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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

X.—"The Best Pantomime."

page 33

X.—"The Best Pantomime."

The political appointment of Mr. A. L. Herdman, Attorney-General in the National Government, to a Supreme Court Judgeship necessitated a by-election for Wellington North, to fill the vacancy thus created. This election took place on February 28, 1918. It was my privilege to carry the Labour standard in that memorable conflict, and I determined to make the Government's treatment of the Conscientious Objectors a leading issue in the campaign. Accordingly, in the course of my opening speech in the Town Hall Concert Chamber, Wellington, on February 7, I made this a part of my indictment of the Government. I went fully into the circumstances connected with the deportation of the fourteen men, and dealt also with the treatment of men in detention and prison in New Zealand, challenging the Government to set up a Royal Commission, not a military tribunal, to investigate my charges, The hall was crowded to overflowing, many scores of people having been unable to gain admission; and it was significant that there was no dissentient voice raised against my denunciation of the Government's policy. Among the matters I placed before the electors was the following letter, written to me by a soldier, and dated Featherston, February 3:—

"Sir,—I want to tell you what happened to four Conscientious Objectors who arrived here (Featherston Camp clink) on Thursday last—three days ago. They were not allowed very long to get used to their new surroundings before they were called out and marched off; first, I presume, to the doctor for medical inspection, and then to the Q.M. stores, where, I suppose, an attempt was made to get them to sign for a uniform. This, they told us on returning, had been refused, each of the four standing on his dignity as a Christian and civilian. One of them had refused to submit to a medical examination, and force was resorted to. Again they were not left long in peace before they were ordered out and marched off and subjected to a preliminary trial for refusing to obey a lawful command, etc., and remanded till the following morning, when they were again duly marched off under escort like criminals, and charged before the officer commanding. He considerately gave them a further remand for 24 hours to enable them to consider or reconsider their attitude. This was on Friday: on Saturday they were again marched off and the four were tried together. They were awarded 168 hours' detention, and marched back to the clink. It now seemed that the 'heads' had finished their share towards administering the Military Service Act. Shortly after they had been delivered to the sergeant of the guard, an underling in the shape of a n.c.o. came bouncing right into the clink, had them brought before him, and gave them what he called his mind in language which must have been extremely edifying to Christian men. He then told them he had finished with words, and would try what action page 34would do. He told them he was first going to have them medically examined. Three of the men expressed their readiness, and one again objected as a civilian. 'All right,' said the soldier; 'we are going to do it supposing we have to put the handcuffs on.' and off they were marched. They were examined—one by force—and marched back. And now, bow your heads in shame everyone, and read what happened in a military camp in New Zealand. The n.c.o. came in again, called in the sergeant of the guard, who had with him four suits of military denims or overalls. To each man in turn he offered a suit, and each man in turn refused, the n.c.o. then took out his watch and gave them ten minutes to take off their civilian clothes and don the denims or have it done by force. Needless to say, no notice was taken either of the demins or the threat, but back the n.c.o. came. 'The ten minutes are up,' he said; 'now we'll try action.' He then ordered each man into a close confined cell, bolted the door and locked the bolt—the cells are approximately 8ft. x 6ft., there is a bunk 2ft. wide on one side running the 8ft. way, leaving a floor space of 8ft. x 4ft. The n.c.o. then had three military police brought in, along with three soldiers, men of the guard, and the order was given to open one door at a time and 'strip the b——s.' In the first two instances, the men allowed their clothes to be turn off much as a dead sheep allows Its skin to be taken; the third man stood to attention for the first time, and warned the attacking party that he would resist, although he said he intended to hurt no one. The whole six men were employed to strip him, and whilst the struggle was on the n.c.o. stood outside the door and urged them on saying: 'Give the b—— one up if he is such a damned fool, right to the b—— jaw, that'll stop him; frog-march him, one of you sit on his back and another on his head. After they had stripped him, the gallant n.c.o. asked him how he liked 'action,' and the man's answer was. 'I suppose you are proud of your day's work? 'Yes.' said the n.c.o.; 'it was the best b—— pantomime I ever saw. There is only one thing I'd enjoy better, and that is to shoot you, you b——, with your back to the wall. I'd do it and feel proud.' His door was then locked, and the inner door dividing the clink proper from the cells was closed in our faces before the fourth door was opened, and our view shut off. I called through the closed wooden partition to the fourth man, who was a Religions Objector: 'Demand a witness, comrade.' but he didn't do so. I heard him say he would not resist, 'but.' he said, 'in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is our Saviour. I forbid you to touch me.' The answer of the n.c.o. to this was; We have taken, vows as well as you and we are obeying orders.' Thus ended this glorious day of militarism. Each man had the suit of denims thrown into him as his civilian clothes were taken away. The men, with one exception, are still in their underpants and shirts; one of them—the one who won't sign anything—is left without a blanket at night; this man also refuses to eat anything while he is close confined. The men are not at all page 35down-hearted; they continue to sing their hymns—all joining in. If you can't publish this, for God's sake do something. There were four other witnesses."

The statements contained in this letter are substantiated by another letter from the "clink" of the same camp on the same date, the writer (the Religious Objector mentioned by the soldier) being one of the founders of the Richmond Mission. Extracts from this Religious Objector's letter were read before the Defence Expenditure Commission to prove the useless expense of such a system. On hearing the extracts read, one of the Commissioners remarked: "You will never make a soldier of that man."

The soldier's letter to myself is also borne out by the statement of Mr. J. K. Worrall, the CO. referred to as having been forcibly stripped by six men.

The result, of the contest for Wellington North—hitherto a Tory stronghold—staggered the Government. In 1914 the votes cast for the Tory and Liberal candidates represented in the aggregate a majority of more than 4700 over the votes cast for myself as Labour candidate. In 1918 the combined Tory-Liberal majority was only 412. In the three other by-elections which followed in 1918—Grey, Wellington Central and Wellington South—the Government's military policy and its treatment of the Conscientious Objectors was made a fighting issue, and in each case the Government was decisively beaten (with absolute majorities), notwithstanding that the forces of Toryism and Liberalism in each case combined.

Immediately following my opening meeting in the Wellington North campaign, some of my statements were challenged by the Prime Minister in the daily press, and the controversy recorded in the next chapter followed.