We Will Not Cease
We sat, or lay, as the case might be, on the wharf and waited. A chill wind blew in from the bay and in our weakened condition, only just risen from bed, we felt it keenly. It seemed a very long time before lorries drove on to the wharf and we were loaded on to them, stretcher cases and walking cases indiscriminately. Though I knew that Jack and Sanderson had come off with me, I could not see them afterwards on the wharf and they were not put on the same lorry with me.
We turned off the wharf and ran up through the town to the Maitland Hospital, on high ground in view of Table Mountain. Here we were unloaded on to a level space of grass. Nothing was ready, no tents up. We had to wait about until at last the tents were erected in the long wet grass and beds brought in. Then, thankfully, we all went to bed again, in sheets and pyjamas and all manner of things to which we had long been unaccustomed. Only one lorry had come up; the others had gone elsewhere and in them Jack and Sanderson. I suppose we had to be distributed wherever accommodation was to be found.
It was pleasant in the tent when once we were comfortably settled in bed. Bright-faced, smiling black ‘boys’ brought us in our food and ministered to our wants and nurses came in to us from the main hospital. Most of the men recovered quickly under the improved conditions, fresh air and attention. One man, however, who had been unconscious for some time page 63 before we left the boat, rose suddenly in bed when there happened to be no nurses in the tent, got up and made for the tent door. Before we could realize what had happened, or do anything, he had fallen over the tent ropes. When we asked how he was a little later, we were told that he was dead. The nurses came round asking us all for information about him. His people had to be written to, and it was hard to find anything to say. Finally, something was got together and sent off.
The matron, middle-aged and ginger-haired, came on her rounds in the morning and usually brought oranges to the patients.
‘Catch, conscientious objector,’ she would say to me with a grin and throw an orange to me.
She accompanied the different doctors on their visits to us. One of them came in with her.
‘Baxter is a conscientious objector,’ she told him when they came to my bed.
‘How do you come to be here?’ he asked and I told him, briefly.
‘You're far too good a Highlander, Baxter,’ he said, ‘not to be fighting for your king. When you get to France you'll be throwing Germans over your head on your bayonet.’
‘Yes, my ancestors fought for the king, except when they happened to be fighting against him. I'm fighting, too, only I'm on a different tack. I'm fighting against a war.’
‘Oh, well,’ he said, ‘they might get you a job rocking cradles.’
‘If people of your views run the world,’ I answered, ‘there soon won't be any cradles to rock.’
The matron squeaked and jumped back. The men looked as if they expected something dreadful to happen and seemed surprised when nothing came of it.
The next doctor was of a different type. The matron introduced me in the usual way.
‘The first conscientious objector I've ever had, doctor. I've never seen one before,’
‘No, we haven't got conscription here.’ he said. ‘If we had you'd see plenty.’
He turned to me. ‘I think a man has a perfect right to his page 64 own mind. I don't blame any man for standing to his principles You certainly have courage or you wouldn't be standing out the way you are,’
I came to know the other men who were with me. At first, before we were well enough to talk much or gel about, they were inclined to regard me as the men in the clink were regarded by most of the troops on the transport, as a man of anti-social outlook, incapable of mixing with other men. On the Waitemata they had had no opportunity of altering this view, as they did not come into contact with us. At the hospital it was a different matter. I think that view of me was finally dispelled when they returned one day from a walk and found me playing draughts with another man who had remained behind. We could not take long walks as we had to keep within bounds, but we could wander some distance in the neighbourhood of the hospital.
I have little but pleasant recollections of South Africa. It was a strange interlude—a respite—in a strenuous fight. I had never seen any land but my own and this was absolutely different from it. The light buoyant air, the strange smell that seemed to pervade everything, the vivid colouring of the shrubs and flowers, made it a new world for me. Even the queer South African sheep, hardly like sheep at all, with its enormous tail, sometimes weighing as much as fifteen pounds, and the exceedingly tough mutton it made, was a novelty. At night, from the lagoon which lay below the hospital, there floated up through the clear air a sound like myriads of tiny bells. In the rest of the world frogs croak, but not here. The same rosy cloud lies over a visit I paid to a dentist, just at the close of my stay in hospital. Never have I known such gentleness and such skill.
Our sojourn in that place of pleasant convalescence had to come to an end. When we were considered to be safely out of quarantine, we were all collected up and taken to the Castle. It was a large building of brick and stone, dating from the time of the Dutch occupation. It had outer walls immensely thick and high, with flat tops from which a wide view of the town page 65 could be obtained. Inside there were yards and further walls, making part of the main building.
