War is a bad thing and will destroy the human race. I believe that if enough people in each country stood straight out against war, the Governments would pause and be compelled to settle their disputes by other means. I also believe that the peoples of all nations are naturally peaceful until they are stirred up by the war propaganda of the governing classes. When the workers of all countries win their economic freedom, Governments won’t be able to set them on to murdering their fellows. (p 108)
In 1915, New Zealand registered men of or near military age – about 196,000 in all – and asked if they were willing to serve in the NZEF. 33,700 said they were not willing to serve either at home or abroad. In 1916, conscription was introduced. Exemptions were narrowly defined, available only against combat and only for members of a religion “the tenets and doctrines of which declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service to be contrary to divine revelation.” About 286 conscientious objectors were imprisoned during war. Fourteen of these were forcibly sent overseas, some of them to the front lines.
Archibald Baxter was one of the 14, and one of only two who refused to submit to the end. He documents his beliefs and his treatment in We Will Not Cease. It is a testament to another form of courage.
Baxter’s views were not of religious origin, but based on pacifist and socialist principles. He was arrested in 1917 without receiving notice to report under the Conscription Act. He and others were sentenced to hard labour, moved from prison to prison. Their rations were poor and meagre. At times they were deprived of exercise, heat or bedding. They were isolated from the others. They had to follow rules they never saw.
Then 14 objectors were forced onto a troopship heading for England and the heart of the war. “We were chosen for our obscurity, being thought unlikely ever to make our protests heard.” Conditions in the hold were airless and unsanitary. They were subjected to conduct meant to humiliate and break down their resistance.
In England, they expected to be jailed, just as the British objectors were. Instead, Baxter was handcuffed, beaten, left to the elements, deprived of medical attention. And then sent to France.
The intimidation tactics escalated to torture. No 1 Field Punishment: the subject is laced tightly by the ankles knees and wrists to a pole leaning forward from perpendicular, left for two to four hours. Fed only starvation rations. Shipped to the front line and left in the line of shellfire.
I lived a strange life at that time. I would not serve in the army and yet I was at the Front. In one way I was isolated and alone and yet I lived the life the soldiers did. I lay in holes and trenches with them round by Hellfire Corner, hour after hour until the shelling slackened or drove us out. I was only seeing a glimpse of the war, but it was enough to bring home to me its terrible reality. I remember before I reached the Front meeting men who had been there and thinking they looked hard and strange. Their faces had a drawn look and they seemed to have eyes like eagles. Now that I was amongst them I did not notice this. They seemed ordinary, but new arrivals looked as gentle as sheep. (p 135)
Exhausted, Baxter finally collapsed and was sent to a mental hospital.
Baxter tells his tale dispassionately, leaving space for readers to form their own outrage. He describes the brutality against him, while equally crediting the kindness and support of most soldiers. Cruelty was at the hands of those caught up in the military machine (as he calls it). Again and again, he matter-of-factly explained his beliefs to those in charge and argued against the tricks aimed at breaking him. Could he have kept so composed throughout in the face of mistreatment? Could I?
It takes time to get used to being treated as a human being, just as it takes time to become accustomed to harsh treatment. (p 177)
Baxter dictated We Will Not Cease to his wife Millicent in 1937 and it was published in the UK in 1939. The books were destroyed in the Blitz and few copies made it to NZ. It was republished in NZ in 1968, still a testament “of days that we can’t yet afford to forget.”
A free digital copy of We Shall Not Cease is in the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.