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Chris Ford: The Anzac Day blog - WWI conscientious objectors due an apology

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I believe that, as we mark the 99th Anzac Day tomorrow, that our Government should apologise to the World War I conscientious objectors who were treated so badly.

I have been moved to write this piece after watching Field Punishment Number 1 on TV One this week. This film traversed the story of Archibald Baxter (father of James K. Baxter) as representative of the 14 New Zealand conscientious objectors who were secretly shipped to France during World War One to be tortured in an attempt to induce them into fighting on the Western Front.

The disgraceful treatment of these men deserves a posthumous apology to them and their families by our government.

After all, we now know from historic black and white footage the scenes of carnage, death and destruction that confronted both our own and other soldiers (across all combatant nations) during that conflict. More poignantly, the letters home to countless families brought this terrifying reality into every home during that war – and this was decades before television brought those realities into every home in (more or less) real time.

Yet government propagandists back then (as much as happens now) dressed up the war as a glorious battle for freedom. As history informs us, though, World War I was really a violent confrontation between the great imperialist powers of the day for global hegemony. That’s why I cannot see any distinction between, for example, the main protagonists Germany and Britain as they both practised mass industrial capitalism, were both hereditary monarchies, and were in the process of extending the democratic franchise. They were competitors for political, economic and military influence in Europe but each recognised this. Yet, they only came to blows when Germany invaded Belgium - to whom the United Kingdom had extended security guarantees - in order to invade France and take it out of the war.

And it was through such entanglements that New Zealand – practically still a colony in 2014 – offered its forces to the so-called British Imperial Motherland. And that is also how Archibald Baxter and his ‘conchie’ comrades came to be on the troopship NZSS Waitemata after bravely refusing the call to arms which saw their non-conchie comrades slaughtered in their millions.

Given these facts and given the brutal treatment meted out to them, it is time for our government to do the right thing and recognise that these men refused to take up arms against their fellow human beings, particularly in a war as pointless and un-necessary as World War One was. In fact, absent any ‘Great War’, the Second World War would not have been fought at all. If this had been the case, one of my great-uncles would not have lost his life and nor would my grandfather have had to sacrifice some of his youth in fighting the even more barbarous Nazis – who left the old Imperial German forces in the shade when it came to having any respect for fellow humans.

If Archibald Baxter were alive today, he would no doubt have pointed these facts out to us. What he was trying to prevent was not only the bloodshed of the war in which he and his conchie comrades were forcibly sent to but all future wars as well.

After all, war begets war. Let us remember that lesson tomorrow and throughout the next four years of World War One commemorations to come.

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