I was taken to the guardroom, which was just inside the outer gate. Part of the room was barred off like a cage at the Zoo. Behind the bars men were sitting, standing and lying, about, some still drunk, others recovering. I could see Jack in amongst them, looking dishevelled and dirty. It was a horrible place. So many bodies crowded together exhaled a foetid smell.
The sergeant who had brought us in from the hospital said to me: ‘Sorry to say I'll have to put you in here.’
‘Put me in there!’ I said. ‘You'll do nothing of the kind! You have no authority to shut me up!’
‘Haven't I? We'll soon see.’
‘Take me before the officer in charge here.’ I said, and, much against his will, he did so.
The officer was a lieutenant in the South African forces, New Zealand born. I explained my position; that I had resisted military service in New Zealand and had been deported, still resisting; that the sentence I had been given on the boat had run out and that I had not been charged with a fresh offence. I also said that my brother was down below in the guardroom and that his position was the same as my own. He sent for Jack and went through our papers, which he had beside him. From them he soon verified the facts.
‘It's twenty years since I was in New Zealand,’ he said, ‘and I. don't know what laws they have there now. I hear they have conscription, but it seems strange to me that, even under conscription, they should send men out of New Zealand in civil clothes. However, I've got nothing to do with that. We haven't got conscription here, anyway, and while you're here I won't give you any orders or require you to do anything. All I ask of you is not to attempt to escape.’
I assured him that we had not the slightest intention of escaping.
‘And I would like you to answer the roll,’ he said, ‘It makes it easier for us.’
We agreed to do so.
Jack told me that he was thankful to get out. The place was page 66 crawling, he said. But we did not escape vermin. Nearly everyone in the Castle was lousy, and it was very hard, in fact impossible, to get rid of them. No sooner did one manage to, than one acquired them again from others.
Jack told me that Sanderson had been sent to the military prison at Wynberg, after he came out of quarantine, to serve the rest of his sentence he had received in New Zealand. It seemed very hard that Sanderson, of all of us the least fit to stand it, should spend his time in South Africa shut up in a cell, deprived of all chance of seeing the strange new country, which would have interested him so much, and of the freedom which would have given him a chance to make a proper recovery.
A Home Officer came to the Castle and harangued the troops on the colour question.
‘You men are accustomed to a different attitude on the matter of colour in New Zealand. I've heard that you look on your Maoris as social equals. But I want you to understand that here, in South Africa, for a man to be on friendly terms with a coloured person, or even to be seen talking with one in a social way, is a crime. I believe that some of you have been seen in the town in the company of coloured people and I want you to understand how that is looked on here.’
The attitude of a life-time is not altered in one day. The New Zealanders are more free from the colour complex than almost any race on earth. They saw no reason why they should not be on friendly terms with an amiable and harmless people and took very little notice of the warning, and continued to mix with them. Probably as a consequence of this, all leave was stopped for the ranks, and they were confined within the Castle walls.
We had often argued with the nurses at the hospital over the same thing. We asked them for the reason for the attitude of the whites in Cape Colony towards the coloured population. They could give us no clear reason. They just knew the blacks had to be kept under or they would be dangerous.
‘But what about these negroes that help in the hospital?’ we asked.page 67
‘Oh, that's different,’ said the nurses. ‘Those are our boys. They're specially chosen and we know they're all right.’
At the same time we could see that they looked upon those ‘boys’ not as ordinary human beings but as a sort of special pet dog, to whom one should be kind. Almost every day I saw in the papers reports of sentences of flogging imposed on natives. One day, I remember, there were seventeen cases of natives charged with some such offence as being found in the garden of a European; and in fifteen of them sentences of flogging were imposed. Most of the offences were merely minor ones, for which a fine, or at most, a few days imprisonment would have been imposed in New Zealand. South Africans say, of course, that we don't understand their problems, and that if we did we would know that that is the only way to deal with the natives. I can't believe that it will prove the right way in the long run.
Confinement to the Castle was very irksome with Capetown lying invitingly below us and any amount of exploring to be done. But we were not allowed out on any pretext. There was only one gate in the outer wall and that was guarded. The walls were extremely high and impossible to scale. It was generally agreed that escape was impossible.
Jack and I were one day walking on the flat top of the inner walls, discussing the question of escape.
