WWI Pacifists, Conchies and Rejects

WWI Rejects, Montville Memorial Gates, photo by Bob Wilson

Amidst the salvo of Anzac Day stories, the people least often talked about are those who did not take part in WWI,  either because of a Christian or moral objection, for practical reasons, or because the armed forces rejected them. According to the Australian War Memorial, 33% of men volunteering for the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in 1914 were rejected on medical/fitness grounds. Enlistment standards were gradually relaxed in ensuing years, allowing many of the rejected men to enlist. Key among these changes was to reduce the minimum height of a recruit from five foot six to five feet.

The World War I rejects don’t get much press at all: the blokes with poor eyesight, bad teeth, flat feet, hernias or some  other physical ailment or disability which ruled them out for active service. But once rejected, they often had to bear the same stigma as the despised ‘Conchies’ or ‘CO’s’ – our unique slang for conscientious objectors. In Australia, CO numbers were estimated at less than one in 30.

Globally, there were around 16,000 conscientious objectors during World War I and their numbers swelled to 60,000 or more in World War II. During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands sought deferment of the call-up or, in the case of American objectors, fled across the border to Canada.

Despite the early fervour to enlist for World War I, the country on the whole rejected the notion of conscription. PM Billy Hughes took the issue to a plebiscite twice during WWI and each time narrowly lost.

Meanwhile in tiny New Zealand (1914 population 1.1 million), the government simply passed a law and conscripted young men for the war effort. And as at least one controversial account claims, they took a very dim view of men who refused to fight on religious or ethical grounds.

Archibald Baxter, father of New Zealand’s late poet laureate James K Baxter, was one such staunch CO – an absolutist to the last.

His autobiography ‘We Will Not Cease’ makes for startling reading as it sets out the cruelty inflicted by his own countrymen on those who refused to fight. Baxter’s son wrote a poem with the searing lines:

When I was only semen in a gland

Or less than that, my father hung

From a torture post at Mud Farm

Because he would not kill.” (Pig Island Letters, Oxford U.P.1966).

Baxter Jnr’s poem, which describes his father’s ‘blackened thumbs’ refers to Field Punishment No 1, also the name of a 2014 New Zealand television movie. CO’s were hung up on poles (on the front line), in faux crucifixion pose, in the hope they would somehow recant.

Baxter never did.

The mistreatment of conscientious objectors in New Zealand has come to public attention in recent years, first through a public exhibit, and later by an opera, ‘War Hero,’ based on Archibald Baxter’s book.

Meanwhile back in Australia, for those who desperately wanted to enlist, particularly for World War 1, being found unfit to serve was a cruel blow that caused many men to become social outcasts. Unless employed in some clearly supportable on-land war effort, when these seemingly able-bodied men of a certain age were seen out and about, they were often subject to much derision.

The nearby hinterland hamlet of Montville holds a unique place in World War I history, as explained in a Canberra Times feature by Chris Sheedy, commissioned by the Canberra campus of UNSW.

The Montville War Memorial lists the local men who served with the AIF, but also the ‘Rejects’, the men who wanted to serve, but were classified as unfit.

Sheedy writes that in the celebrations of the homecomings of soldiers during and after WWI, most communities around Australia ignored those who didn’t serve.

“In fact, many shunned the ‘shirkers’ and were divided into segments of those whose family members had served and those who had not.”

The authorities must have foreseen this by developing badges for those who volunteered but were deemed ineligible to enlist, or honourably discharged because of age, injury or illness.

Sheedy notes that many men chose not to volunteer for practical reasons – they had a family to support or a farm or business to run.

Professor Jeffrey Grey from UNSW Canberra cites Robert Menzies as a prominent person who chose not to volunteer. Menzies had two brothers who went to war but the siblings agreed that Robert (a lawyer), would stay because he was more likely to provide for his parents in their old age.

