We Will Not Cease
The next morning Kirwan and I were handed over into the charge of Booth, the provost-sergeant. He took us by lorry to several places behind the lines. At one of these he stopped and, telling us that we were to have no food, he made us stand behind him while he ate his dinner. When we arrived at the hut where we were to spend the night, we found Mark Briggs. I had always hoped to strike him somewhere, but had ceased to expect it. We exchanged experiences. In Sling, his had been much the same as mine. Kept in irons for the whole of his four weeks there, for the last five days he had hungerstruck. He had then been sent to France. At Etaples, refusing to parade, he had been left unmolested, first in the guardroom, then in the mess orderlies' tent, for seven weeks. Sent up to Poperinghe and refusing orders there, he had been sentenced to twenty-eight days No. I Field Punishment. He had served six days in the Oudredoum compound, three of them in punishment cells, when one of the New Zealand generals had arrived at the compound and interviewed him. The general told him, after he had talked with him for some time, that nothing would be expected of him for a time at least. For over two months he had remained at the Stores, doing nothing and going about as he pleased. Two or three days before, this policy had been changed, and he had been told he was to be sent up the lines. This sudden tightening of the tension came hard upon him after two months respite.page 120
Early the following morning Booth came into the hut and gave me an order, which I refused. He was standing in front of me with a disagreeable smile on his face, giving no hint of what he was about to do. Suddenly, he struck me a blow on the jaw. I was not expecting it and fell heavily. Before I could get back on my feet he struck me again, and then again and again, every time I tried to rise. When I at last managed to gain my feet he had left the hut. After a few minutes I went out and met him just outside.
‘Have you got anything against me that you did that just now?’ I asked him. He was plainly taken aback at my speaking to him in an ordinary way. ‘No, I've nothing against you, personally,’ he said. ‘I've got my orders and I'm carrying them out.’
‘That's all I wanted to know.’
One of the camp cooks was standing at the cook-house door. He came out and cursed me soundly. He had probably seen and certainly heard what had gone on in the hut. The thuds, bangs and crashes as I came in contact with the walls and the floor must have beeen audible for some distance. At first I could not distinguish what he was saying, but the last of it I made out. He roared at me: ‘You'd let the sergeant hit you! You won't obey orders! You're worse than a bloody Hun!’
He was too far away and I did not feel up to explaining things then, so I let it go.
Soon after this, Kirwan, Briggs and I, were taken before the Colonel in command at that place. He told us we were being sent up the lines and if we did not obey orders there we would have to take the consequences.
On our arrival at Belgian Chateau, a short distance from the shell-ruined town of Ypres, we were brought before an officer whose name I have never heard. After asking us a few questions, he told us in a half-facetious manner what he thought of us.
‘Up till now you've been having a pretty easy time, and I expect you know all the estaminets about. But things are not going to be so rosy for you in the future. As for you,’ he said turning to me, ‘you should be more modest in expressing your page 121 views. Instead of saying “No” and “I won't”, you should say: “I can't”.’
My stiff and swollen jaws made speech so difficult and this irritated me so much that I have no doubt that I was abrupt and defiant.
We were all three left together in a hut and then taken, separately, before Captain Phillips. He argued with me at great length. I felt utterly disinclined for argument. It was one of the penalities to the fight, and a hard one, that I had to stand up to argument at times when I had no inclination for it and when I knew I should only make a poor showing. Phillips told me he knew all about us and that we were not regarded as sincere objectors by the New Zealand Government. As not one of us belonged to a sect according to whose tenets war is forbidden, we had no standing. I pointed out that the New Zealand Government knew long before they deported us that we were determined to stand out against all military service. It was useless for anyone to say that we were not regarded as objectors. After some discussion Phillips complained of my lack of cheerfulness. Why did I need to be so short and dsagreeable in my replies? I said: ‘This morning, before I was brought here, I was knocked down several times by blows in the face from the provost-sergeant in charge of me. My jaws are so stiff that I had hardly use them to speak; and you expect me to be cheerful! Under such circumstances would anyone be?’
He said I had brought it on myself. He went on to say that as I refused to do work under military control he would give me a chance to do something not under military control. He then gave me a document which stated that I was not under military control but under his direct control.
