My Mum always told me that her father was a Pacifist. As a kid, the information was of-interest, but a little bit so-what? He didn’t believe in fighting. Some years later I came across a couple of old books in our bookcase. These had been presented to my grandfather as prizes at school. There was “Brave Sons of the British Empire”, presented on Dec 19, 1912. The cover shows some Brit with a gun in Muslim country. Then there was ‘The Red Army Book’ with some dashing bloke about to bayonet someone on the cover. It was presented on Dec 14, 1913. War in Europe was approaching, and it was clear that our schools, Balclutha High School at least, were pumping up our boys for what was on the way. It may even have been more than that – the particular titles may have been specially chosen for a young man with a known pacifist bent. Up until I saw the dates in the books, I hadn’t twigged that my grandfather would have finished school during the First World War. This timing meant that he would have been immediately called up for service. In New Zealand, unlike Australia, there was conscription. I mentioned this to my mother – and got some more information. After he had died, when my mother was ten, she and her mother were going through some of his belongings. My mother absent-mindedly picked up a diary and flicked through it. “What does “being-inside” mean?” she asked. Her mother snatched the book from her and said “Your father ruined his life”. She never saw the diary again.
Older-still, I read Baxter’s “We Will Not Cease”, and was appalled. This book ought to be compulsory reading in every high school in New Zealand (you can get it for free here ). The seriousness of my grandfathers choice to be a pacifist became clearer. Around this time I got to meet two First World War veterans in Australia. At the time I think there were only seven left in the country. On one of my visits to Eric Abraham, I asked him what he thought of Conscientious Objectors. The question stopped him short, but after a little hesitation, he said “I’d respect his views, but I wouldn’t want him as a mate”. Now this doesn’t mean that Eric was pro-war – far from it. It was a soldier’s response – as he explained later, the last thing that the guys on the Front wanted, was to be with others who didn’t want to be there.
I emailed the NZ Army, saying that my grandfather was a CO, and asked an abstract question –Would CO’s still have had a military record? The curt response, and I can almost hear the snarl that went with it, was “You failed to give your grandfathers name”. I sent it and immediately received the reply that there was no record. I guess I shouldn’t have expected more from the army, but few years later, thanks to the internet, I got my grandfathers records through the National Archives – and there it was. He certainly did have a military record. He, like Baxter before him, had been called up and had refused to put on his uniform. This was “refusing orders”, and a court-martialable offense. This is how we learned he was given two years hard-labour (Somewhat before this, Baxter and his compatriots had caused so much trouble for the Army that there were no more forced-trips to France). There is nothing in the military records recording why he did what he did. He refused an order and that was that. Baxter’s book explained that the ‘ruined’ life may have been due more to his life being made a misery by everyone who could after the war, than his time in prison. The irony was – it was so late in the war that if he had simply gone along, the war would likely have ended before he got to the Front. As for the rest of my grand-mothers family, a brother in law was sent to Gallipoli as a medic. He was lucky – he was evacuated back to NZ with illness. One of my grandmothers brothers was sent to the Western Front and was dead – killed in action, two days short of a month after arriving. He is buried in Ypres. Another brother, I had been told by my mother, had survived being buried alive in France. The Archives helped again – these confirmed he was buried “completely” by the explosion of a ‘minenwurfer’ “less than five yards” from him. He was unconscious for 24 hours and a complete mess from shell-shock for a long time after. My mother remembers him as a kindly uncle who brought books for her when he visited, but shell-shock seems to have had a permanent effect.
So who was it then, who ‘ruined his life’?