‘I know how I could get out,’ said Jack, ‘but the trouble is, I couldn't get you out too.’
‘I'll manage that for myself,’ I said; ‘I'm going out now. You stay up here and when you see me appear in the street, you put your scheme into operation and follow me. I'll wait for you down there.’
I went down to the temporary huts in the yard, where we all messed and slept: ‘Any of you chaps want anything in town? Because I'm going out.’
They refused to take me seriously; but at least one Irishman, said he wanted a tin of tobacco and gave me the money. I went into the inner yard. From the officers' quarters on the opposite side came three officers. I looked through the archway to the outer yard and the gate. The sentry had not seen me.page 68
I fell in behind the officers. As they neared the gate I drew abreast of them. We all passed through the gate, the guard looking suspiciously at me but deciding that I must be known to the officers, and the officers looking questioningly at the guard but deciding I must be known to him as he was not challenging me. I kept an absolutely unmoved face. Once outside and out of sight of the guard, I dropped behind, crossed over the street and signalled to Jack, far back on the wall. I waited. I waited half-an-hour and he did not appear. It was growing late, so I made the circuit of the Castle walls and went down into the town. I bought the tobacco and hurried back, the problem of breaking in again weighing on my mind. There was a light burning over the archway and the gate was shut. I drew to the side and waited for something to turn up. A few minutes later a car drove up and turned in at the gate. I ran in behind it and it passed me. In this way I got through the gate, but the guard saw me.
‘Halt!’ he called and rushed at me with the bayonet. ‘It's the guardroom for you.’
‘Right,’ I said and waited, thankful I had been caught breaking in and not breaking out. The guard went over to shut the gate and got out his keys. I had been edging round the angle of the wall and when I saw him occupied with the lock of the gate. I made a dash for it and got safely through the archway in the inner wall. I might have got a bullet in the back, but I did not think it likely he would fire and I knew he would not pursue me or, for his own sake, say anything about it afterwards. He saw me the next day when he was off duty, but he only grinned. I came into the hut with the tobacco. They were all immensely impressed.
‘You must have squared the guards,’ they said.
‘I give you my word I didn't. You know I have no money.’
They pressed me to tell my method, but I wouldn't. I asked Jack why he had not followed me, and he said he couldn't be sure it was me signalling, it was so far away and the light was bad.
We made tours of inspection all over the Castle, wherever we were allowed to go, and that was almost everywhere. We page 69 found the execution yard, a sinister square surrounded by high walls. There was a place in one wall where victims had been buried.
In one of the cells of the Castle a German was confined. charged with causing a riot in a tea shop. According to what we were told he had quarrelled with a man over the war and fought with him. I could hardly see that this constituted a riot or that he had committed a very serious crime. He was said to be very violent and he certainly looked it when we saw him exercising in the corridor, always in handcuffs. But handcuffs in themselves are inclined to make a man look violent, and I have sometimes wondered, in the light of my own experience later on, whether he really was. We used to see him eating his meals with his hands freed for the purpose and he never made any attempt to attack the guard at these times. Defiant he certainly was and we could not but admire his pluck. Quite alone, surrounded by enemies, and in entirely in their power, he never failed to hold his head high and to hurl defiance at them whenever he had the opportunity. Never is perhaps incorrect, for in one instance he did, for a moment, quail. His court-martial had been behind closed doors, but his sentence was promulgated in public. When he heard it—ten years penal servitude—he dropped his head and flinched as from a blow. From the walls we could see the civil prison, where he was probably sent. The prisoners were all in white. The distance was too great for us to distinguish the Europeans from the natives; they all looked the same in that white uniform. They appeared to do everything at the double and never to move at a walk.
The troops in the huts were made up of measles cases from the Waitemata, men from former drafts who had missed their boats, and men on their way back from France, both Australians and New Zealanders. On the whole they were a fairly peaceable lot, apart from spasmodic personal quarrels. But when pay-day came, beer being obtainable within the walls and there being no other way of spending the money, things became pretty hot for a while. It was only natural, given a body of men shut up in a restricted area with nothing to do and unlimited access to beer. Fights were frequent at these times.page 70
One man came within an ace of having his throat cut and only saved himself by holding his chin down and getting it split instead. When the last effects of the drink had cleared away the combatants were perfectly friendly again.
A considerable amount of damage was done during these periodic outbreaks. Crockery and furniture were smashed and jam tins would come hurtling through the windows at the heads of the Dutch guards outside. Finally, the South African authorities got tired of it and sent us all off to Simonstown, some miles down the coast towards the Cape. The change was greatly for the better. Here we could go where we pleased as long as we returned to camp before a certain hour.
