Men of conscience

Otago conscientious objectors Harry Wardell (right) and Cecil Wardell (second from right) in...
Otago conscientious objectors Harry Wardell (right) and Cecil Wardell (second from right) in uniform with other members of the Red Cross Ambulance Unit, in Italy, during World War 1. Photo supplied.
Prof Tom Brooking
Prof Tom Brooking
Prof Kevin Clements
Prof Kevin Clements
The Blizzard, by New Zealand artist Bob Kerr, depicts Field Punishment No 1.
The Blizzard, by New Zealand artist Bob Kerr, depicts Field Punishment No 1.

Dunedin is likely to set up New Zealand's first conscientious objector memorial. It would have been unimaginable during World War 1, when ''conchies'' were widely vilified as shirkers and traitors. Bruce Munro asks, how should we now view those who fought for peace by refusing to take up arms?

Two children stand among the hushed throng as the bugler's Last Post laments the glorious dead of The Great War.

The girl touches medals pinned to her jacket. She calls to mind a photograph of her great-grandfather in a uniform.

Her tongue and lips play silently with the exotic names of Chunuk Bair, Mesopotamia and Longueval.

Near her, a neighbour's son watches the new dawn's golden rays caress the top of the war memorial.

The stories passed down to him contain names from an equally distant time and place - Étaples, Ypres and the Somme. He too recalls with pride a long-dead relative.

But there are no polished medals on his young chest.

Instead he imagines a man tied to a post on open ground, his feet and hands tightly bound, as shells explode nearby.

Can this be right? Do we have here the descendant of a cowardly shirker standing at this commemoration for those who died fighting for freedom?

Or have we got it wrong? Is this an unwitting assembly in honour of thousands of sacrificial pawns, visited today by a representative of the few who bravely pointed to a better way of pursuing peace?

Or perhaps it is something else again.

Within a month of war being declared in August 1914, New Zealand soldiers had occupied the German territory of Western Samoa.

By the end of October, more than 8000 troops left for the other side of the world. Volunteer reinforcements did not keep up with demand.

Young men who did not enlist were labelled shirkers and cowards. In 1916, conscription, compulsory enlistment, was introduced.

By war's end, 72,000 volunteers and 32,000 conscripts - a tenth of the total population - would have served overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Nearly one-fifth did not return alive.

They went to fight, and die, for King and country. That is how most saw it: as their duty and the best way to defeat an evil enemy and restore peace.

But the more the genesis of the war is researched, the more murky its moral imperative appears.

University of Otago historian Tom Brooking says while Germany will probably always have the most blame apportioned to it, new research suggests culpability goes much wider.

''All the new books coming out about 1914 are suggesting it was a European problem ... and everyone was to blame to some extent,'' Prof Brooking says.

''The best of the new books is called The Sleepwalkers. I think that captures what happened; they walked into war without thinking.''

At the start of hostilities, up to 90% of New Zealanders strongly supported their country's involvement in World War 1.

But there were those who were less enthusiastic. Officially, about 3000 people were listed as conscientious objectors; individuals who claimed the right to refuse military service on the grounds of conscience, freedom of thought or religion.

Religious conscientious objectors were the biggest group. Although most churches supported the war, some religions, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), taught that war was wrong.

Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and to refuse violence, they said.

Another group, Christadelphians, would not take up arms because war was part of a worldwide system in which they were not to participate.

Some socialists were also conscientious objectors, arguing the world's workers should not fight each other. West Coast trade unionist Jim O'Brien maintained that while the workers fought, the capitalists prospered.

This allegation has some basis in fact. In 1916, the Labour Party came into existence opposing conscription of men when there was not also a conscription of wealth, Prof Brooking says.

Whereas in the United Kingdom wages increased during the war, in New Zealand prices skyrocketed and wages stayed about the same.

''The worst thing was that rents were going through the roof and wages weren't keeping up,'' Prof Brooking says.

Internationally, there were some gross examples of war profiteering. Kevin Clements, who is director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, cites one such case.

''Capitalists certainly did prosper,'' Prof Clements says.

''There was a situation where Britain needed high-powered binoculars and Germany needed rubber. And they did a trade ... in Switzerland. The wheels of industry certainly kept turning.''

A mix of separatism and pacifism motivated central North Island Maori leaders' objections to conscription.

The other main group of conscientious objectors were Irish Catholics. After Ireland's Easter Rising was crushed in 1916, an increasing number of Irish in New Zealand objected to fighting on behalf of the British Empire.

The grounds for being granted exemption as a conscientious objector were limited. Between the introduction of conscription and the end of the war two years later, only 73 objectors were offered exemption.

Almost 300 were imprisoned for refusing military service. Many more elected to take up non-combatant roles in New Zealand and overseas.

Fourteen were forcibly sent to Europe to experience the reality of war, as a ''cure'' for their idealism.

''Conchies'' were derided, posted white feathers and barred from sports clubs. A note in the Dunedin Quakers' minute book marking the end of the war bears brief, tantalising witness to their treatment.

''The conscientious objectors of our Society, and others like-minded, have fared badly,'' it states.

And the repercussions did not end with the armistice. About 2600 conscientious objectors lost their civil rights: they were not allowed to vote for 10 years and could not get work with central or local government.

