Back in the days when Australia had just seven veterans left from the First World War, I made an effort to meet two of them. One was Ted Smout, and the other was Eric Abraham.
Smout was a medic in the First World War, and when I visited him, he was out the back of his house, hanging up his washing. He claims to have heard the Red Baron utter his last words: “Kaput”. Abraham also saw the Red Baron, but as he put it, just as one of thousands of troops watching the final fight from the trenches.
Abraham I visited a couple of times at his home, but my absolute coup, was getting him to come and give one of my classes of American students an hour-long lecture. It fitted in perfectly with the ‘Australian Culture’ component (I was petrified that I would be responsible for the demise of an Australian ‘Living-Treasure’).
In conversation, I think Abraham had answered the same questions many times. He had particular stories to tell. They were practised, but they were delivered with flare, and you could see his eyes move to whatever quadrant the particular action had taken place, eighty odd years before.
But on one of my several visits to meet him, I asked Abraham what he thought of Conscientious Objectors. I had a particular reason for doing this – my grandfather was one.
The question stopped Abraham short. No practised answer there. His eyes went up, and then, 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 simply a pragmatic 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.
My Mum always told me that her father (New Zealand-born, Scottish mother, Irish father) “was a Pacifist”. As a kid, the information was of-interest, but a little bit so-what? He was a school kid then and didn’t believe in fighting. Great. It was many years later before the penny really dropped.
I came across a couple of old books in our bookcase. Inside the covers I saw that 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 New Zealand 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 only 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 Archibald Baxter’s book “We Will Not Cease”, and was appalled. It’s the story of a New Zealander who refused to go and fight in the First World War. The vicious New Zealand authorities put him on a troop ship, where he was eventually taken to the Front, and tied to a post. He survived that and much more. Finally, back in New Zealand, to punish him further, authorities that could, made his life was made Hell. Not anyone who had actually fought, mind you. From those he mostly got some sort of respect.
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.
So, now I was curious. If my grandfather had in fact finished school during the war, but was a ‘CO’ (Conscientious Objector), did he have some sort of military record? I emailed the NZ Army, pointing out that my grandfather was a CO, and asked the abstract question –Would CO’s still have had a military record?
The snotty 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.
A few years later, thanks to the internet, I searched for grandfather through the National Archives – and there it was. Damned right he had a military record.
On leaving school, he had been called up for the compulsory conscription. And that was point, for his moral beliefs, that the rubber hit the road.
He refused to put on his uniform.
That, in military-speak, 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. We still have no idea what happened over those two years. What apparently happened later, was victimisation. As a school teacher, his career was not going to go anywhere. At least, no further than being headmaster of a two-teacher school in the ‘bush’ of Tawanui, in the far-south ‘Catlins’ region of New Zealand. After he died, his widow as left with “a schilling” according to my mother.
Baxter’s book explains this aspect of being a conscientious objector in more detail. His ‘ruined’ life may have been due more to the misery caused by everyone who could do so after the war, than any time in prison, or on the Front. The tragedy for my grandfather was – it was later in the war, and 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-mother’s family, a brother in law was sent to Gallipoli as a medic. He was lucky – he was evacuated back to NZ with pneumonia. I’ve stood at ANZAC Cove and looked-down on where he would have been – as a Turkish school teacher and his class, explained what a “catastrophe” the Allied invasion was from their perspective.
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. I’ve visited his grave near Ypres in Belgium, probably the first visit the young chap got since my mother found him in the 1950s.
Another brother, I had been told by my mother, had survived being buried alive in France. The National Archives helped again – these confirmed he was buried “completely” by the explosion of a ‘minenwurfer’ (a kind of mortar-shell) “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’?
As an aside, the uncle who was in Gallipolli, returned to Dunedin and, along with Dr Charles Greenslade (later knighted), was asked by the major, to set up a VD clinic for returned soldiers who had managed to get the clap at some point on their tour. My mother remembers a private side entrance to the house in North-East Valley (where I spent my first six months) with a constant trickle of returned-soldiers having their aliments discretely dealt with.