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

XXIV.—Wanganui Revelations

XXIV.—Wanganui Revelations.

I have already mentioned that the treatment of the Conscientious Objectors was made a part of the Labour Party's indictment of the National Government in the Grey campaign. My last election address in that fight was delivered at Reefton on the eve of the polling day, May 27. On my arrival at Reefton I found that Mr. Mark Fagan, secretary of the Inangahua Miners' Union, had that day received letter from Mr. Harry Wilson, a member of the Union, and also a CO., describing the treatment of himself and other C.O.'s at Wanganui Detention Prison. Mr. Wilson's letter was dated May 23, and had been written from Alexandra Detention Barracks at Wellington. He first of all recounted his own experiences after being drawn in the ballot and while "wanted," his arrest, his first sentence of 28 days' detention, his second refusal to accept the kit, and his consequent remand for court-martial, which trial he was awaiting at the time of writing. He casually mentioned that he had met quite a number of C.O.'s since he had been seized—"men who have completed eleven months' sentences and are back again for their two years"—and then proceeded to say:—

"We spent part of our detention at Wanganui Barracks, and that is what I want to let you know most about, as I think it wants as much light thrown on it as possible. I want you to give Harry Holland the following particulars regarding the conduct of that place so that he may be able to use it in his election campaign, though I am afraid there will not be very much time after this arrives, still I hope he will make the most of it there, and also through the medium of 'The Worker.' What I have to complain about is the treatment meted out to Conscientious Objectors at Wanganui. Half-a-dozen of us, including three C.O.'s, were taken up there a little over three weeks ago, evidently with the intention of breaking us in. We had not been in the place an hour when I was given three days 'dummy' on bread and water for refusing to 'Sir' the officer in charge, and next page 127day Tom Moynihan was handed out forty-eight hours of the same for some like trivial offence. I had three days' fast and Tom had nothing to eat while he was in either. Dry bread does not appeal very strongly to either of us. We had not been out twenty-four hours before I fell foul of the officer again and this time was ordered two hours' pack drill. To do pack drill the victim must have a uniform, and as I had none they decided to get one for me. When it arrived, I refused to put it on, but that did not trouble them much; they just chucked me around the cell a bit to let me know they were not joking, and when I still refused to change, one brave hero went and got a pair of handcuffs, and after cuffing my hands behind my back, stood me on my feet, and then playfully bashed my head against the wall, stunning me for a few seconds. They continued knocking me about a while longer, and then decided, as I would not put the uniform on, to put it on for me, which they did, being not over gentle in the operation.

"The next one to be operated on was Tom Moynihan. Tom is well known on the Coast. They brought him a uniform one Sunday morning and ordered him to dress in it. Of course, Tom was having none, so three or four hopped into him, and after handing out punches and kicks, one of which landed over the heart, and which he still feels the effects of, they put the uniform on him and ordered him two hours' pack drill. He refused to carry a rifle and also refused to march, so they tied the gun to his side, and then started him off round the yard, by turns pushing, punching, kicking, and dragging him by the hair of his head. Whenever they pushed him off his feet, as they did on several occasions, they put the boot into him until he got up again. This sort of thing went on for over an hour, and the language of the whole crowd was absolutely disgusting. Rather nice exercise for Sunday morning.

"The next victim, a new arrival, was dealt with the next evening less than an hour after he arrived. They introduced a little variation for him. Instead of the gun and pack, they handcuffed him and then proceeded to drag him round with ropes round his neck until he could scarcely stand; they also made a point of pushing him against the wall at each turn, so that by the time they had finished both sides of his face were like a piece of raw steak. To finish up with they gave him a cold bath.

"When the rest of us went out to wash (we were always locked up when any business of this kind was on), we saw splashes of blood all round the yard and also on the walls…. If these outrages were perpetrated by Germans they would be condemned as brutal atrocities; but, of course. I am sure the people of New Zealand do not know what is going on in Wanganui, and it is up to those of us that do know to expose it as much as possible and also demand an enquiry into the treatment of Objectors in that hell, otherwise they will go just a little too far one of these days and kill somebody….

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Perhaps the Military authorities imagine they are making soldiers by this sort of treatment, but, as far as I can see, they are just manufacturing rebels. Lieutenant Crampton is in charge of the Barracks.

"Hoping this arrives in time for Harry to make use of it, and also hoping he sends it along for all it is worth. With regards to old chums, sincerely hoping they are all doing well and keeping fit.

—I remain, fraternally yours


Harry Wilson.

