Trentham camp commander, decided to deal with the overcrowding in the prison by sending 14 of his most recalcitrant objectors to Britain aboard the troopship Waitemata. Among those sent were Archibald Baxter and his brothers Alexander and John. Mark Briggs refused to walk up the gangplank of the Waitemata and had to be dragged.

Aboard the Waitemata the objectors were stripped, placed in uniform and locked in a small cabin with no open portholes. They were regularly abused by officers and volunteer soldiers. Upon arrival at Sling Camp in England, they refused to carry out gardening work and were placed in solitary confinement. Brigadier-General G.S. Richardson, who commanded the New Zealand forces in Britain, wanted them confined, given field punishment and then sent into the trenches even if they had to be carried on stretchers.

In October 1917, 10 objectors were sent to Etaples in France and warned that they would be shot if they continued to refuse to submit. Several relented and agreed to become stretcher bearers, while three were sentenced to hard labour. Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell was determined to break the resolve of Archibald Baxter, Lawrence Kirwin, Henry Patton and Mark Briggs. They were subjected to repeated sentences of Field Punishment No. 1, part of which included what was known as 'the crucifixion'. This involved being tied to a post in the open, with their hands bound tightly behind their backs and their knees and feet bound. They were held in this position for up to four hours a day in all weathers.

Baxter, Kirwin and Briggs survived this punishment only to be forced into the trenches. Baxter was sent to a part of the front that was being heavily shelled. He was beaten and denied food. In April 1918 he was taken to hospital in Boulogne, and he was diagnosed as having 'mental weakness and confusional insanity'. Three weeks later a British medical board confirmed the diagnosis of insanity, although it suggested that this may have been exaggerated so that Baxter could not be court martialled by the New Zealand army. He was taken to a British hospital for mentally disturbed soldiers, and he was sent home in August 1918. Along with Briggs, he was one of only two of the original 14 objectors to hold out to the end.

Mark Briggs

Mark Briggs was called up in the third conscription ballot in early 1917. He refused to serve on socialist grounds. His appeal 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. During the seven weeks he spent in prison, he met future prime minister Peter Fraser.

Upon arrival at Etaples in France in October 1917 he refused to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. Field Punishment No. 1 failed to break his resolve, and he joined Archibald Baxter and Lawrence Kirwin in the trenches in February 1918.

Every morning they were forced to walk 1000 yards up to the front line. Briggs refused. On the first day he was carried by sympathetic soldiers, but on the second day military policemen tied wire around his chest and dragged him to the front line, tearing his clothing and skin. At the line he was pulled through puddles of freezing water and told to 'Drown yourself, now, you bastard.' Dragged back to camp, he was denied medical treatment.

In mid-April Briggs was returned to Etaples. It was now considered highly unlikely that he would be 'persuaded' to follow orders, and in June he was classified C2 (unfit for active service) due to muscular rheumatism. In early 1919 he was invalided back to New Zealand. He refused the soldier's wage that was offered to him.

Punishing the objectors

Punishment was considered an important part of breaking in objectors. Obviously the military authorities believed that if objection was made too easy then the war effort would suffer. Men like Baxter and Briggs were subjected to the most extreme measures, but all of those imprisoned faced a tough, carefully regulated plan of punishment designed to break their resolve. Those who didn't break after a month's imprisonment were court martialled at Trentham and sentenced to anything between 11 and 24 months' hard labour.

Conditions in prison for objectors were harsh. Conversation was forbidden and so-called difficult prisoners were subject to solitary confinement. Work in the quarries was back-breaking. At the end of their sentence objectors could either be sent to the front or re-imprisoned if they still refused to enlist.

 

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How to cite this page: 'Pacifist objection - conscientious objection in the First World War', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/first-world-war/conscientious-objection/religious-objection, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012