Simonstown lay on the spit of land running down the coast from Capetown and ending up in the Cape of Good Hope. It lay on the inside of the spit, looking over the wide bay (called False Bay in the atlases, but I always heard it called Simons Bay). Large ships could come almost to the shore, the water deepening immediately from the land. In the evening a long line of fishing boats would come in from the open sea under sail. The surrounding country was wonderful, different from anything we had ever known. A plateau rose at the back of the town, running up into high granite peaks. Beyond the bay hills rose into the haze and to the north further plateaux crowned by high hills. At the top of one of the hills, which we used often to climb, we found an old Dutch cemetery, overgrown with trees and shrubs. The grave-stones were fallen and lying in all directions and a peaceful melancholy lay over it all.
I used to go down to the shore and watch the natives fishing. Numbers would gather up and go out in boats. Their course was often directed by an old grey-haired negro, who would stand on a rock above the beach and signal to them which direction to take. His knowledge of the whereabouts of fish was uncanny. He would direct them which way to pull the nets and sometimes he would signal: ‘No good. Come in.’
The natives all believed he could see the fish in the water. Of one thing there is no doubt. He knew where the fish were, for I watched often and he made no mistakes. When he said, ‘They've lost them.’ the nets would come in empty, and when page 71 he said, ‘They've got them,’ they would come in with shoals of fish. All the natives showed great respect for the old man. Some of the negro boys fished from the shore, and I did, too, and sometimes got quite a good catch.
One day I gave my catch to a boy who had not been successful and he took them home with him. Next day he turned up with a dozen eggs for me, saying his mother had sent them. Afterwards I questioned him about his life and his family. He told me his father and mother were Christians, that they thought war and violence wrong and contrary to the teaching of Christ.
As the spring advanced new varieties of flowers and shrubs came out almost every day. The brilliance of their colouring was almost tropical. Scarlet predominated, but there was purple, yellow and pink as well. Round the base of the mountains for miles grew a belt of scarlet and purple gladioli, and on the mountains themselves grey large varieties of the white and pink everlasting daisy as large as saucers. I used to go far afield and return with bunches of flowers that were rare in the neighbourhood of town From the sale of these flowers I got all the money we needed while we were there. They were usually ordered beforehand and people would give 2s. 6d. for a small bunch. Of course, it took a lot of hunting to get them, but it was pleasant work in which my brother joined heartily and the money came in very handy at the time.
We went on expeditions with the other men, exploring and snake-hunting in the hills. We had little fear of snakes, probably because we knew so little about them. I became quite an expert at curing snake skins and the skins of enormous furry green caterpillars which we found on our walks. Brilliantly coloured birds abounded. Up in caves in the hills we found monkeys. The female monkeys would stand at the entrance of caves in the cliffside, quite inaccessible to us, and look down on us in fear and anger, holding their young in their arms. While I was in Simonstown a monkey who had evidently quarrelled with his tribe, came down into the town and remained there on perfectly friendly terms with human beings.
Men were constantly passing through Simonstown on their way back from France to New Zealand. One day a new page 72 Sergeant-Major came on duty at the camp. He, too, was on his way back from France. He addressed the men. He wanted them, he said, to have some idea of what they were going to, not to land over there, as he had, absolutely ignorant of what awaited them.
‘The war's ruined me,’ he said, ‘as it's ruined many a better man. I hope you're going to have a better time than I had. I hope you won't have to go through the things that I went through. Perhaps the war will be over by the time you get there, though it doesn't look much like it. The things I've seen and done I can't get out of my mind. Cold-blooded killing of defenceiess men. I've got a wife and three little boys: you'd think I'd be glad to be going back to them, but I'm not. I feel I can't face them with these things on my mind, and here's the New Zealand Government brought in conscription and forcing men into that Hell. Sending them over in civilian clothes like these two here.’
The men were astonished at hearing such things from the lips of a Sergeant-Major, but they were curious, and crowded round him asking questions.
‘Once,’ he said, ‘we took a lot of German prisoners. About seventy, there were. Then we got orders that we weren't to take any prisoners. So we stood them up against a bank and killed them all in cold blood—bayoneted them. I know other nations do the same. I know the Germans do It's just war, and war is Hell, and the men who make it, bloody bastards.’
Next day there was another Sergeant-Major in his place.