"The following is the list of those who were witnesses to what occurred, and who authorise me to sign their names:—Jim Casey, Thos. Moynihan, R. G. Halkett, J. Boyle, A. Beaton, J. Fitzpatrick, T. Bell, H. Wilson."

That evening I quoted for the benefit of a crowded meeting the statement contained in Mr. Wilson's letter. This was the first occasion on which a public exposure was made of the Wanganui cruelties. On reaching Christchurch, on my way back to wellington after the election had been won, I received a letter from Mrs. Beck (secretary of the Women's International League), who had received a similar letter to that sent to Mr. Fagan and who urged that I should endeavour to arrange a deputation to Sir James Allen for the purpose of both protesting against and ventilating the outrages. Arriving home the first week in June, I speedily got into communication with the Minister's office. On Tuesday, June 11, I 'phoned Mr. Dixon (Sir James Allen's private secretary) asking him to endeavour to arrange with the Minister to receive a deputation of Labour bodies and other organisations with reference to the alleged ill-treatment of Religious, Socialist, and other Conscientious Objectors in detention and prison in New Zealand and abroad. Mr. Dixon replied by 'phone next day saying that the Minister suggested that, to save both time and expense, we should make our representations in writing. This suggestion I placed before the organisers of the deputation, whose opinion was that the deputation ought to take place—an opinion that I fully concurred in. Accordingly, on June 14 I addressed a letter to the Minister urging that he should consent to receive the deputation, and pointing out that the outrages which were alleged to have been committed were so extremely serious that the matter ought to receive immediate attention, and finally requesting that the Minister would take the deputation on Thursday of the following week. To this letter the Minister replied on June 19, regretting that his time had been too much occupied to permit him to make an appointment or receive the deputation as desired, and adding:—

"Departmental enquiries had, however, been held about Wanganui prior to the receipt of your letter, and, indeed, prior to your original enquiry by telephone. I am anxious that the public should be satisfied that everything is being done to ascertain the truth of the rumours, and have already arranged with the Minister of Justice that a Magistrate shall go fully into the question. This enquiry should be held page 129within the next day or two. In the circumstances, do you still think it still necessary to hold the deputation?"

It is necessary to digress here to point out that a letter containing similar facts to those covered in the letters to Mr. Fagan and Mrs. Beck had also been sent to the editor of "Truth," by whom it had been submitted to the Defence authorities; and, when the Government eventually took action, it issued its instructions as though the letter to "Truth" was the sole matter it had to go upon. It will, however, be noted that the letter of instruction to the Magistrate, Mr. Hewitt, was dated June 20—the day following the Minister's reply to my letter of June 14, and the exact day on which my second letter was delivered to the Minister.

To return to the correspondence. On June 20 I replied to Sir James Allen (my letter being delivered by special messenger), stating that there was a unanimous wish on the part of those concerned that the deputation should take place on the following day (Friday), or, if this was not possible, at 10.30 or 11 a.m. on Saturday, as on the latter day I was booked to leave for Auckland by the mid-day express. Sir James answered promptly by wire on the same day, regretting that, owing to his own contemplated departure from 'Wellington on the following Monday, he could not arrange to meet the deputation on either Friday or Saturday as desired, but intimating that he would be returning to Wellington on June 30.

This meant a delay that was altogether too long in the opinion of the deputationists, and on June 21—all efforts to secure the deputation having apparently proved futile—I wrote to the Minister expressing regret at his inability to meet the deputation. In the course of my letter, which was necessarily lengthy. I said:—

"Under these circumstances, and in view of the delay which must take place before they could otherwise be heard, the members of the proposed deputation have asked me to furnish you with an outline of the main facts which they desired to bring under your notice.

"They also desire me to make the strongest possible protest against the Magisterial inquiry re Wanganui Prison being conducted in camera. They insist that the public have a right to hear the evidence from both sides; and they further protest that an inquiry at which the men moat concerned will not be entitled to be directly represented, and apparently some of whom will not even be called as witnesses, will not have any very satisfying effect so far as the general public is concerned.

