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

XIV.—Periods of Suspense

XIV.—Periods of Suspense.

From time to time scraps of information filtered through concerning the deported men, mostly in surreptitiously-sent letters from soldiers on active service and sometimes at the hands or returning soldiers. One of these latter brought me the ticket giving the "Result of N.Z. Medical Board, Etaples, 9/10/1918," in Mark Briggs's case. It is signed by Major Bowerbank, and bears out Mark Briggs's statement.

The parents and other relatives and friends of the deported men—overwhelmed with anxiety—were making every effort to ascertain their fate, for a considerable time without success. Relatives of several of the men wrote to me repeatedly to the effect that they could obtain no information.

On May 31, 1918, Mr. Ballantyne's parents were forwarded the following communication from the Base Records Office, "Wellington: "The latest entry on your son's record here shows that he was transferred to the Canterbury Regiment on the 11th October, 1917, and that on the 14th November, 1917, he was tried by field general court-martial and sentenced to five years' penal servitude, which sentence was commuted by Lt.-General Sir A. J. Godley to two years' imprisonment with hard labour."On August 13.1918, Mrs. Ballantyne wrote to Sir James Allen:

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"Can you give me some information about my son, Garth C. Ballantyne, who was deported. It is now 13 months since you sent him away, and in all that time I have received only two letters from him: one written on the voyage and one from a military prison in France, dated December 12, 1917. Since then I have had no letters from him, and as I am absolutely certain he would write if allowed and if still alive, you will understand I am terribly anxious. Last month I received a notice from Base Records that he had been in hospital five months previously. Such information was, of course, so old that it was worse than none. I notice that you stated publicly that you were arranging for parents to get news of their sons every three months, and should like to know when we may expect this news."

Sir James replied on August 18, denying that any restriction was placed on the correspondence of the Objectors, and, after givens one or two very meager items of information, concluded: "I have asked that reports shall be forwarded to New Zealand from time to time respecting soldiers who have refused to perform military duties, but no report has yet reached me concerning your son." A feature of this letter is the studied references to "Private" Ballantyne, and the persistent use of the term "soldier," as though the object of the letter was to impress upon the stricken mother the fact that the military authorities were determined that she should be made to feel that her son was a "soldier." and not a Conscientious Objector.

On August 27, 1918, Mrs. Ballantyne wrote again to Sir James Allen challenging his statement to the Orphans' Club that everyone of the fourteen "were now fighting with their units," and mentioning that since her last letter she had had a few lines from her son, who wrote from prison and gave no indication that he intended "fighting with his unit." Mrs. Ballantyne added: "You expressed a hope that 'some day the story of the Conscientious Objectors would be written.' Your wish will be gratified, for it is being written even now, and when the time comes for it to be published it will not be the C.O.'s who will be shamed, but the Government that has so ill-treated them." For Sir James's edification she quoted from the writing of a Religious Objector: "German atrocities! Are the people's eyes in this country so fixed on France that they cannot see what is going on in their own land?"

Repeatedly I endeavored to secure definite information concerning the deportees, but without avail. Towards the close of the 1918 second session (see Hansard, vol. 183, page 1091), I asked the Minister of Defence: "(1) Whether he will furnish a report as to the number of members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces who have been subjected to the punishment known as crucifixion or Field Punishment No. 1? (2) Whether Mark Briggs, one of the fourteen Conscientious Objectors deported last year, is now in hospital and classed C2 and permanently unfit; and, if so, when will he be returned to New Zealand? (3) Whether he will call for a full report in connec-page 53tioan with the case of Mark Briggs, and also a return showing the number of New Zealand Conscientious Objectors subjected to Field Punishment No. 1?"

The Hon. Sir J. Allen (Minister of Defence) replied: "(1) Field Punishment No. 1 is sparingly inflicted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. If the honorable gentleman will move for a return of the number or soldiers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces who have been subjected to Field Punishment No. 1 the matter will be considered. (2) The Military Service Act does not recognize the 'Conscientious Objector'; it recognizes only the 'Religious Objector." It is incorrect to term the fourteen men who were embarked on the 17th July-, 1917, 'Conscientious Objectors': there were five 'Religious Objectors' who had failed to satisfy the Military Service Boards, and the remainder were 'Defiant Objectors,' including four deserters. Mark Briggs was one of the 'Defiant Objectors'; no advice has been received that Mark Briggs is now in hospital and classed C2 and permanently unfit. (3) Mark Briggs was an auctioneer, of Palmerston North, and was drawn in the third ballot. He appealed on the grounds of public interest and hardship, but did not appear in support of his appeal, which the Military Service Board dismissed. He was sent into camp, and refused to obey orders, and was court-martialled in New Zealand for disobedience. He was embarked on the 17th July, 1917; refused duty on the transport, and was awarded 28 days' detention on the 15th September, 1917; arrived in Sling on the 25th September; proceeded overseas on the 20th October, 1917, and was posted to 3rd Battalion, Auckland Regiment, on the 11th December, 1917; by orders dated the 21st January, 1918, it appears that he was awarded 28 days' Field Punishment No. 1. Unless the fourteen men embarked on the 17th July, 1917, are regarded as 'Conscientious Objectors' (which would be incorrect), no New Zealand 'Conscientious Objectors' have been subjected to Field Punishment No. 1.

"In the middle of 1918, several returned soldiers came to my residence at Brooklyn and recounted to me some of the tortures inflicted upon Mark Briggs. On the strength of their report, I made my statement on the floor of the House on the night of December 6, 1918, during the course of my speech in opposition to the third reading of the Bill to deprive Conscientious Objectors of their franchise and civil rights generally, when I said: "Take one particular case-that of Mr. Mark Briggs, one or the fourteen men deported… On one occasion he was dragged with ropes around him through shell craters and left almost for dead-not by the soldiers, but by the military police-and the soldiers were so exasperated that on that particular night they went round with hand grenades looking for the police; so great was the respect which Briggs had won from the soldiers themselves by the attitude he had taken up. Fortunately, the police were out of the way, and nothing happened." In due time the deported men began to arrive back in New Zea-page 54land, and it was then that their friends found themselves listening to calmly-told stories of atrocities perpetrated and brutalities endured-stories woven out of a period of wretchedness in which the wild spirit of the primitive actuated the torturers and the firm purpose of a lofty principle inspired the tortured stories to make the blood run cold with horror or flame righteously into indignation and shame. Ana it is here that I purpose letting three of the men who endured write into this history the honest language——there of the men who, out of the night that covered them, "black as the pit from pole to pole," had reason to thank "whatever gods there be" for their unconquerable souls. The three chapters which follow are from the pens of Messrs. Briggs, Baxter, and Ballantyne. Others of the fourteen may have other narratives to startle all that is best in New Zealand out of a lethargy that is twin to Oppression. When these statements are read, there will be no righteously-minded man or woman who, having read them, will not register deep vows before the high altars of Humanity that never again shall the dreadful atavism of such a system be permitted to steal from the jungle and fasten its fangs in the fair white throat of our civilization.