Is Dunedin's planned memorial an affront?

A concept plan for the proposed Archibald Baxter memorial garden, which has been approved by the...
A concept plan for the proposed Archibald Baxter memorial garden, which has been approved by the Dunedin City Council. Image: Baxter Design.
Is a Dunedin memorial to conscientious objector Archibald Baxter an insult to the memory of the thousands of young Dunedin and Otago men who were killed in the First World War, asks Gerald Cunningham.

Is Dunedin ready for the construction of a high-profile public memorial located at the intersection of George and Albany Sts to celebrate the life of local first World War conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter and others who refused to fight in that terrible war?

As a remote volunteer for the London-based Imperial War Museum's online site Lives of the First World War, my work has brought me into contact with the history, lives, circumstances and war service of those young Dunedin and Otago men who were conscripted. Many were barely out of their teens and were killed at an age when they should have been celebrating their 21st birthdays, instead of fighting a disgusting war on the other side of the world. The majority of those conscripted were single, had low-paying jobs, were often poorly educated, and in the eyes of the over-zealous government of the time, could be spared to fight a war.

I have travelled through France and Belgium and seen the thousands upon thousands of white headstones in the World War 1 cemeteries in those countries. I have stood beside the grave on the Somme in France of Private Andrew McBreen from Moa Creek in Central Otago and wondered just what this young man was doing there, flanked on the left by an Indian soldier and on the right by a young man from Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, near Auckland.

Andrew McBreen's sisters tried to hide his conscription notice from him when it arrived at Moa Creek, hoping the war would end, but he was caught up in the chaos and died of wounds in 1918.

The Dunedin and Otago soldiers who were buried were the lucky ones. Their bodies were able to be identified and given a dignified burial with a headstone that is a memorial to the fact that they once existed. The memorial gate in the city of Ypres in Belgium is another matter. There are fifty thousand names of allied soldiers, including many from Dunedin and Otago, on this gate whose bodies were never found.

Many were blown to unidentifiable pieces by enemy shellfire, or simply disappeared without trace in the mud and chaos of the First World War battlefields.

The fiasco that was Gallipoli brought home the reality of war to New Zealand and muted the desire to volunteer for a war that was expected to ``be over by Christmas 1914''. Conscription was introduced in 1915 to counteract this lack of volunteers. It is highly possible that the young Dunedin and Otago men who were conscripted had no desire to fight, given the casualty figures and conditions that they had to endure.

Unlike the more savvy Archibald Baxter and his followers, who knew how the rules worked, they were not sophisticated to the point where they knew how to become conscientious objectors before leaving New Zealand. Once on the front lines they had no choice, as they could be shot for desertion or for not obeying suicidal orders. That was where these young men's lives ended.

Unlike Archibald Baxter they did not return to New Zealand to live out their lives and raise a family. Most of the conscientious objectors did return. Yes, some were badly treated, but their lives were not cut short. Does Dunedin really need a memorial celebrating the lives of these conscientious objectors? Its construction could be seen as an insult to the memory of the thousands of young Dunedin and Otago men who fought and were killed in action in the fiasco that was the First World War.

Gerald Cunningham is an author, photographer and historian who lives in Lauder, Central Otago.

 

Comments

Historians would know, but there are old stories of some influence shuffling to get men into Reserved Occupations, even the occasional white feather. There will be one memorial in the entire country to Baxter, a Brighton man who actually was at the Front.

Interestingly the first half of Mr Cunningham's article reflects closely the views of the conscientious objectors, that war is a terrible waste of young lives that were insufficiently valued by those whose decisions resulted in that terrible condition.
'Whistleblowing' that situation took almost unbelievable courage, those that did it endured social pariahdom, forced conscription, and 'field punishments' that were a completely unprotected exposure to the front line. These experiences harmed Mr Baxter in ways very similar to a service person.
A reading of 'We will not cease' will completely disabuse the notion that conscientious objection was in any sense a soft option, and taken for any reason other than the highest values of humanism.
I will certainly appreciate a monument to this expression of courage, and feel that it in no way devalues the respect we show for the people who so sadly lost their lives in World War 1.

I am an ex soldier. I served 5 years in the Dunedin Infantry unit as a Medic. I made Corporal before I got out. I volunteered for service in East Timor in 2000, and although I was initially accepted, I missed out in the end due to health problems. I was also a member of the Blueskin Bay ANZAC Day committee for a few years.

I have huge respect for the 'Conchies'. Only a few months after I joined the Army, I went to a play about Baxter and his colleagues. I even brought his book, "We Said No to War." I also saw the documentary about Baxter and his colleagues recently, called "Field Punishment No. 1." They were incredible men. Absolutely outstanding.

I respect anyone who has the courage and determination to stand up for what they believe in. I also admire service and sacrifice in all it's forms.

I would love to see a monument in Dunedin, in honour of these heroic men. They were sincerely doing their best to make the world a better place. And they paid a heavy price for their efforts. That deserves to be recognised.

 

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