Spring gave place to summer and the best of the flowers were over. Everything was getting dried up and it was becoming very hot before we entrained for Capetown, towards the end of November. There were a number of women at the station at Capetown when we arrived, presenting all the soldiers with ditty bags. I was given one too. I didn't like to refuse it in case I hurt the feelings of the donor. Seeing me with the others, though I was in civil clothes, she would look on me as one of the rest.
When we came on board the Llanstephan Castle, we found Sanderson. Shut up in a cell all the time while we had had our page 73 freedom, he had not recovered from the effects of measles as we had, and was looking more depressed than I had ever seen him. He had not been badly treated on the whole, he said. They had told him at the prison that it was not their business to compel him to work, and they had not done so, but they had kept him shut up most of the time.
The officer in charge of the troops on board, an Australian, said to me: ‘I have nothing to do with what the New Zealand Government is trying with you men, and I don't intend to interfere with you in any way or to give you any orders. I only make one request of you; that is, to take part in lifeboat drill. It's a necessary precaution for the safety of everyone and has nothing to do with the army.’
For my part I felt that this was perfectly reasonable, and the other two agreed with me in acceding to his request.
We were on very friendly terms with all the New Zealanders. We mixed with them without any restriction and made the voyage under very different conditions from those on the trip to South Africa. One of the New Zealanders came to me and pressed a sum of money onto me.
‘We've made it up amongst us.’ he said. ‘We know you have no money and we don't like to see it, so we want you to take this.’
‘I couldn't think of taking it,’ I said. ‘It's very good of you, and I do appreciate it, but I don't like to think of men being asked to give when they have little enough themselves.’
No one had been asked to give, he said. All those who had given had been keen to. So I wasn't to worry about that, and they wouldn't like it at all if I didn't accept.
In the end I did, as I saw my refusal would offend them. Jack and Sanderson were very touched at this token of sympathy and quite agreed that it was not possible to refuse it.
Early in the voyage Sanderson went down with dysentery. In poor health, as he already was, he seemed to have no resistance. He was very ill—so ill that for a time I thought he would never reach England. However, he pulled round and was about again by the time we arrived at Plymouth.
There were nine hundred negroes on board. They were clad page 74 in an ugly dark chocolate uniform which was extremely unbecoming to their complexions. They were not at all pleased with it themselves and looked longingly on the khaki. One of the New Zealanders on board, nicknamed, for some reason, Harry Lauder, seeing an opportunity for money-making in this desire of the negroes, sold them as many khaki uniforms as he could lay hands on from the stores. Numbers of negroes blossomed out in them. There was a great uproar. Being questioned, they said they had bought them from a man at two shillings apiece. Asked if they could point out the man, they said they could. Brought up on deck, they immediately identified Harry Lauder. He had managed to secrete the money somewhere so that it was never discovered, and the negroes were the losers, having to give up the uniforms without getting their money back.
We touched at St. Helena, but no one was allowed to go ashore. Some of the inhabitants came on board and we got some information from them about the kind of life they led on the island. From the ship it looked to us to be only a bare rock, its cliffs rising up sheer from the deep ocean. I was surprised to hear that about three thousand people were living there, engaged in hemp cultivation. We could see no sign of their settlement, only rock, but there must have been some land further back on top We saw the high rock where Napoleon used to stand alone, gazing at the sea. As a boy, I had had considerable admiration for him. I wondered what his thoughts were as he stood there. Was it there he said: ‘The longer I live the more I am convinced that no lasting system of Government can be founded on force’? Napoleon professed to believe in peace and his goal was the United States of Europe. His method was force, and force had crushed him at last and yet that force could not give Europe peace.
We sailed away from St. Helena and our next call was Sierra Leone We lay out at some distance from the shore, and the natives came out in their wonderful tree-trunk canoes, which were hollowed in a single piece out of the trunk, and yet were only a shell and as light as a feather. They brought out fruit and things to sell, and dived for coins, though there were page 75 sharks in other parts of the bay. We stayed for a day or two, and each morning a red fiery sun climbed up the sky until the atmosphere was like the breath of a furnace. The glow of the sunset on the trees and buildings on shore was unlike anything I had ever seen. I can never forget the morning we sailed away. The sea was as still as a mill-pond, except where great sharks circled about, their huge fins projecting above the water. Beautiful little islets with stately palm trees and red-roofed houses were mirrored in the clear water. From these there floated out to us as it were the music of many flutes.