World War 1 centenary celebrations start in 2014. A
Dunedin-based group is determined pacifist Archibald Baxter
and other conscientious objectors are not forgotten. Eileen
Goodwin spoke to those involved.
Beaten, starved, and hung on poles, Archibald Baxter felt the
might of the force he resisted by refusing to fight in World
Mr Baxter and three other New Zealanders endured Field
Punishment No1, colloquially known as crucifixion, in France
The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust has been set up ahead of
the centenary years to honour Mr Baxter and other
Vividly described in the account of his wartime experience,
We Will Not Cease, the punishment involved being
tightly bound to poles and left in the open in all
He was taken to the trenches, beaten, and starved, as
commanders tried to wear down the objectors.
Only Mr Baxter and socialist conscientious objector Mark
Briggs held out to the very end.
Diagnosed with mental weakness and confusional insanity, Mr
Baxter was taken to a hospital in Britain, before being sent
home in August 1918.
He and 13 other objectors - including two of his brothers -
were taken to France by force from Trentham Military Camp
where they had been among a larger group of incarcerated
Six of the seven Baxter brothers were incarcerated.
He returned to Dunedin after the war and picked up labouring
jobs around Brighton. He married Millicent Macmillan Brown in
1921, with whom he had two sons. The younger was the poet
James K. Baxter.
The older son, 91-year-old Terence, has agreed to be the
trust's patron. An annual lecture in Mr Baxter's name, and an
annual essay competition will be launched in 2014, probably
to coincide with the anniversary of the start of the war in
The trust plans commissioning a memorial in Dunedin in his
honour. It will be the first such memorial in New Zealand to
honour pacifism. The trust hopes it will be unveiled to mark
the Passchendaele centenary in 2017.
Up to $100,000 will be needed. The trust intends to raise
funds from the public, and apply for war commemoration
Trust chairman Prof Kevin Clements, of the University of
Otago National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said
conscientious objectors should be recognised for defending
personal freedom in a time of national crisis.
Their stories countered the myth New Zealand's national
identity was forged in battle on the other side of the world.
As it faded from memory, the war risked being idealised as a
story of national identity with the military perspective
The centenary years could become imbued with ''xenophobic
nationalism'', Prof Clements believed. The point was not to
diminish the bravery and sacrifice of those who did fight.
Objectors were not just anti-war, he emphasises, but standing
up for personal freedom by ''protecting the libertarian
Unlike World War 2, the first world war created appalling
carnage without political gain.
''The second world war is a big challenge for pacifists,''
said Prof Clements, whose father was an objector in World War
The concept of conscription was new in World War 1, but
objectors still faced huge opprobrium and the stigma lingered
over Mr Baxter his entire life.
Notable conscientious objector Peter Fraser helped form the
first Labour Government about 20 years later, although as a
wartime prime minister, he opposed World War 2 objectors.
A Christian socialist and humanitarian, Mr Baxter opposed New
Zealand joining an ''imperial adventure'', and convinced five
of his brothers to oppose it too.
The driver for the trust was retired teacher Alan Jackson
(69), whose interest was piqued by a lecture he attended a
few years ago about the influence of poet Robert Burns on
James K. Baxter.
Given by Penny Griffith, who is now a trust board member, it
revealed the father seeded his son's interest in the Scottish
This prompted a discussion of the elder Baxter's pacifism. Mr
Jackson, who taught for many years at Waitaki Boys' High
School and retired to Dunedin, assumed Mr Baxter must have
had a dedicated memorial somewhere, but found there was
nothing of the kind.
Mr Baxter was derided as a coward, despite enduring horrific
punishment to stand up for his beliefs. It took more courage
to oppose the war machine than to go along with it, Mr
Jackson said. He acknowledged the need to be sensitive to
those who fought and died, but there were organisations
dedicated to honouring them.
''If you omitted the celebration of a group of people who
stood for peace in the middle of war, then you couldn't
honestly say that you had a complete record.''
Mr Jackson, the secretary of the trust, said it was applying
for a share of the funding available for centenary
activities, and there was interest from local people wanting
to contribute. The Dunedin Botanic Garden might be the
memorial's natural home, but nothing had been decided. The
site would be a focus for reflection and meditation on the
role of Mr Baxter and others in rejecting warfare.
By promoting non-violence, it was relevant to social problems
today, particularly violence towards women and children.
He admired the fact Mr Baxter, while Christian, did not rely
on his faith to save him by seeking protection from a
''He just said: 'This is where I stand as a man'.''
The question of the role played by religion in Mr Baxter's
pacifism will be explored in a book whose planned title was
In Defiance! The Baxters' War Against War. Its author
is Ms Griffith, whose lecture spurred Mr Jackson's initial
Ms Griffith is certain religion did not play a key role.
He did not belong to a church until much later in life. He
had contemplated joining the army at the time of the Boer
War, but around that time heard a talk by a local MP, Alfred
Barclay, that ''overnight'' turned the nascent socialist into
a lifelong pacifist.
His interest in socialism was fed by prolific reading. The
Baxters were an ''intelligent bunch'', and Archibald was
Archibald McColl Learmond Baxter was born in 1881 at Saddle
Hill, one of eight children of farm labourer John Baxter and
wife Mary McColl, Te Ara encyclopedia of New Zealand says in
its online biography.
The family was poor, and he left school at 12, eventually
becoming head ploughman at Gladbrook station. He also carted
coal and worked as a roading contractor.
Conscription was introduced in late 1916, and Mr Baxter was
soon after balloted and arrested. He ended up in Trentham
Military Camp, before Colonel H.R. Potter decided to relieve
overcrowding by sending 14 of them, including brothers
Archibald, Alexander and John, on the troop ship Waitemata to
the front line.
Of the field punishment, Ms Griffith noted it would have been
given to anyone who refused to fight or fulfil an auxiliary
role. It did not reflect their politics, or the fact they
were conscientious objectors, which she felt needed to be
For the book, which would be published in 2014 or the year
after, she interviewed about 80 people. It was both a
biography of the Baxter family, and an examination of Mr
He was now a little-known figure, especially outside Dunedin,
she said. It would tell the ''extraordinary love story'' of
his relationship with Millicent, a young woman from a
prestigious academic family.
The physical and psychological effects from his wartime
experience were immense, and despite living a full and
satisfying life, he never fully recovered.
He died in 1970.
In his own words
Excerpt from We Will Not Cease, by Archibald
Baxter, published in 1939.
''[The sergeant] took me over to the poles, which were willow
stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height
of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined
forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he
picked the same one for me.
''I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the
ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he
knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into
the flesh and completely stopped the circulation.
''When I was taken off my hands were always black with
''My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together
and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and
forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will
slacken a little after a time. His never did.
''The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position,
causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I
could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it
was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently
much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up
against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a
fraction of an inch.
''Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment
were tied with their arms outstretched [on a wagon wheel].
Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often
tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a
cross. But the name stuck.
''A few minutes after the sergeant had left me, I began to
think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me
like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the
end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between
my set teeth I said: 'Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear
''But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I
did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing
me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the
physical. I felt I was going mad.''
REF: 1/2-037732-F ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY