15 THE MEN SENTENCED TO DEATH

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‘You will be reported as having died on active service, and those people in New Zealand will never know you didn’t take it on.’

Archibald Baxter was 34 when military conscription was introduced in New Zealand. But he had been a pacifist since 1902, and a socialist too. He was committed to rejecting war. His application for exemption as a conscientious objector was turned down, and like the 100 or so other COs in NZ he was moved from prison to prison. In July 1917 he was sent with 13 other COs (two of them his brothers) by sea to Europe. After that he was to face the front line.

On the ship the men were forced into uniforms and locked in a small cabin with the porthole sealed shut. They were treated with contempt. Those who refused to wear uniforms saw their own clothes thrown overboard, and were left naked. Many were ill on the voyage, but had no treatment.

When the ship reached the English coast, the fourteen were shackled together in chains and marched to an army camp on Salisbury Plain. But soon they were taken to France. The men who continued to refuse to obey orders were put in solitary confinement. They were frequently stripped and beaten and drenched with cold water. This was followed by inventive tortures, such as lifting heavy weights while wearing handcuffs.

Mark Briggs was another of the fourteen, 3 years younger than Archibald Baxter. He had emigrated to NZ from Yorkshire in the early 1900s, and was soon active in the trade union movement. He too had applied for exemption from military service, because of his socialist political views. Like the rest, he had a grim time – perhaps even grimmer because he refused even to walk if it was a soldier who ordered it. He was court-martialled and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour.

When it came to boarding ship for England, he had to be dragged. He was singled out for humiliating treatment by the soldiers on board. In France, he continued to refuse to walk or stand to order. So he was moved around by being forcibly carried, dragged or put in a cart. He would not wear uniform.

Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs and two others also suffered the notorious Field Punishment: tied up in the open air with their hands cuffed behind their backs. And in February 1918 the army’s threat was carried out: they were sent to the trenches. Their camp was in range of the German bombardment and was often shelled.

Each morning they were ordered to walk to the front line. Mark Briggs refused. On the first day he was carried by soldiers who had some sympathy for him. But on the second day military police tied wire round his chest and ordered three soldiers to drag him to the front. The ground was rough and littered with nails and sharp fragments. So, as he was dragged, his clothes were torn off him and his flesh ripped. They hauled him on, through the freezing water of shell craters, over broken timber and stones. At the last shell hole, Archibald Baxter remembered, ‘they took Mark by the shoulders and tipped him head over heels back into the water. Just as he managed to get his head above water and was trying to get his breath, the sergeant fired a handful of muck into his mouth.’

That sergeant also regularly punished Archibald Baxter, tied by ankles, knees and wrists to a leaning tree stump so that the ropes bit into his flesh, stopping the blood from circulating, and the weight of his own body made the pain and wounding almost intolerable.

These COs were constantly told they would be shot by firing squad. Then, the officers said, the news would be sent back to New Zealand that they had died on the front line. Their friends and families would think that they had abandoned their principles and given in.

What did happen to Archibald Baxter? He was taken to a Boulogne hospital in April 1918, and told he had ‘mental weakness and confusional insanity’, a diagnosis confirmed by a British medical board. He was moved to a British mental hospital and then sent home. He remained an active pacifist for the rest of his life (he died in 1970), and his elder son was a CO in the Second World War. Archibald Baxter published a memoir of his wartime experiences, ‘We Will Not Cease’, which later became a classic in New Zealand. He is still remembered for the ‘immense physical and moral courage’ he showed as a CO.

He and Mark Briggs were the only men of the fourteen who held out. Mark Briggs (who died in 1965) was finally classified as ‘unfit for active service’ and sent home in 1919 – where he immediately turned down the soldier’s pay he was offered. He was an active socialist and became a Labour MP – the only MP in the NZ parliament to vote against the introduction of conscription in the Second World War.