The following morning I was taken over to the Otago camp, a short distance away, on the other side of Ypres, and presented at headquarters as soon as I arrived. I showed Phillips' document. They took a copy of it and said they would wait until he arrived. I knew perfectly well the whole thing was farcical, but I wanted to see what they would do. Phillips arrived later in the day. He told me I could do just as I pleased, that I page 122 would not be given any orders and was to be addressed not as ‘Private’ but as ‘Mr’. He took me over to where some men were filling in shell holes with a plough. He asked me if I would direct them in preparing the land for potatoes. I would not need to do anything myself, only direct them. As I was a farmer I would know how to do this. I knew how absolutely absurd it was to think of growing potatoes there. When I passed by some days later the whole place was ploughed up again into holes by shell-fire. I asked Phillips whose control I should be under. His own private control, he said. I asked him if he really expected me to take this thing seriously. I had presented his document as soon as I arrived, I said, and had immediately been attached to a battalion which showed that the thing was worthless and would be ignored by the military authorities. As for saying I would be doing this job under his control and not under that of the army, he must know himself that it was nonsense. He was angry and showed it, but he continued to argue. To hold such views, he said, I must have lived in a very small and isolated community, completely out of touch with the views and outlook of the rest of the world. I was, in fact, mentally abnormal.
‘You admitted it, yourself, yesterday,’ he said. ‘You told me you were not normal.’ I felt this lawyer-type attempt to twist what I had said to be most unfair. He went on to say that I had become so used to standing out that I went on with it automatically without thinking the matter out or realizing that I was doing no good by it now. And because I had held out so long I found it very difficult to give in now. But that was just what he wanted me to do.
‘Do this difficult thing and you will have won a greater victory than you think. It is only your pride that is holding you back. You have made your protest. You are getting nowhere with it now.’
They were taking into consideration the fact that I had refused orders so far and were not asking me to fight. But I was in the army and whatever I did or said did not alter that fact. In the army men often had to do what they very much disliked doing.page 123
‘For example, if I were called upon to make one of a firing party to shoot my own brother I should have to do it.’
‘And would you do it?’ I asked.
‘Most certainly I should.’
‘You yourself have supplied me with an argument,’ I said, ‘and I am very much surprised that you should say it. That is the very thing which makes it impossible for me to become part of a machine which demands of men that they should do such things with unquestioning obedience. In civil life you would look upon such a thing with horror, but as part of the machine you would do it. That shows how evil the whole thing is.’ I had several interviews with him. On one occasion he asked me: ‘You want your nation to win the war?’
‘I don't want any nation to win. A decisive victory on either side will mean sowing the seeds of future wars.’
‘Is that the way you look at it?’ he said. ‘You are an obstructionist and I'd rather see you with your skull knocked in against the parapet than let you get back to New Zealand.’
I was surprised at the effect of my words. Would he have been satisfied if I had said I wanted the Allies to win? Then, of course, he would have had an argument to his hand.
‘I'm sorry you have such feelings about me.’ I said. ‘I don't feel that way about you.’
He said he would now let me know that they had had instructions from New Zealand about me.
‘These instructions are very harsh. I would not like to tell you how harsh. One thing I can tell you is that violence will be used against you if you continue to refuse orders.’
‘It has already been used against me and I am prepared for it.’
He said I must know, myself, that I would be beaten eventually; I must know that I would be broken.
‘And if I am broken, what good should I be to the authorities or anyone else?’
‘That doesn't concern us. It's your submission we want, Baxter, not your services.’
This cut me more than anything else he said. He wanted, page 124 he continued, to warn me of the position I was in. If I did manage to hold out, I would never leave the Front alive.
‘I know there are people who support you in New Zealand. Don't imagine that your story will ever reach them. Whatever happens to you you will be reported as having died or been killed on active service and these people in New Zealand will never know that you had not taken it on.’
I believed him as far as the intentions of the authorities went, but I thought, all the same, that there was some chance of news getting out. Even if I had been convinced that there was no chance at all of anything being known I would still have gone on. But I held to that hope in spite of Phillips.
At the close of our second interview he had me sent back to Belgian Chateau. Here Booth took charge of me again and informed me immediately that I was to have no food until I obeyed orders. A day or two previous to this, I had met a cousin of mine. He did not understand my attitude, but, moved by the clannishness which remains with Highlanders, even in the Colonies, he gave me ten francs. I went over to the Y.M.C.A. hut and purchased a cup of cocoa and some biscuits at the canteen. Booth had seen me coming away. He now searched me and, finding the change from the ten francs, removed it and everything else he found in my pockets. I protested. ‘It's my own private property. You've no right to it.’
But he was not bothering about rights in his pursuit of his objective, my submission, and I got no redress. He watched me carefully and prevented me from getting anything. On the evening of the third day without food, desperate with hunger, I went across to the sergeants' mess which was close to my hut, when I knew they had just finished tea, and asked the mess orderly if he had any tea left over. He said he had had orders not to give me anything, but, all the same, he would put a can outside the door and I could help myself. I had just dipped up a little tea in a tin from the bucket when Booth came up, snatched the tin from my hand and threw the contents on the ground.