"The principal facts in possession of the parties desiring the deputation are as under:—

"It is alleged that one Conscientious Objector who was taken to. Wanganui Prison about the end of April last, was threatened by an officer, subjected to 24 hours in the punishment cell for refusing drill, page 130then sentenced to another 24 hours for 'insolence'—his judge and accuser being the same officer. When he refused to put on the uniform he was forcibly dressed, and was knocked down and kicked in the ribs while down. He eventually took the uniform off. He was forcibly dressed a second time, and was again knocked about, and told that if he took the uniform off again he would be murdered. He again took it off, and was yet again forcibly dressed. This time he had an 801b.pack fastened on his back and a rifle was tied to his hand. While his hands were tied his head was bumped against the wall; then he was pushed out into the yard, ordered to march, and struck between the shoulders with the butt of a rifle. This caused the rifle fastened to him to fall from its position. He was ordered to hold the rifle up, one of the guards telling him if he failed to do so he would knock his b head off. He refused to hold it, and the guard banged it up against his ear and the side of his face till the blood was streaming down his face. After that they tied the rifle with thick string to his neck so that it couldn't fall. They then ordered him once more to march; and when he refused, they took it in turns two at a time to force him round the ring and punched him till he was black and blue. He was then dragged along by the hair of the head. A handful of hair was dragged out. This was more than he could stand, and he struck his assailant and knocked him down, whereupon he was rushed by three of the guards, struck, knocked down, and kicked while down. Asked by an officer was he going to give in, and replying that he was not, he was subjected to still further assault, was knocked down three times, kicked on the shins and banged against the wall. An officer threatened him that he would get this treatment every day as long as he was there. During one of these series of assaults, he was kicked over the heart, and suffered for weeks as a result. Eventually, worn out physically and mentally, he gave in and took the uniform.

"It is further alleged that another Conscientious Objector, refusing to take the uniform, was forcibly dressed in denims, handcuffed, and then dragged round the yard by means of a rope tied round his neck. He was kicked and punched at the same time and pushed against the wall, and at last (it is alleged) 'his face was like a piece of steak, and drops of blood were to be seen all round the yard and on the wall. He was beaten on the hand with a stick and his hand was swollen abnormally. After having been subjected to this treatment, he was forcibly given a cold bath.

"A number of other Objectors are alleged to have received practically similar treatment."

I also gave the Minister an outline of the Featherston cases referred to in my Wellington North opening speech, and reminded him that Mr. Massey, after that speech, had told the press that the matter would be enquired into—a promise which had not been kept. I also dealt at some length with the cases of the deported men, and parti page 131cularly with the statement that they had been subjected to "crucifixion." otherwise Field Punishment No. l, pointing out that, so far as I knew, neither Australia nor Canada would tolerate the infliction of this punishment on their soldiers, and urging that the New Zealand Government should make the strongest representations to the imperial military authorities to the same effect. In this letter I also urged, on behalf of the deputation:—

1.That an open and full enquiry be held concerning the treatment of the Conscientious Objectors—both in New Zealand and in England and France.
2.That the fourteen deported men be returned to New Zealand for the purpose of this enquiry, as well as a matter of correct policy.
3.That the men who are alleged to have suffered the persecution described have the right to be represented by counsel, and that no restriction be placed on them in the matter of calling witnesses from among the military prisoners and guards.
4.That the military officers implicated in the alleged illegal treatment of Conscientious Objectors be relieved of their duties pending the investigation of their conduct, and, if found guilty, discharged from the service and called upon to answer charges in the civil courts.
5.That Wanganui Prison be transferred from military to civil control.

I concluded with the intimation that I was taking the liberty of handing the whole of the correspondence to the press early the following week, and that I took it as a matter of course that Sir James would have no objection to this being done.

I departed for Auckland on June 22 as I had arranged to do, leaving the copies of the foregoing letters for insertion in the following week's "Worker." I addressed a huge meeting on the subject of the C.O.'s in the Lyric Theatre, Auckland, on Sunday evening, at which meeting a motion was unanimously carried protesting against the Magisterial Inquiry being held in camera, and on Monday, June 24, left for Rotorua, visiting Mr. P. C. Webb at Kaingaroa on Tuesday, June 25. Returning from Rotorua I found that the papers of Thursday had reprinted from the "Worker" the substance of my statements to the Minister—and the whole of New Zealand was at last in possession of the major facts concerning happenings most people never dreamed could take place in this country.

After journeying to Masterton and Napier, where I spoke for the local Labour Party branches, I returned to Wellington, and found a letter awaiting me from Sir James Allen, dated June 24, asking for the names of prisoners and officers referred to in my letter of June 21, and also asking what I meant by "crucifixion" when I referred to Field Punishment No. 1. The Minister's letter concluded:—

"I am having inquiry made about Archibald Baxter by telegram. In reply to the specific points mentioned by you, I have to say that page 132full inquiry will be held concerning the treatment of Conscientious Objectors in New Zealand, and further inquiry will be made in England and France. I regret that I cannot promise to bring back the fourteen deported men. I can see no good reason for the men being represented by counsel, but am having further inquiry made on this question. No restriction will be placed upon the men calling witnesses from among the military prisoners and guards. If any military men are implicated they will be dealt with. The Wanganui Detention Barracks were established in order that the men might be saved from any possible stigma that might be attached to being in civil prisons. If reform is necessary at Wanganui Detention Barracks reform will be instituted."

