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

XIII.—The Process of Conversion

XIII.—The Process of Conversion.

Speaking at the Orphan's Club on August 25, 1918, Sir James Allen (designated Orphan Allen) is reported by the Wellington "Dominion" to have said: "Some time ago fourteen Objectors went to the front, and every one of them are now fighting with their units. The process of their conversion he did not know." The grammar of this sentence may with fairness be debited to the "Dominion." But for the inaccuracy of it the Minister must carry the responsibility. My information is that only one of the fourteen men took a gun, that others, also surrendering to that cruel "process of conversion" which Sir James Allen told the Orphans he did not know (but which will be made perfectly clear in these pages), accepted ambulance or other non-combatant work, while some went to the brink of Hell and the borderland of Death and still did not yield to the military "process of conversion." The letters which follow—as well as others quoted in my controversy with Mr. Massey—will give some indication of what that "process"' amounted to. The statements of Messrs. Briggs, Ballantyne, and Baxter in later chapters will make the "process" still clearer.

A soldier who went home with the same draft as the C.O.'s, writing from Sling Camp on October 12, 1917, to the secretary of his Union in Southland, first of all explained that there was a strike on the boat which carried the C.O.'s away. The quality of the stew supplied to the soldiers formed the basis of this upheaval, and the men "had a win." Then he described the death at sea of one of the soldiers, who had been parading sick every morning, but who nevertheless page 48was ordered into a cold shower bath at six in the morning (as all the men were). The sick man did not want to go into the shower, but "orders are orders here.' He eventually took the shower, "went info the hospital at 3 in the afternoon, died at 8, and was over the side at 11." The soldier then furnishes an account of the treatment accorded the C.O.'s and particularly the incident of their being placed on the passenger deck after being forcibly dressed. He bitterly complains that the Norman Castle carried "eight hundred troops and over a hundred passengers," and says he assumes that this was the reason why Germany took to sinking what were supposed to be passenger boats.

L. J. Kirwan wrote to his brother from Sling Camp on September 26. 1917:—"I am being sent to France to-night… Our days are numbered Man's life is not worth much in France. I cannot tell you how we have been treated…. I am not allowed to write what I would like to, for it would get torn up by the censor. 'Life is real, life is earnest; and the grave is not its goal.'"

On October 26, 1917. T. P. Harland wrote from Sling Camp: "Since last writing I have to inform you that Ballantyne and Briggs (C.O.'s) have been sent to France with full pack up. I am not sure whether Maguire has been sent yet. I applied for leave to visit London, but was refused because I would not drill, otherwise fuller information would have been available. If you did not receive my previous letter, please allow me to repeat that Little and Baxter were sent to France with full pack up and handcuffed. As to the position with regard to Penright and Adin I have no information."

On October 26, 1917, Harry Pattan wrote to his brother from Sling Camp: "I am being taken to France to-night under arrest. I don't know what they are going to do with me there, but you will perhaps hear some day. I shall not take up a rifle or anything like that."

"The Friend," 30th November, 1917. published the following:—Harry Rattan, one of the New Zealand C.O.'s sent to France, writes: "I received your letter yesterday; it gave me a great deal of comfort. I am in an isolation camp at present at Etaples for 21 days. Three of us reached Etaples on 28th October, refused to parade, and were taken before an officer. The other two took on stretcher-bearing in the R.A.M.C. Three were placed in a tent by ourselves for three days and then transferred to the R.A.M.C. I refused to parade, and was taken before the officer. He told me I bad been transferred to the R.A.M.C., and that I would be saving life. I told him anything I did in the military was helping to take life, and that I would not do it, so I was put into the guardroom for a few days. Then I was ordered out with a pack on. I refused, and the pack was fastened to me. I refused to walk with the pack, and was dragged about two hundred yards and placed in a tent. For three days I was ordered to parade every day; Kept refusing; had officers to see me, trying to talk me round; taken before a chaplain, gave him my views; was placed in page 49detention. They tried to get me to work in the garden; refused. Then measles broke out. There is another C.O. in the guardroom named Briggs, who has relations in Yorkshire. Three other C.O.'s have been sent up to the fringe-line—Little, Baxter, and Ballantyne. I don't know what has become of them. The officer told me I would be sent up there, too, and would probably be shot. The two in the R.A.M.C. have refused to take the oath or to take pay; so I don't know how they will get on."

On December 12, 1917, Fred Adin wrote from Sling Camp to his sister: "I hope you won't think ill of me for doing what I have done, but it was a matter of life or death. A few weeks more of imprisonment would have killed me. I was nothing but skin and bone when I came out of the hospital, and I could not have stood it if I had gone back to prison. Nobody knows what we put up with on the trip across and after we arrived here. I could tell you something that would startle you, but it is over now, so I will say nothing about it.'" He then went on to say that he hoped his action would not make it harder for his two brothers C.O.'s in New Zealand. Writing to his mother he said: "Now I have given in I shall be able to write to you" showing that he was not allowed to write while refusing service.