The cook's dugout was in the bank of a ditch near the hut I occupied. The next day the cook called me and asked if it page 125 was true that I was getting no food. I told him how long I had been without anything.
‘I can't see a man starve,’ he said. He showed me a sort of ledge in the wall of the cook-house, and told me to watch when he gave me the tip and he would try to slip something through an opening in the wall on to the ledge. I did as directed and in a very short time he slipped out a large, newly-cooked rissole. I have never seen a rissole since without thinking of that one and the man who made it for me. It warmed me and appeased my hunger, so that I felt I could go another three or four days without food. I don't know which pleased me most, the rissole or the manly spirit of the cook. He gave me something again the following day.
Afterwards, when I saw him lifting heavy buckets of water up a slippery bank. I helped him. An officer saw this and remarked to me that he had seen me helping the cook. I explained that any such action on my part was voluntary, that I would do as I thought fit in any emergency, but would not be a cog in the military machine.
It was at this camp that I was under shell-fire for the first time. Ypres was being shelled continually and the places round about got their share of it. It had happened that all the shells I had seen up to that time had exploded at some distance from me. One night I was alone in the old tin shed I inhabited when there came a terrific roar overhead, followed by a crash and the sound of splinters falling on the iron roof. I sat on the floor of the hut and counted the explosions. There were intervals of a few minutes between them and they all seemed exactly alike, except one which made a dull, heavy thud. This one, I afterwards heard, had struck the mule stables. There were nine shells in all.
At the first crash, when the splinters began to come through the roof, I had a sensation as though all my flesh were hardening, a sensation that never came again at any subsequent experience, and a tense feeling of the need of some kind of action and of suspense between shells, owing to the fact that several minutes elapsed between each explosion.page 126
Next morning I had the luck to find an iron ration in an old disused hut. This was indeed a win. I had lit a small fire to boil some water for tea. As usual, a dog had made my acquaintance, a little fox-terrier. He was waiting for his breakfast, knowing that if I had food he would have his share. I heard a voice I knew and, turning round, saw Kirwan approaching.
I called out to him: ‘We are just about to sit down to breakfast. You are welcome to join us if your teeth are good.’
I noticed his hands were shaking.
‘Are you cold?’ I asked. ‘Come along, a drink of hot tea will warm you.’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘I'm not cold, but I'm fairly knocked out, that's all.’
I realized how far out one can be in judging by appearances. I had been inclined to think that Kirwan felt hardships and ill-treatment less than others because he expressed himself so little about it. I made jokes about the picnic party, wishing to cheer him. But he was not in the mood for jokes.
‘You're a queer chap,’ he said, ‘laughing and joking like that. I don't know how you can. I can think of nothing but standing out and what I've got to go through.’
‘That's what's the matter with you,’ I said. ‘Try to keep it off your mind. I'd go mad if I thought about it all the time.’
In the afternoon we were sent back to the Otago camp, but not together. The hut I was in was close to the one used by the sergeants—so close that I could hear them talking. I could pick out Booth's voice, loud and excited. ‘He was dragged up the duckwalk and thrown into shell-holes till he was mud from … to breakfast time and still the b—wouldn't give in. I never thought he'd hold out.’
Another voice said: ‘A pity to see such courage wasted.’
‘Courage!’ said Booth. ‘Only a madman would stand what that man stood.’
‘Will he live, do you think?’ someone asked.
‘That's for the quack to say. We're waiting for his report now.’page 127
I left the hut and asked one of the men: ‘Has anything happened to Briggs?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘he was dragged along the duckwalk and was badly injured. He's lying in the medical hut now.’
On my way over to the hut I met Booth, who told me that Briggs was in a very serious condition and was not expected to live. If he did, he was to be shot. I entered the hut. My old comrade was lying on a bunk. One glance at his face was enough to tell me the seriousness of his condition. It was the face of an old man, pale and sunken. He looked up at me and smiled, and the smile had something almost of triumph in it.
‘You've had a rough time?’ I said.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I made up my mind at the start that I'd go through with this if it cost me my life and I'm going through with it. They can't do anything more to me now, unless they kill me.’
Bit by bit, at different times, I got from him what had happened. He had refused to walk up to the front trenches when ordered to do so that morning by Captain Stevenson. Booth, who was present, had dragged him outside by the wrists, tied a long piece of cable wire round his body under the arms, and with the aid of three other men, dragged him at the end of the wire for about a mile along the duckwalk. Battens were nailed across the boards of the duckwalk at short intervals and, to make walking easier, netting wire was nailed over them in parts. Any clothing that protected his back was soon torn off, leaving it exposed naked to the battens and the wire. They dragged him like this for about a mile until they came to a large shell-hole, full of water. Here they stopped and Booth asked Briggs if he would walk now. If not, he'd go into the shell-hole. On his saying that wherever he was going he was not going to walk up, he was thrown into the shell-hole, pulled through it by the wire, dragged over the ground till they came to the next shell-hole and pulled through it in the same way.