Australian folk singer John Thompson, who has researched and written songs about WWI, describes it as a time when there was indeed a mood in the country among young, single people to ‘do your bit’. Thompson developed a song about Maud Butler, a teenage girl who so wanted to do her bit she dressed up as a soldier and stowed away on a ship. She got caught, but later made several other attempts to enlist.

As Thompson explains in the introduction to the song, Maud scrounged up the various pieces of an army uniform. “But she couldn’t get the (tan) boots and that’s what eventually led to her being discovered.”

Maud climbed arm over arm up an anchor rope to stow away aboard an Australian troop carrier. Historian Victoria Haskins, who researched the story, recounts how Maud gave interviews a few days after her return to Melbourne on Christmas Day, 1915.

Maud told local media that she “had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl… I decided to do something for myself.”

While there may have been an initial wave of patriotism and a naïve yen to support the British Empire, volunteer numbers dropped in the latter years of the war.

The Australian War Museum estimates that 420,000 Australians enlisted in WWI, approximately 38.7% of the male population aged between 18 and 44. So despite the enormous peer pressure on young men to enlist, 61.3% of enlistment-age men did not join the war effort, for whatever reason.

Enlistments peaked at 165,912 in 1915 and declined in the ensuing years to just 45,101 in 1917 and 28,883 in 1918, the year the war ended.

Most of the literature about Australia’s involvement in WWI emphasises the 420,000 who enlisted, rather than the 665,000 or so who did not.

Given that a majority of men aged 18 to 44 either did not volunteer or were rejected by the AIF, it seems absurd to perpetuate the myth of the shirker. Those who stayed behind because of family loyalties, businesses, careers, or simply because they felt it wasn’t their fight, did not deserve to be ignored or worse, handed a white feather in the street or have one left in their mailbox. It is shocking to recall that a formal Order of The White Feather was formed to encourage women to pressure family and friends into enlisting.

As the AWM comments: “Some criticised the practice, arguing that ‘idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired.’ ”

It wouldn’t work today.

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Closed for Public Holidays

Photo of sideshow alley on Ekka Public Holiday by Toni Fish, flickr

As I enter the 14th year of not being anchored to a traditional working life, public holidays have become redundant. At best, they are an opportunity to catch up with family and friends still shackled to the Monday to Friday yoke. At worst, they are days when you get by without the dark chocolate you meant to pick up on the Thursday before Easter weekend.

What is the point of public holidays anyway? They mean little to a retired person, or someone unemployed, on disability, or those who just got bored with work and decided not to go in anymore. We need something more attuned to the Australian work ethic − like turning Tuesday’s Anzac Day, the one day of the year to reflect on the folly of war, into an unofficial four-day weekend.

Our Vanuatu-based research team has been working on a radical proposal. Imoverit Day is ideally suited to individuals who need to take a day off but have run out of sick leave. It is named after the Lithuanian linguist and Latin scholar, Ivan Moverit, whose doctorate ‘An analysis of the third-person singular perfect active subjunctive of moveō,’ is a fairly dry read.

Imoverit days can be taken by individuals at any time, without notice, replacing the seven paid national holidays. Yes, we know, some Federal unions already allow workers ‘personal’ time off (with strings attached). One supposes these award provisions would be axed if Imoverit Day gets past the Senate.

As the pronunciation suggests, Imoverit Day acts like the emergency escape valve on a compressed cylinder. When you’re really stressed, frustrated or angry, you just call the boss and say “Imoverit”.

If you happen to be unemployed or retired, just say the magic word to your spouse (assuming you have not been gazumped). You can get some idea of the mindset by browsing the twitter hashtag #imoverit (with a lower-case i) where people vent about petty things.

The invocation of ‘Imoverit’ immediately triggers one of your seven designated days, permission to disappear without sanction for 24 hours. This would necessitate some tweaking of industrial relations and family laws because, as implied, these individual holidays also absolve individuals of their paternal or maternal responsibilities.

Children who have reached the age of reason (7 or 8 according to canon law), will also be allowed to take Imoverit days. Parents would be allowed to set limits on what said children are allowed to do with their 24-hour escapades.

