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

II.—The Coming of Conscription

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II.—The Coming of Conscription.

Immediately following the outbreak of war in 1914, Sir James Allen, without consulting either Parliament or the people, hastened to promise to the British military authorities an Expeditionary Force of 8000 men, and to maintain this at full strength for the period of the war. No sooner was this promise made than the people were being sternly reminded that they must "honour their obligations," etc. The first Expeditionary Force numbered 7761, necessitating a monthly reinforcement of 1100 men; and, notwithstanding the almost unthinkable terms offered the volunteers, so great was the response to the call for men that the Main Body was speedily increased by additions from the Reinforcements. As a matter of fact, by the time of the Gallipoli retreat we were supplying reinforcements on a Main Body strength of 14,000 men—nearly double the number originally promised by Sir James Allen. Later this strength rose to 20,000, and still later to considerably more; until we were sending away drafts of from 2200 to 2600 men every four weeks—more than double the original reinforcements. The more thoughtful men now began to recognise that New Zealand was being bled white in the matter of the physically best of its manhood.

The 1914 General Election was fought out in December, when the war fever was at its height, and only here and there the voice of Reason found itself capable of rising above the frenzied din. The election was remarkable for the sham fight staged by the Reform and Liberal Parties; but neither Tory nor Liberal "Patriot" dared to lift a serious voice in advocacy of the imposition of Conscription. The election was no sooner over, however, than the two anti-Labour Parties began to make overtures to each other, and in due time an alliance was entered into, and the National Government was formed.

Following hard on the heels of this event, a section of the press commenced an insidious propaganda in support of Conscription for New Zealand. The best-informed men in the Labour movement had no illusons concerning the idea that was in the minds of the military propagandists. It was fairly clear that the papers wanted Conscription, not so much to defeat the Germans as to defeat the people of New Zealand.

The papers became more and more insistent in their demands, and at last certain minor politicians began to say—somewhat timorously at first, and then more brazenly—that they "would support Conscription if it should be found that we could not otherwise keep our obligations to the Empire."

It was now the task of the capitalist press to "prove" that only by the adoption of Conscription could we honour "our obligations to the Empire"; and this it proceeded to do.

When Labour began to raise its protests against the danger of page 8Prussian Militarism being fastened on this country (I had the honour, by the way, of sounding the first warning note in the leading columns of "The Maoriland Worker," of which paper I was then editor), the Tory-Liberal leaders at first denied that they contemplated such a move. A little later we found them saying that they would only resort to Conscription if it was necessary to do so to enable us to "keep our obligations to the Empire." Sir Joseph Ward was indiscreetly frank. He told a Dunedin audience that he knew that Conscription was Prussian Militarism; still, he said, in effect, he "would vote for it if it was necessary to enable us to keep our obligations to the Empire." From this more or less camouflaged attitude to the open declaration that Conscription was necessary to enable us to "honour our promises to the Empire" was but a short step. But both press and anti-Labour politicians smothered up the fact that Sir James Allen's original and unauthorised promise had been kept under Voluntaryism with interest at from 100 to 200 per cent.

Swift in the wake of the campaigning for Conscription came the intimation that a "National Register" of the country's manhood was to be taken. In "The Maoriland Worker" I voiced the protest that this was the first real step towards Conscription. Other men raised similar protests on the public platform. The Labour movement began to awaken—all too late, unfortunately. As the protests poured in, the Government deemed it advisable solemnly to pledge its word to the people that the Register was to be a purely civil census, and would not be used in any way in connection with Conscription. How flagrantly that pledge was dishonoured was demonstrated when the first Conscription ballot was drawn and it was found that the very cards signed by the men for the purposes of the National Register were the cards that were drawn by the girls from the boxes in the Statistician's office when the marble numbers were called. At all subsequent ballots the National Register cards were similarly used

All men over 19 years of age were required to register; but only from those between 19 and 45 were replies demanded as to their willingness or otherwise to undertake military service. The men of this age who registered numbered 195,341. Of these 33,785 declared that they would not undertake service at home or abroad, while 44.338 were unwilling to undertake service abroad, but stated their willingness to do home service. So that 78,123 men declared against being sent abroad for war service.