On March 5, 1918, from "Somewhere in France," Archibald Baxter wrote to his parents in Dunedin: "My Dear Father and Mother, I have just time to send you this brief note. I am being sent up the lines to-morrow. I have not heard where Jack and Sandy are. As far as military service goes, I am of the same mind as ever. It is impossible for me to serve in the army. I would a thousand, times rather be put to death, and I am sure that you all believe the stand I take is right. I have never told you since I left N.Z. of the things I have passed through, for I know how it would hurt you. I only tell you now, so that, if anything happens to me, you will know. I have suffered to the limit of my endurance, but I will never in my sane senses surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like a cancer on the world. I have been treated as a soldier who disobeys (No. 1 Field Punishment). That is hard enough at this time of the year, but what made it worse for me was that I was bound to refuse to do military work, even as a prisoner. It is not possible for me to tell in words what I have suffered. But you will be glad to know that I have met with a great many men who have shown me the greatest kindness. I know that your prayers for me are not in vain. I will pray for you all to the last; it is all I can do for you now. If you hear that I have served in the Army or that I have taken my own life, do not believe that I did it in my sound mind. I never will."

On May 14, 1918, the Base Records Office, Wellington, forwarded a communication to Mr. Baxter's father as follows: "Dear Sir, Re 47841 Pte. Archibald Baxter, I have to advise you that a cablegram has been received from overseas, stating that the above-named soldier page 50was admitted to hospital, United Kingdom, and that his mental condition was causing anxiety. I sincerely trust that with care, rest and attention, Pte. Baxter will soon be restored to his natural condition.

" On September 4, 1918, Garth Ballantyne wrote from France to his mother: "Little and I joined up with the Division about five days ago. We came at a bad time, as they were in the middle of a big stunt. I am now stretcher-bearing in the Hawke's Bay Co., 1st W.I.B. We both worked on the same stretcher most of the time, I myself coming through so far untouched, but Little was wounded two days ago. He was hit with a machine gun bullet while he and I and two others were attempting to get another man out…. I thoroughly hate the whole business, although in this particular job there is the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping other poor fellows who are suffering."

In October, 1918, Sir James Allen found it necessary to issue a second printed document containing "official statements" as to the case of Archie Baxter and the remainder of the fourteen deportees. This new "statement" contained the allegation that Baxter "is apparently of a surly, morose disposition, and does not say much." Sir James further declared that "the medical examiners found that he was not insane, and that he did not require to be sent to a hospital, mental or otherwise." In view of this statement, it was surely cruel and bordering on the brutal to notify Mr. Baxter's parents (as was done on May 14, 1918) to the effect that he had been "admitted to hospital, as his mental condition was causing anxiety."

Sir James Allen, in the official statement referred to, proceeded to explain the nature of Field Punishment No. 1, and resented the term of "crucifixion" applied to this form of punishment. He omitted to say that the British soldiers in the first place and the British militarists of the Blatchford type in the second place were responsible for this term. Sir James Allen's explanation went to show that an offender sentenced to Field Punishment No. 1 "may be Kept in irons, "and "when in irons he may be attached for a period or periods not exceeding two hours in any one day to a fixed object, but he must not be so attached during more than three out of any four consecutive days nor during more than 21 days in all." It was further explained that although "irons should be used when available," when irons are not available "straps or ropes should be used."

The soldiers called it crucifixion because the men punished were often lashed to the wheels of gun carriages, with arms and legs extended, as though the victim were on a cross. But Sir James Allen refrained from explaining this. A British soldier-a well-to-do business man, who enlisted during the early part of the war-was subjected to this atrocious treatment, and died under it. His "offence" was that he had lost his gas helmet. The matter was ventilated in the House of Commons, and fiercely denounced by Robert Blatchford in the "Sunday Pictorial." I had, on every occasion on which I made page 51reference to this matter, insisted that the N.Z. Government should intimate to the Imperial authorities that it would not tolerate the infliction of such a barbarism on any man from these shores, whether soldier or CO.

On September 16, 1918. there came from Little's mother at Hiku-rangi to Ballantyne's mother at Wellington a brief note with a heartbroken message: "Just a line to let you know we have just received a wire saying that our dear boy died of wounds on September 4. The cruel brutes! We may never know how he died."

On November 22, 1918, Garth Ballantyne wrote from France to his mother: "At last the long-looked-for time has arrived, and hostilities have ceased. Peace should be finally settled before long. The censorship has been slightly lifted, and we can now say where we are and where we have been. I have just received very bad news. Wm. Little died from the wound I told you he received. I have written to his mother, giving her as many details as I could…. At least, he died trying to save life and not trying to take it…. Sanderson has been sent to a convalescent home. I have also heard that Gray was for some reason returning. Perhaps you will hear from him. He could tell you much that would interest you."