When they got him out on the bank at the other side, they took him by the shoulders and tipped him head over heels back page 128 into the water. Just as he had managed to get his head above water and was trying to get his breath, Booth fired a handful of muck into his mouth.
‘Drown yourself, you bastard,’ he said. ‘You've not got your Paddy Webbs and your Bob Semples to look after you now.’
They dragged him out, along the ground to another shell-hole, through that in the same way, and a short distance further along the ground. Then Booth asked him if he would walk up if they took him back to camp and gave him a change over a fire. Briggs said: ‘Never, as long as I draw breath.’
He agreed to walk back to camp. When he came to try he found he was unable to and he was half carried, half dragged back by two of the men, suffering greatly in the process. Back in the hut they took his clothes away, dressed him in a fresh shirt and trousers and left him lying on the floor of the hut under a pile of blankets. After several hours the doctor had come in and exclaimed: ‘What a damned shame!’ when he saw the state of Briggs' back.
Then the orderlies had been told to get him to the medical hut and try to get some of the dirt out of the wound.
While I was in the hut the doctor came in again. I prepared to leave, but he stopped me.
‘Don't go; you can watch me dress his back.’
I don't know why he wanted me to stay. I concluded that he hoped to frighten me into submission by the sight of Briggs' condition. I may have been wrong. If it was so, he was sadly mistaken. My feelings were very far from being those of submission and fear as I looked at the huge flesh wound in Briggs' back and hip, about a foot long and nearly as wide. In spite of the attempts of the orderlies there was still a great deal of dirt in the wound. It was ground too far in to be easily taken out. That a man with such injuries should not be sent to hospital was an unheard-of thing. For reasons which, after what Phillips had told me, were fairly obvious, Briggs was never sent to hospital. That he pulled round and recovered up to a point was certainly not due to the necessarily very scanty and inadequate attention he received, but to his own good health and excellent constitution. From the very first day he had to page 129 drag himself outside to the latrines, though utterly unfit to do so.
When the doctor had finished I left, for Briggs was too exhausted by the dressing for further speech. Booth met me outside and asked me: ‘Well, have you seen your friend?’
‘I've seen some of your dirty work.’
‘That's the way you'll be tomorrow.’
I went back to my hut and was standing in the doorway when I saw two men limping across the parade-ground to where some limbers stood. They began to push one of them, but appeared unable to move it.
‘We're stuck! Give us a push, digger,’ they called out to me.
‘Wait a minute.’ I said, and walked round the building, where I came suddenly on a sergeant-major, peeping round the corner to see how things were going. He saw the game was up and called out: ‘Come along.’ to the two men. They went off without a sign of a limp and the limbers remained there until we left.
Next morning Booth came into the hut, accompanied by several men. ‘Now, Baxter,’ he said, ‘we are going to give you the father of all hidings before you leave this hut.’
‘All right,’ I said, ‘if those are your orders, I'm ready. But hold on a minute! What are you giving it to me for? What am I doing?’
Surprisingly enough, he fell flat. Up till then he had been all excitement and eagerness, his mouth open, and his lips showing moist and red against his olive skin. He rushed outside calling to the other men to bring me along. Shortly afterwards I saw him again, this time stalking Kirwan, his face lit again with the same sinister eagerness. He struck Kirwan a blow on the jaw, sending him into a clay bank near which they were standing. Kirwan picked himself up and joined me and we were taken together for some distance to where the Entrenching Battalion was working near the front lines above Ypres. Here we were separated and Booth took me before Captain Stevenson. He told me that my position was serious and the sooner I realized it the better. There was no more room for argument. Nothing I had to say mattered as I was not now page 130 in New Zealand, but in France, under shell-fire. Booth now took a hand. They were not going to ‘philander about’ with me any more. I was to be given one more chance to obey and if I didn't take it I was to be shot. The shooting would be done on the spot, by him. He had his revolver ready. He gave me an order. I refused. I don't know why he didn't shoot. I think it was not only bluff, and that at one time he meant to, if I refused.
He struck me on the mouth and ordered me again. I refused, and he struck me under the jaw, making my mouth bleed. He kept on saying: ‘Do it! Do it!’ and I kept on saying ‘No!’ Each time I said it he struck me again in the face or body.
