Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"
So wide was the interest aroused, so great the indignation awakened, because of the treatment of the C.O.'s that towards the close of February. 1918—on the eve of the Wellington North by-election—the Government deemed it advisable that Sir James Allen should issue an official statement covering their cases. The document consisted of eight pages of printed foolscap, and purported to be a statement "as to Objectors generally and the fourteen Objectors who were embarked for service abroad in July, 1917."
On the front page of this somewhat involved and unfortunately inaccurate and contradictory document, the question was asked: "What has the Defence Department done which it should not have page 45done?" and, still more ludicrously, on the same page it was proclaimed, with apparent seriousness: "If responsible authority is to knuckle under to insubordination the whole fabric of the British Empire would crumble into chaos."
Readers should take the trouble to secure copies of this very remarkable document for themselves. It is not possible in the pages of this book to devote any large amount of space to its discussion. I purpose merely dealing with several of its most prominent inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and contradictions.
One of the first of these has to do with the religious bodies. Sir James declared that "the only religious bodies which have so far satisfied the Boards as to their right to exemption are the Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Quakers." Still, as the records will show, quite a number of Quakers, and, I think, also Seventh Day Adventists and Christadelphians, found the prison gates slammed behind them.
The Minister was at much pains to controvert the facts set forth in Mr. Garth Ballantyne's letter as to the position and ventilation of the "clink" on the transport, which Sir James endeavoured to show was all that could be desired. The obvious answer to Sir James on this point is that Mr. Ballantyne and the other Objectors were in the "clink" and Sir James was not. The men who spent three weeks in the place are entitled to have their word taken in preference to that of the politician who had frequently admitted that he had neither facts nor information concerning the Objectors.
In his statement Sir James Allen declared that if the objectors were forcibly dressed in khaki it was because their own clothes were condemned by the medical officer. But the Minister neglected (perhaps wisely so) to explain why, if their clothes were so condemned, they were permitted to have them back after the first forcible dressing, and why they were permitted to wear the condemned clothes until Capetown was reached.
Sir James quoted a report from General Godley, in which the General stated that two Generals (whose names are for some reason withheld) desired that the Objectors should be sent with drafts in the usual way "and treated like any other soldier." To this, however, General Godley said he did not consent, and it is clear that his reason for not agreeing was not because of any desire to respect the conscientious objection of the men conserned, but because if they were sent with drafts "the inevitable result of it would be that they would either desert or else refuse to go up to the trenches when ordered, and would then be shot for refusing to do duty in the face of the enemy." and General Godley thought that this would be the very worst thing that could happen—it "would make martyrs of them."
In a report of a week later, if Sir James Allen's statement is correct, General Godley intimated that "all the Conscientious Objectors sent from New Zealand, except two, have agreed to do duty page 46either in the infantry or as stretcher-bearers." it will be seen that the General makes no fine distinctions, such as Mr. Massey and Sir James Allen sought to draw at this end. He recognises all the fourteen as genuine Conscientious Objectors. He attributes "the conversion to a reasonable attitude of the majority of these men to the fact that they were separated and posted to different companies and units." It had been recognised that strength is born of association, and that the men could never be broken down while they were together. But the General is silent on the dreadful experiences the Objectors were called upon to undergo—experiences in which Sir James Allen may at this late hour be able to discern "the process of their conversion," which he told the Orphan Club he did not know.
In this same report of General Godley's, after notifying that all but two had given in, there is another notification to the effect that, "in addition to the two Conscientious Objectors mentioned, there have been three others who have been treated like any other soldier, and have had to be tried by courtmartial in France on a charge of disobedience to an order." that the Court had found them guilty and condemned them to five years' penal servitude, and that he had commuted the sentence to two years' hard labour, with a recommendation that this be "suspended" to three months if their conduct in prison was good. This was another phase of "the process of their conversion."
In this latter part of General Godley's report there was one important omission and two most extraordinary contradictions. The General omitted to say that a New Zealander sentenced under the military law to more than two years could not have been held in a French military prison, and would have had to be returned to New Zealand to serve the sentence. The report that the three men sentenced were treated "like any other soldier" furnishes a complete contradiction of the General's report of only a week earlier, in which he says he would not agree to the suggestion of the two other Generals that the Objectors should be treated "like any other soldier." Yet another contradiction is apparent when he says first that all the Objectors brought from New Zealand but two have given in and then reports that three others have been sentenced by courtmartial because they would not give in. In compiling his second report the General must surely have forgotten all about the earlier one.
As further showing the extreme carelessness with which the official statement must have been prepared, it may be mentioned that Sir James Allen's assertion that Mr. Garth Ballantyne was drawn in the first ballot was altogether wrong. Mr. Ballantyne was drawn in the second ballot. Sir James said: "He appealed on the grounds that his calling up was contraary to public interest because of his occupation and a hardship to his employers, a firm of surveyors. He was represented by a prominent Wellington solicitor, his case was carefully fought out, and the question of religion or conscientious objection was page 47never raised." This is almost a complete mass of inaccuracies. It is true that Mr. Ballantyne lodged an appeal, but he did not think it worth while to appear. He was not "represented by a prominent Wellington solicitor." nor by anyone else; neither was his case "carefully fought out." His employer engaged the solicitor and appealed to the Court on the ground that Ballantyne, who was a surveyor, was engaged on work of national importance. When a telegram was sent by the military authorities to Mr. Ballantyne asking why he did not parade, he replied, briefly: "Conscientious Objector."
In view of these and other facts, it is not a matter for wonder 'that the time came when Defence Department statements concerning the Conscientious Objectors were received with little or no credence.
Meanwhile, the deported men were undergoing tortures and experiencing tyrannies that should make every freedom-loving man and woman in New Zealand ashamed to remember.