Artist's impression of the Archibald Baxter Peace Garden and National Memorial for Conscientious Objectors currently being built on the corner of George and Albany Streets, Dunedin.

Nicky Hager reviews a new edition of a 1939 classic

Archibald Baxter’s classic 1939 book We Will Not Cease, reissued by Otago University Press, is set in the First World War but also helps us understand something important about modern-day New Zealand.

It tells the story of Baxter, a Dunedin man imprisoned, repeatedly beaten and nearly killed by the military for repeatedly refusing to take part in the mass slaughter of the First World War. He was shipped to Belgium and forced into the “storm of spouting, belching mud and fire and flying fragments” near the front. He was given the most severe form of punishment, “Field Punishment No. 1”, left for hours in the snow, day after day, hanging by his arms from a post. Today it would be called torture, trying to force him to make a statement he did not believe.

All of this went on for two long years as the military command tried to break Baxter. It is a story about courage and sticking to his principles even in the face of death.

But the more I read, the more it dawned on me that the intolerance and brutality endured by Baxter and fellow conscientious objectors were only part of the story, and not the part that Baxter cared about most. Instead the book emphasises the support and kindness Baxter encountered again and again from the ordinary New Zealand soldiers, many of whom had their own doubts about the war.

This disillusionment with the war is not the story promoted by the Defence Force every ANZAC day. But it is part of the real legacy of WWI for New Zealand; about traumatic experiences that have reverberated down through the generations. It is an important part of the explanation for New Zealanders’ widespread anti-war feelings today.

Archibald Baxter was a farm labourer, one of seven children, who had left school at 12. Then (as now) leaving school at a young age did not mean he lacked intelligence. For example, he loved poetry. The book’s title comes from William Blake’s Jerusalem poem (“I will not cease from mental fight….”). His son was the great and flawed poet James K Baxter. As a young man Archie heard a speech in Dunedin about the South African War that started him on a life-long opposition to war.

In 1916 the William Massey government introduced conscription, forcing military-aged men to go to the killing fields of Europe. Baxter points out that the New Zealand National Register of 196,000 military-aged men included 33,700 who said they would not take part in the war in New Zealand or overseas and a further 44,300 who agreed to work in New Zealand but who refused to be sent overseas. The government sent many of them to the trenches anyway, in what Baxter calls “the supreme denial of liberty”.

Baxter was conscripted early the following year. He refused to participate in the war or obey any military orders. Thus began the efforts to crush this unwanted example of dissent.

He was imprisoned in Wellington, marched through the streets in prison clothes, then shipped to a military base in Britain, and on to Belgium and France. He was beaten viciously many times, starved, told he was to be shot and much more, all in an effort to break his resolve. He ended up in a British mental hospital with soldiers hideously damaged by the fighting. But he did not cease and eventually was returned to New Zealand without ever agreeing to obey military commands. It is a great book, written in a clear and remarkably calm style.

When Baxter first began his stand against the war, as he writes on page one, “I was without a single supporter…. I ploughed a lonely furrow and for a long time did not even get the support of my family.” But eventually his fellow shearers were sympathetic and several of his brothers joined him. The recurring theme in the book thereafter is the many soldiers who, privately or openly, supported his stand and treated him kindly.

On the troop ship to Britain, Baxter was on friendly terms with all the New Zealanders. They banded together to give him and other conscientious objectors spending money. Shortly after arriving in England he met a well respected soldier just back from the front in France. The soldier told Baxter “I’ve come to the same position as you…. If there is any possible way to get rid of war we ought to take it.” The soldier told the assembled military staff: “The only difference between us is that he’s known from the start what it’s taken me three years to learn.” There are many stories like this.

When Baxter was taken to the front, a sergeant-major told him “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hear that this crowd had failed to break you. Good bye and good luck.” Soon after this he faced the weeks of Field Punishment No. 1. It ended when an “angry red-faced New Zealand sergeant” appeared where Baxter and others were tied to the posts, almost obscured under the snow.  “What’s all this bloody business?” he yelled. “I don’t care what they’ve done. It’s what you’re doing to them that I’m concerned about. I didn’t think men would do such a thing…. Take them off at once.” That was the end of Baxter’s Field Punishment No. 1.

And so on. When he was starved of food, a cook endangered himself by sneaking him meals. Soldiers crowded around and wished him well when he was moved from one base to another. He had become an outlet for their own feelings about the war. One time a sadistic officer hit Baxter in the face then kicked him on the ground repeatedly. The surrounding soldiers started shouting for the captain to stop. Instead, the captain ordered a group of soldiers to lift Baxter high in the air and drop him on his back.

Obeying the word of the order, but not the intent,“They lifted me high on their arms and lowered me to the ground ever so gently, keeping hold of me all the time. Three times, cursing, he ordered them, and three times they lowered me in the same way to the ground.”

We are used to hearing stories about the hostility shown to conscientious objectors, such as white feathers left in letterboxes. That undoubtedly happened, and is understandable given people’s fears for their own sons and brothers who were fighting. But this is about a different, less known story, of the ordinary soldiers who were experiencing first hand the ghastly and pointless war and who showed their feelings by support for Baxter.

Here and there through the book, Baxter used the opportunity to explain his radical, supposedly treasonous, beliefs. “Many years before the war of 1941-18,” he wrote, “I had reached the point of view that war – all war – was wrong, futile and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.” Even if only a handful were standing for the cause at that time, “someone has to begin if ever the cause is to be won.”

He recounted a debate he had with a New Zealand officer in Ypres, Belgium, where he was asked if he wanted his nation to win the war. “I don’t want any nation to win,” he had replied. “A decisive victory on either side will mean sowing the seeds of future wars.” And another time,  “The only lasting victory that we can win over our enemies is to make them our friends.”

And here is the pleasing twist to the story. These beliefs that Baxter was repeatedly punished for are today shared by most New Zealanders. A hundred years later, they aren’t radical any more. They are an important part of our national character.

These public feelings about war have developed and grown over the decades, through the Vietnam War, the Cold War nuclear confrontation and the Afghanistan war. They were expressed dramatically in New Zealand’s refusal to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the origins of New Zealanders’ widely held anti-war feelings can be traced much further back, to the experiences of soldiers and their families during the First World War. Archibald Baxter’s book illuminates this important facet of our history.; and his belief that “someone has to begin if ever the cause is to be won” is dramatically illustrated by how different public feeling is about war today.

We Will Not Cease by Archibald Baxter (Otago University Press, $30) is available in selected bookstores nationwide.

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