‘You only need to work for half-an-hour,’ he said, ‘and we'll guarantee to send you sixty miles behind the lines and give you some job at the Base.’
‘Yes, I suppose they would,’ I said.
Some shells fell a short distance away.
He paused to remark: ‘Those are the damned things you're frightened of. You don't like them, do you?’
‘Who does like them?’ I asked. ‘Do you?’
He made no answer. Angry shouts began to come from the men—there were hundreds of them—working round about. Booth stopped to see whether the anger was directed against himself or me. Not being sure, he started again. This time they made their meaning clear by shouting: ‘Stop it! Do it yourself, you lazy big b—!’
He stopped at once.
‘I suppose that encourages you,’ he said, angrily. ‘I'll take you where you won't have any sympathizers,’ and he took me at a rapid pace some distance away to a pillbox.
Standing behind this we were out of sight of the men and he began again, this time punching me in the ribs, hard punches delivered in rapid succession, very many in the same place. The effect of this, besides being exceedingly painful, was irritating to the last degree. The desire to strike back was difficult to withstand. But I had made up my mind to stand it without retailiation and stand it I did. I regarded it as part of the page 131 violence which the New Zealand Government, according to Captain Phillips, had issued instructions to use against me.
At last, Booth desisted, tired out. He took me up to Captain Stevenson and they discussed me for some time. Finally, they decided to send me into the front trenches. A message was sent to the officer in charge there. The messenger returned with the reply that the officer refused to take the responsibility. On this, Booth asked Stevenson if there were any place, near at hand, that was being heavily shelled. He pointed out an ammunition dump at some distance. The Germans had got the range of it and it was being heavily shelled at intervals of about twenty minutes. He told Booth to take me across to it and leave me there. Booth told me to stay there and not to move from where he had placed me. As he hurried away, leaving me standing by the dump, he called back: ‘I hope a shell gets you and blows you to your Maker.’
I stood waiting. I could see him and he, of course, could see me, though he was well out of range. Suddenly, firing began again and the shells came thick and fast. I was in the midst of a storm of spouting, belching mud and fire and flying fragments. The shells seemed to strike everywhere but where I was. I believe that if I had moved at all from where I stood, I should inevitably have been killed. If the dump had gone up I should have gone with it. I stood and waited for what seemed inevitable death. I remember that I had very strange sensations. They were probably due to my overwrought condition. The normal instinct of self-preservation seemed for the time being to leave me entirely. I felt quite calm and peaceful and saw everything round about bathed in a bright white radiance. The whole thing felt strange and unusual, but not unpleasant. I never felt the same again when I was, at subsequent times. under heavy shell fire.
The shelling went on for some time, then ceased. Booth came hurrying back. It needed no white light to make him appear unusually pale. His lips were trembling as he tried to speak.
‘Why did you stay there? Did you want to commit suicide?’
‘You told me to stay there.’
‘You're not usually so ready to do what I tell you,’ he page 132 remarked with something like his customary sneer. ‘I believe you're mad, anyway, and I'm not going to have anything more to do with the job. Believe it or not, it's not been a job I've liked.’
I don't know that I believed him. If he had succeeded in his object he would have liked the job well enough. As it was, failure made him believe he had not liked it.
I remained with the Otagos and had nothing more to do with him. From that time I received the same food as the other men. A day or two later I saw him departing, no doubt to make his report to Simpson. He had done his best and the unpopularity he had gained in the doing of it—the camp cooks collected and counted him out the night after he had dragged Briggs—probably seemed to him most unjust. After all, he was only carrying out his orders.
Next morning I was standing in the hut alone, the others having gone out, when two men came to me and said they had orders to take me up the lines.
‘Very well,’ I said, ‘you can take me up, but I'm not taking on anything when I get there.’
All the way up they discussed my position and attitude in a very friendly manner. When we got up there the men in charge of me were told by a sergeant that he intended to give me no orders, and, on their asking what they were to do with me, he laughed and said they could show me round. Accordingly, they took me about and told me the names of the different positions; pointed out the crooked German lines and many gun positions. We spent the whole day in this way. They showed me how to duck from shell explosions and how to take cover when it seemed that none existed.
At night I went back to the camp. At this time I always slept and got my food with a hutful of men—seventeen of us there were. I found them perfectly friendly. The position of the objectors was the talk of the camp and the anger of the men was aroused against the provost-sergeant.
For a day or two Kirwan and I had been separated and I did not know what was happening to him. An officer came to me and told me Kirwan wanted to speak to me privately. He page 133 asked me to promise not to influence him in any way that would thwart their purpose. I gave no promise, but, shortly afterwards, Kirwan appeared. He told me he was being sent to a Base hospital. Before he went he wanted to know from me whether his action would make things worse for me. What could I say? I knew what he had suffered at Mud Farm and at the hands of the military police. I knew the condition he was in. What could I tell him but that he was not to worry, that his going would make no difference to my position? I would get on all right, I told him, and he should do whatever seemed best to him. Things looked pretty dark. Briggs disabled. Kirwan sent away. I would be left alone to be slowly ground down by the military machine. But I could not tell him this. I put a cheerful face on it and I think he went away less troubled than when he came.
A little later, Captain Phillips spoke to me, asked me how I was getting on and offered to get me a hut to myself. I would be much more comfortable, he said, instead of being crowded in with other men. This seemed true. I thought that at least for sleeping I would be better by myself, so I thanked him and accepted his offer. I was surprised at such consideration for me on his part, as he could not have been at all satisfied with the way things were going. I was still holding out. However, perhaps his feelings towards me had undergone a change. I moved into the other hut. I was not alone for most of that night, for two men came over and talked into the small hours. The next morning one of the men from the hut I had left came over to me.
‘You come back to us,’ he said. ‘Don't stay in a hut by yourself.’
‘Who ever heard of a man being offered a hut to himself? It's all a scheme to get you killed. Never you mind how I know. I do know. Most of us are with you, as you know, but there are some chaps who'd kill you if they thought nothing would be done to them.’ So I moved back.
The following day Phillips spoke to me again. Why had I page 134 moved? Had I been disturbed? He'd get me a dugout where I'd be certain to be undisturbed. I laughed.
‘It's very good of you to take so much trouble about me, but I prefer to be with the crowd, anyhow.’
He didn't try any more. I supposed that he wanted to prevent me from spreading my ideas among the troops.
Every day I was taken up the lines by a man told off for the purpose. Up there one day a corporal said to me, handing me a shovel: ‘Here, get onto this.’
Before I had time to refuse a sergeant said to him: ‘Here, you get onto it yourself, right now.’
The corporal obeyed at once. The sergeant went on: ‘You've had no orders to deal with him. Time enough when you have.’
An officer came up, gave my guard an order and sent him off. Then he turned to me: ‘What about you?’
I told him who and what I was and that the man he had just sent away had charge of me for the day. He called him back and asked him if this were correct.
‘Why didn't you tell me before?’
‘You didn't ask me, sir.’
‘Of course not. I knew nothing about it. Well, I don't want to have anything to do with the matter. You'd better look after your charge.’
One morning I was in the hut alone. The men were all out on the parade ground. I heard a very youthful corporal ask why I was not on parade.
‘He ought to be out.’
‘He's in that hut,’ said an officer. ‘You can order him out if you like.’
He came in and, with a terrific show of military bluff. asked why I was not on parade. I told him I had never gone on parade and did not intend to.
‘If you've never been on parade you're going now,’ he said, and ordered me out. I refused, and, looking at him quietly, said: ‘Well, I suppose it's your move now.’
His fresh fair face turned red. Without a word he walked out of the hut and was greeted with a loud laugh.page 135
A captain—I did not know him—asked me if I had a wife. When I answered in the negative, he said: ‘Well, suppose you had and you found a German assaulting her?’
‘Why a German, particularly?’
‘Well, any man, for that matter?’
‘I suppose I would act in that case like any ordinary man, but I don't see any parallel between such a case and war.’
I was prepared to show him that atrocities are perpetuated as a rule by any armies in occupation of enemy territory during war time, but he did not want to go on with the argument. If I afterwards had a son, he wanted to know, how would I reply to his question: ‘What did you do in the war?’ This ridiculous stock question always amused me.
‘My answer would be.’ I said, ‘I did my best to stop it.’
He said I was costing the New Zealand Government money. I said I had never taken a farthing from them and never intended to. It was not my fault if the nation were wasting money on the war. I was, indeed, very little worried over the question. They were destroying men, body and soul, and that was something that could not be replaced by all the money in the world.
I lived a strange life at that time. I would not serve in the army and yet I was at the Front. In one way I was isolated and alone and yet I lived the life the soldiers did. I lay in holes and trenches with them round by Hellfire Corner, hour after hour until the shelling slackened or drove us out. I was only seeing a glimpse of the war, but it was enough to bring home to me its terrible reality. I remember before I reached the Front meeting men who had been there and thinking they looked hard and strange. Their faces had a drawn look and they seemed to have eyes like eagles. Now that I was amongst them I did not notice this. They seemed ordinary, but new arrivals looked as gentle as sheep.