Referring to my proposal to give the correspondence to the press, the Minister gave it as his opinion that it would be wiser to wait until the inquiry was concluded, when, he said, the public would be able to judge with the real facts before them.

To Sir James's request for names, etc., I replied, in effect, that we should be ready to furnish these when an open inquiry was held.

In due time I received a letter from Colonel Tate, Adjutant-General, dated 27th June, and setting forth:—"The matter of counsel appearing at the inquiry into the allegations of cruelty at the Wanganui Detention Barracks has been submitted to Mr. Hewitt, Stipendiary Magistrate, who is conducting the inquiry, and I am directed by the Hon. the Minister of Defence to inform you that Mr. Hewitt has replied to the effect that, at present, he does not propose to permit representations by counsel, but should he at a later stage consider such representations necessary, and likely to be useful to him, he will so intimate."

Public meetings and the ordinary meetings of Trade Unions and political Labour bodies carried resolutions protesting against a secret inquiry. A meeting of the Second Division League demanded a public investigation, and some of the newspapers backed up the demand.

The inquiry was duly conducted by Mr. Hewitt, but, in the meantime, the prisoners had been scattered to different prisons, and some of the officials had likewise been either given "leave of absence without pay" or transferred. It is said, with how much truth I do not know, that this policy had been adopted to prevent statements being "concocted" in connection with the inquiry. In addition, a number of the witnesses had been forcibly embarked—"shanghaied' was the term the prisoners themselves used to describe the process. These were men who had gone into camp and donned the uniform, afterwards deserting and when arrested refusing to undertake service. Their position was, of course, greatly different from that of the C O.'s. The scattering of the men meant that the Magistrate had to move from place to place to see his witnesses. My information (from the men interviewed) is generally that the Magistrate conducted page 133his investigations very fairly; that he was inclined to be "over firm," but resorted to none of the bullying tactics which so often make of court cases a burlesque. He neglected no opportunity of getting the fullest possible statement from the men concerned, but did not attempt to confuse any man in the making of his statement, although he exhausted every fair means to test the accuracy of any statement of which he was doubtful.

As will be seen, the Magistrate received his instructions on June 20. I have not been able to ascertain the date on which he commenced his investigations; but it would, of course, be soon after receiving his instructions. From the time the instructions were issued to the Magistrate to the date on which his report was signed and ready for presentation to the Minister, was exactly three months, a lapse of time which indicates the amount of care which must have been devoted to both investigation and report. But, although the Report was available, as the date shows, on September 21, 1918, it was not made public until December 5—two and a half months later, when it was laid on the table of the House as a result of a repeated effort on my part.

On October 23 I asked the Minister of Defence, without notice, "whether the report of the Magistrate's Court in connection with the alleged cruelties practised upon Conscientious Objectors at the Wanganui Detention Barracks had yet been presented, and, if so, whether the Report would be laid on the table of the House." Sir James Allen replied that "the report had not yet been before Cabinet. As soon as it had been considered by Cabinet it would be presented to the House."

About the middle of November I fell a victim to the influenza epidemic, then raging, and was away from the House for some time. On December 2, however, I left my bed and (unwisely enough) was in my place in the House for a couple of hours. During the afternoon I asked the Minister, again without notice, whether the Magisterial Report in connection with the allegations of cruelty inflicted on military prisoners in Wanganui was yet available; if not, when would the House be given an opportunity of dealing with it? Sir James Allen this time replied that "the report was at Defence headquarters, and he was sorry to say it had not come back to him. He would make inquiry about it, and get it brought down as soon as he could."

I was very ill at the time, and found it impossible to remain for the whole of the sitting. I suffered a slight relapse as a result of my going out too soon, and was compelled to lay up again, remaining in bed until the following Friday, when I again ventured out—this time to make a fight, along with Mr. Peter Fraser, M.P., against the Bill designed to disfranchise the CO.'s.

On December 5, while I was away, the Magisterial Report was laid on the table of the House, and I was, therefore, deprived of the opportunity of discussing it on that occasion. However, when the page 134report was tabled, it almost completely substantiated the statements of the C.O.'s. and vindicated as well the attitude which had been taken up by those of us who sought to deputationise the Minister in the first place. It was needless to say, a source of discomfiture for the Government. I have deemed it advisable to reproduce the report in its entirety in the chapter which follows.