“Yes you can sleep over at Cory’s but no watching Andrew Bolt, right?”

A great day for loners to be alone

Just think of the benefits of taking a day off randomly. You can go to the supermarket and it won’t be crammed with people laying in for the Siege of Leningrad. Visit a popular national park picnic spot when (most) other people are at work − just you and the brush turkeys. Go to a movie in the middle of the week and have the cinema and the popcorn to yourself.

If you can convince your lover to take an Imoverit Day, laws specify you are not required to explain where you were or what you were doing. This would also be good for the hospitality industry.

Australians would very quickly ‘get’ the concept of Imoverit Day, cunningly planning ahead and parlaying ID’s into long weekends. If, after their unplugged rest day individuals still feel stressed, they can call in sick. We forecast a tremendous improvement in work-related stress. Imoverit Day would help HR teams identify workers who are under extreme stress.

“We’ve noticed you’d taken five ID’s and seven sick days in the last three months, Bob. Is there something going on at work or at home you’d like to tell us about?”

We predict a surge in Imoverit Day applications around the third Wednesday in August, an obscure local holiday. The Royal Queensland Show, also known as the Brisbane Exhibition, has in true Aussie fashion, become The Ekka. On People’s Day, tens of thousands cram on to free trains and buses to attend an over-rated carnival where tradition decrees you will either spread or pick up a late winter virus.

All Brisbane workers get a paid day off for the Ekka, unless they happen to be shift workers or in emergency services. Future generations will read how once, long ago, people were paid extra for working on public holidays (or Sundays). It was called time and a half or double time. Employers hated it, but workers were able to enjoy, albeit briefly, the joys of being paid something close to a living wage.

Public holidays often spill over into school holidays, so workers who plan ahead often parlay their annual leave into extended family holidays. Fine if you live in civilised countries like Austria, Portugal, Australia, Finland, Germany and the UK, which allow workers 28 to 35 days per year.

Australia is, nevertheless, a bit stingy with public holidays. With only seven national public holidays, we are in 10th place behind the likes of Austria, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

We predict Imoverit Day would spread swiftly to other countries, apart from the US. As The Telegraph (UK) reported in 2016, the US is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee workers paid annual leave. Official statistics suggest the average private-sector worker in the US receives 10 days of paid annual leave and six paid public holidays a year. Compare that with China though, where you get five days off after your first year with an employer. After 10 years they give you 10 days off. Yay.

Generous paid holidays, but for how long?

It has to be said that in Australia entitlements to paid leave and penalty rates for working on public holidays has been under attack. Even the concept of Labor Day (originally known as Eight Hour Day) has been diminished by successive Tory governments.

Not that we want to put thoughts in people’s heads, but taking an ID the Tuesday after May Day would give you a four day weekend to celebrate the people who fought so hard to bring us the eight-hour work day.

In Queensland, we’re getting May 1 back as Labor Day, conveniently landing this year on a Monday. A previous State government, which cannot be mentioned for fear it might rise again, shuffled May Day to October. Some States also hold Labor Day in October or March. Conspiracy theorists say this is a psychological ploy to dilute the strength of May Day as an international symbol of worker unity.

Our research chief Little Brother said he was astounded to find that, despite the paucity of workers’ rights in the US, the quest to free the serfs from vassalage started in Chicago in 1886 with the bloody “Haymarket affair”.

Little Brother, who reads Chomsky for recreation, says anyone taking an ID on May Day (a public holiday in 66 countries), should be paid double time. They will, however, be required to turn out for workers’ marches in whatever city or town they live in, wear a red beret, sing The Internationale and spend the rest of the day listening to the likes of 2Pac, Public Enemy, Ani Di Franco, Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger and Leon Rosselson.

There are worse ways to spend a day.