I will not attempt to describe the battle front above Ypres. but will try to convey the impression it made upon me. It looked as though a herd of prehistoric monsters had chewed and rooted up the earth for miles around. Not a sign of anything green and not a chance for anything to grow. It was part of the Front that had been taken and retaken so often that it page 136 presented an appearance of indescribable chaos. Everywhere there was mud and slush and men always floundering through it by tracks and duckwalks that were always being blown up. I was told that a million men had fallen there. The cemetery of a million men! It was still being shelled and the yawning mouths of the countless shell-holes were ready to suck in the living men who moved day and night among them like maggots in the slime.
I would often stand alone at night gazing at the red glare along the Front while everything vibrated to the ceaseless roar of the guns. Thoughts came to me as I stood. Every day the war lasted only made things worse for the world. Victory in the field seemed to me the worst that could happen, no matter which side won—not for lack of patriotism, but because I honestly believed it would be the greatest bar to enduring world peace. At times everything was blackest gloom without one ray of hope. The war might go on for years. I believed it could be stopped any day and that the feelings of all the peoples would be joy and relief. Why should it go on?
I discussed the war frequently with the men I happened to be with. They were not war-minded. I remember one day a padre addressing the troops. As we listened to him I heard the men around me sigh and murmur beneath their breath. The padre seemed to be out of touch with his audience and not very sure of himself. He told us that wonderful things would come out of the war, that when it was over we would be free to build a new and better world. Great spiritual blessings would spring from these times of trouble and sacrifice. Rulers were to gain great wisdom and to lead us to a condition of well-being and security that we had never dreamed of in pre-war days. I wondered as he went on word-spinning how much of it he believed himself. It was impossible to tell, for the poor man had not the freedom that I had to express himself. Was there a parson at the Front who dared to preach: ‘Thou shall not kill’, that all men are brothers and God the father of all, irrespective of race, creed or colour, and that things being so, the combatants on both sides should fraternize with the enemy? Or a parson with socialist views who dared to say to the troops page 137 that the fact that the imperialists and financiers had fallen out was no reason why the workers should be led into war to blow the souls out of one another? And what would happen to such a man? He would be brought up with a round turn, adjudged a nerve case or a mental case and so rendered harmless. To run the military machine efficiently everyone must be regimented. Beliefs on war or religion matter little but the expression of them must not be suffered to do harm.
This was the only religious address I remember hearing in France. No padre ever spoke to me personally all the time I was there. My life dragged on from day to day, each day much the same. Rations were often short up there. The other men supplemented them from the canteen, but I was unable to as I had no money, what I had having been taken from me by the police.
Every day I went up the lines with a man in charge of me. One morning we started off. following the duckwalk in a zigzag course among the shell-holes. As usual there was a certain amount of shelling going on. At a corner we came to some bodies lying side by side, wrapped up ready for burial. We walked on, glancing at them as we passed. I thought of them as individuals, of what their lives had been before, of the friends and relatives who would, in time, get this news. Not sentimentality, just as much fact as these corpses lying beside the track. I had felt the same about a dead German we had seen in a shell-hole further back, lying with his arms spread wide and the rifle still beside him. Just after we passed the corner a shell passed close to us and struck a bank a few yards to our left. We were knocked down by something—we did not know what. When the earth heaved up by the explosion had fallen again we pressed on and found that the duckwalk had been blown up in places. Arrived at the brow of a little hill, we, the man who was detailed for my escort, and I, found we had lost sight of those in front. We were walking in twos with about ten yards between each pair. Presently we saw some of them in the distance. We left the duckwalk and took a short cut over some low-lying ground to catch up with them. Halfway across my companion shouted ‘Gas!’, adjusted his box respirator and page 138 helped me with mine. I do not know whether it was defective, but I found I couldn't breathe in it, at any rate while I was moving. At the last gasp, my labouring lungs unable to draw another breath, I pulled it off. thinking I might as well take my chance with the gas as die by suffocation then and there. I could smell nothing but there was a dark blue haze floating among the shell-holes. The other man persuaded me to put it on again. It was just as bad as ever, but by the time I was forced to pull it off again, we were pretty well out of the area affected by the gas shells. It must, however, have had some effect on me. For weeks afterwards I coughed up black stuff
We could see the other men going up a hill a little ahead of us. I afterwards heard that that hill was in direct view from the German lines. Shells were bursting between us and the men ahead. We paused for a moment, doubtful what to do, then went on. Shells began to fall behind us. As we hurried up the hill they came thick and fast and gained on us. When we got to the top of the hill we met the other men coming back. The shelling was closing in on us from both sides. We were surrounded by a perfect storm of shells. We all stood for a moment huddled together, the last thing we should have done. The officer in charge of the party was standing close to me as the storm closed over us and I heard him call out: ‘Every man for himself!’ as he jumped over a bank. I had a quickened sense that something frightful was happening. The earth seemed to be like the waves of the sea, and struck me again and again. I felt a strange swaying motion, another bump and then utter darkness and suffocation. There was a violent tugging at my legs and before I could realize that I had landed head-first in the mud at the bottom of a shell-hole, I came out choking and spluttering but able to breathe.
