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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.