The men who expressed themselves willing to undertake military service abroad numbered 119,778. Of these a very substantial majority (61,704) were married men, while 16,876 were single men with dependents. Only 34,103 single men without dependents intimated their willingness to go abroad.

The Register was thus a clear indication that a huge majority of eligible men were against Conscription; for—side by side with the emphatic answer of the single men—there was the hard fact of the page 9Government's pledge that the Register was not to be used for military purposes, and the further fact that very many married men for obvious reasons replied "Yes," believing that the married men would never be called upon. It was at this time the general opinion that the single men would fill all the gaps.

Presuming on the "Yes" majority—an altogether misleading quantity—the Conscriptionists became more aggressive in their demands; and the Labour movement replied with the great Anti-Conscription Conference of January, 1916, at which 200 organisations were represented, and which, with one dissentient only, denounced Conscription. From this Conference was issued the memorable Anti-Conscription Manifesto, which extracted a wild scream from every profiteering interest, agent, and political lackey in the land. The Manifesto demanded the highest trade union wages for the soldiers and the commandeering of all incomes over a soldier's wage. This to ensure a semblance of "equality of sacrifice" on the part of the wealthy. A. S. Neill, the gifted author of "A Dominie Dismissed," once met a titled lady and discussed war matters with her. After she had gone he was asked what he thought of the English aristocracy, and gave his opinion in these words: "To the English aristocracy property alone is sacred. That woman has given the lives of her two sons willingly for her country, but if she were asked to give half-an-acre of her estate to help pay for the war she would go mad with rage and disgust." Captain Donald Simpson said something similar about certain profiteers in New Zealand. The thunderburst of rage and disgust which greeted the proposal of the Labour Conference to take the money of the wealthy (for whose property interests the soldiers were fighting) for war purposes left the marks of its forked lightning flame scorched black in the columns of the yellow press and burnt deep in the memories of the audiences who listened while certain anti-Christian religionists among the politicians raved on select and secluded platforms.

While the Labour Conference was discussing ways and means of saving New Zealand from the iron grip of Prussian Militarism, Mr. W. M. Hughes and Mr. W. F. Massey were meeting secretly at Auckland—undoubtedly for the purpose of discussing the application of Conscription to the Commonwealth and the Dominion. Mr. Hughes had adopted a not very courageous method of getting away from Australia. He had caused it to be known that he purposed sailing for London by a boat due to leave Melbourne. He had organised a send-off for himself at Sydney station, and had steamed outward and southward to the stage-managed cheers of his official admirers. He had gone a few miles out of Sydney, and had then left the train, and, returning to the metropolis, had been taken in a launch to the Auckland boat lying in the stream, leaving the Germans to believe he was sailing from Melbourne, and consequently leaving the Melbourne boat to be regarded as lawful prey by the submarines if they really wished to page 10get Mr. Hughes—a matter about which I have my own doubts. At Auckland, as I have indicated, Mr. Hughes was secretly met by Mr. Massey. The Censorship was employed to prevent the people of this country from knowing that Mr. Hughes was here or that he and Mr. Massey were conferring. The following telegram, dated January 22, 1916, was sent to the editors of the various papers:—

"The Hon. Mr. W. M. Hughes, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, is arriving in New Zealand shortly. You are strictly prohibited from making any mention, reference, or allusion to this fact or to his movements whilst in the Dominion or to his departure there-from.

C. H. Gibbon, Colonel, Chief of the General Staff, and Military Authority under the War Regulations Act."

After his meeting with Mr. Massey—a conference which, no doubt, had to do with the subsequent military history of this country—the Australian Prime Minister sailed for London, where to the British Militarists he duly pledged the country he nominally represented to adopt Conscription. On the strength of his military policy he was lionised in certain Quarters and actually taken seriously. But his stock fell when he failed on his return to Australia to make good in the matter of his rash promises. Happily for the cause of human freedom, however unhappily for Mr. Hughes, his own party promptly dealt with him for his apostasy, repudiated his pledge for the Prussianising of Australia, compelled him to submit the matter of Conscription to a vote of the people (by whom it was twice decisively rejected), and eventually hurled him in disgrace and political dishonour from their ranks and left him hissing and spitting vituperatively from the outer darkness at the working men he had successfully duped for over twenty years.