One of the two men with me in the hole—they had tugged me out—plunged his arms nearly to the shoulders into the mud, retrieved my helmet and slapped it onto my head. The shelling was still going on. One of the men said: ‘Come on, it's no good here,’ and we scrambled out. I gave one glance up, saw dark fragments falling through the air, and looked down again. We were knocked down several times, but not page 139 one of the three of us was directly hit. We came right on a little door that seemed to lead into the earth. It was a small dug-out over the top of a shaft. One man was there at the windlass.
‘It's no good here,’ he said. ‘It won't stand a shell and I am expecting it to go any minute.’
He directed us to a place about a hundred yards further on. At that moment a shell almost blocked the entrance. We scrambled out and found the other shelter, a wooden drive with steps leading deep underground. For the present we were safe. The others took out their cigarettes and pushed handfuls into my pockets. I did not know them and I thought it probable that they did not know who I was. I did not feel I could take their help and comradeship on false pretences, so I told them I was refusing service.
‘Don't you worry,’ they said. ‘We all know about you,’ and they offered me more cigarettes.
We stayed there for about half-an-hour. Then, finding things outside were comparatively quiet, we came out. Stretcherbearers were working on the ground where we had been. We made for a point where we expected to meet the others, if there were any. We found a few men collected together and shortly afterwards the officer came up at a quick pace. We had been twenty-eight. We were now eleven. He was annoyed. Where were the others? Why hadn't they turned up? They had had plenty of time. Hadn't he given orders to meet at a certain point? They were all silent.
‘Didn't you hear my orders?’ he asked, addressing me.
‘I heard you say: “Every man for himself.”’
He turned abruptly from me to another man. ‘Well, where are the others?’
The man hesitated. ‘The stretcher-bearers would get some, perhaps, I don't know, and as for the others—well—’
The officer's face underwent a rapid change.
‘You mean they're …?’
There was silence for a minute. Then the officer in a subdued voice told them to carry on.page 140
I never saw again the man who had been with me before the shelling. As I now seemed to be in nobody's charge, I went about among the men until four of them told me to come with them. We talked and they gave me more cigarettes. It was the only way they could show their friendliness. It was useless to protest. When they left to go back to camp I went with them to where a light railway ran down the side of a valley. Shells were falling all around. The men climbed on to the trucks like a swarm of bees. I sat with some others on the engine. Shells were bursting on the line ahead. I was watching the track in front and all at once I saw that it was torn up. There was no time to do anything. The train left the rails and rolled over the bank. The engine came to a halt lying on its side, stuck in the mud. It was a scene of great confusion. A mass of struggling men were trying to extricate one another, and all around the crash of shells. Anything I did at that time was done instinctively as a man, not as a soldier, and was not what the authorities wanted.
At night I would go to the medical hut and talk with Briggs. He was recovering. Before we left, a fortnight after he had received his injuries, he was able to walk up and down a little in front of the hut. Most of the time he lay on his bunk. I brought him all the outside news, wishing to entertain him. But he found it hard to take his mind off his position. In fact, he told me, he had to concentrate all the time; it was the only way he could carry on. On the other hand, I had to think of other things and found it a great relief to do so.
As I talked, a shell screamed overhead. Instinctively I ducked.
‘What makes you do that?’ Briggs asked, annoyed.
‘It's all very well for you. I said, ‘you can't get any lower. But I've got accustomed to doing it every day, and I do it automatically.’
‘You shouldn't go up,’ said Briggs.
On that matter we never agreed. He thought I shouldn't allow myself to be taken up the lines. It seemed to me that as long as I refused all orders when I got there it didn't matter. page 141 After all it is only a matter of where one draws the line, and that, each individual must decide for himself.
Colonel Simpson came up to the camp and spoke with me. He wanted to know if he could do anything for me. Had I no communication to make to him? No complaints? He said he was tired of this punishment, punishment, and he must see the General about me.
I told him I had no communication to make to him. This was understood between us as being the polite formula for giving in. I was still of the same mind, I said.
‘You've got a mental kink,’ he said.
I told him he could think so if he liked, but that I had no kink. He departed, still talking about ‘seeing the General.’