This was despite the fact that as the war dragged on and the numbers of deaths mounted, opposition to the war and support for conscientious objectors slowly grew.

But much of this new pacifism was kept secret until well after the war.

It is hard to ignore the extent to which soldiers and conscientious objectors shared common experiences, qualities and goals.

Soldiers serving anywhere on the 700km-long Western Front experienced the squalor and horror of trench warfare: parallel lines of trenches separated by a strip of barbedwire-laced open land where the call to go ''over the top'' gave artillery, machine guns and poison gas an open invitation to deal out injury and death in staggering numbers.

More than 18,000 New Zealand soldiers were killed during World War 1, while more than twice that number were either wounded or became sick.

For some conscientious objectors, such as Otago brothers Harry and Cecil Wardell, it was an experience with which they also became all too familiar.

The Wardells were Irish immigrants raised in Dunedin as Quakers. Harry, Cecil and their two brothers worked in their father's George St grocery business before trying their hands at farming.

In 1915, Harry and Cecil, finding a way to honour their pacifist beliefs and their desire to ease suffering, volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit.

They served in France, Belgium and Austria before transferring to the Red Cross Society's First British Ambulance Unit, in Italy.

In 1918, the Otago Daily Times reported the brothers had been awarded medals.

''An official report from the head of the Military Medical Board of the Italian army calls attention to the highly excellent work done for the wounded at the battle of the Piave Bridge in most critical circumstances,'' the report states.

''Much of the work was done under constant fire, and in recognition of their bravery, the cross Al Merito de Guerre was awarded to the ambulance drivers, among whom are Second Lieutenant Harry J Wardell and Second Lieutenant Cecil W Wardell.

''In addition ... Lieutenant Cecil Wardell received the silver medal Pro Valore Militaire, the second highest decoration in the Italian army.''

The most celebrated of New Zealand's WW1 conscientious objectors is Archibald Baxter, of Dunedin.

He and two of his brothers were among the 14 shipped off to war. Abused during the sea voyage and in England, 10 of the men, including Baxter, were then sent to Étaples, in France.

Told they would be shot if they refused to submit, several relented and became stretcher bearers.

The four remaining men were subjected to Field Punishment No 1: being tied to a post in the open, near the front lines, for up to four hours at a time, in all weathers.

Three survived, only to be forced into the trenches and subjected to further abuse.

In April 1918, Baxter was admitted to hospital with ''mental weakness and confusional insanity'' and then sent back to New Zealand.

He and Mark Briggs were the only two of the original 14 who held out to the end.

Whether fighting in a uniform or refusing to put a uniform on, both are acts of bravery, Prof Brooking says.

''It takes enormous courage to be one of a small handful of people standing against something that has huge popular support,'' he says.

''It takes enormous courage to go over the top as well. Lots of men were being extraordinarily brave. And Baxter himself said many of the soldiers never condemned him.

''You can't deny the courage of someone like Baxter who just refused to put on the uniform because he was opposed to war in any form.

Of course, the argument against that is that one of the democratic responsibilities, in return for all the rights, is to go and defend your country.''

It was not just bravery in the face of harsh realities that soldiers and conscientious objectors shared.

Ultimately, both were fighting for the same thing: peace. Conchies were trying to bring about peace by stopping people fighting one another, just as soldiers thought they were going to bring about peace by beating the enemy.

''The ends were the same; the means were dramatically different,'' Prof Brooking says.

''That's the fundamental point of the debate.''

Has either succeeded? Not yet.

DESPITE conscientious objectors' stand for non-violence, and despite the cyclic waxing and waning of support for their viewpoint, armed conflict continues.

The soldiers' solution, the War to end all Wars, proved to be anything but. And other attempts - diplomacy and international agreements - have also signally failed to bring lasting peace.

''Maybe more thought needs to be given to the root causes like growth in inequality and poverty,'' Prof Brooking says.

''Unless those things are addressed, perhaps the wretched thing will never go away. I've just turned 65 and I thought as a young, wild-eyed idealist listening to all those protest songs that we'd get there. But singing a few songs ain't enough. It has to be addressed on a whole lot of fronts.''

In the meantime, we honour the soldiers' courage and dedication.

Anzac Day and other war observances have been growing in popularity again since the late 1990s, a result of nostalgia mixed with a desire to identify and honour national heroes.

Is it possible to also memorialise the actions of conscientious objectors? A chorus of ''yes'' is coming from most quarters. Even Dunedin Returned and Services Association president Jenepher Glover says a memorial would be appropriate.

After initially considering a site on Anzac Ave, the Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust is now proposing locating it in the Otago Museum reserve, which already has a peace memorial.

A meeting between the trust, the museum and the university is being organised to discuss the idea, trustee Richard Jackson says. The design of the conscientious objectors memorial will be worked on after the location is known, he says.

''The point of the memorial is to acknowledge that these people created a space for political dissent at considerable personal cost,'' Prof Clements, who is chairman of the trust, says.

''It is a space that is really important to have, so that people can exercise their conscience when the State asks them to do things that contravene it.''

Conscientious objectors should have an important place in World War 1 commemorations, Prof Brooking says.

''As part of a balanced commemoration, they need to be remembered and their courage acknowledged, along with that of all the other people involved,'' he says.


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