Some of you may have noticed I took a day off last week. Here’s an extra read from my website archives, April 2015, long before some of you were subscribers. http://bobwords.com.au/anzac-hard-tack/


Anzac – hard tack for some

Mothers’ Memorial, East Creek Park, Toowoomba photo by Diane Watson – Monument Australia

One bitingly cold Toowoomba morning at 4am I dragged myself out of bed for an assignment. The Chronicle’s chief of staff had asked me to cover the dawn service on Anzac Day, so I started at the local RSL, where returned servicemen were getting an early start on coffee and rum toddies. In the early 1980s, the Anzac Day service took place in the middle of Ruthven and Margaret Streets at the 8m tall Mothers’ Memorial, built to honour the soldier sons who did not return from World War I. I don’t recall much about the ceremony on that day, other than it was bone-chillingly cold, with a keen westerly blowing up Ruthven Street.

The Chronicle covered what was a highly-controversial story in the mid-1980s when it was proposed to re-locate the much-cherished Mothers’ Memorial to East Creek Park. The aim of moving the memorial was to allow planners to re-design traffic flows through what has since become a significantly larger city than it was in those days. The memorial was moved, but not before everyone got to have their say.
People do get highly emotional about any suggestion that might interfere with or clash with our notions of Anzac Day as a sacred day of commemoration. Even today, the ban on retail trading on Anzac Day is enforced, though supermarkets and cafes are exempt. Saturday has become a major shopping day for most people and while some states allow shops to open after 1pm, other states still hold to a total ban.
Are you game?

Regular readers I see every week asked what I planned to write about today and I said, “Anzac Day – if I’m game.” When I was an idealistic teenager, reading a lot of pacifist literature, out of the blue my Dad said he was taking me to see a play called The One Day of the Year. It was a revelation and caused us to sit up late debating war and peace and not only the carnage caused by wars, but its bitter aftermath.
The One Day of the Year caused a great kerfuffle when first performed. Playwright Alan Seymour and his partner fled to England in 1961, partly because of the hostile reception to the play, but also (as he accurately predicted) his more liberal creative ideas would be better received in the UK.
Seymour, who died last month, had a great career as a writer with the BBC and other media organisations. He wrote 10 other plays, but none received the recognition or made the impact of The One Day of the Year. The play pitted young idealistic student Hughie against his right wing reactionary Dad Alf over what was in those days an excuse for old diggers to get thoroughly pissed.
I was musing about all of this while standing in the post office queue, idly looking at the displays of Anzac memorabilia, which this year include a CD and DVD by Lee Kernaghan and others, called “Spirit of the Anzacs”.
So what happens after this Anzac Day – the 100th commemoration of the day Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the wrong beach and were slaughtered in their thousands? Will all this stock be stored away until next year? It’s not perishable like Easter eggs or hot cross buns, but will it have the same appeal when the 101st Anzac Day rolls around?
I noticed that the HIT theatre company is touring The One Day of the Year. Even though I could have gone to Caloundra to see it, I had the feeling it would have dated and the impact it had all those years before would be diluted.
So instead I watched a couple of documentaries, including the Gen Y view of Anzac Day – Lest We Forget What? The most compelling segment in Kate Aubusson’s investigation was when Dr Roger Lee, head of the Australian Army history unit, tells recruits at the Royal Military College (Duntroon) to ignore all the myths and stories they have heard about Anzac Day
“The biggest myth about Anzac is that it probably would have succeeded,” he says.
“The force we sent away were really just a bunch of amateurs. When they went ashore they fought very well individually, but collectively they were about as organised as a bagful of cats.”
Harsh words maybe, but Dr Hall clearly wants the current cadet intake to know that everything they’d heard about Simpson and his donkey is largely myth, and stories that our troops went ashore in the face of thunderous machine gun fire are “rubbish”.

A time for sadness and reflection

I get unaccountably sad on Anzac Day, rather than on November 11, when the world in general remembers fallen soldiers from all generations. Maybe it is the untold story behind the photograph I have of my grandfather, sitting front and centre with a platoon of soldiers.
I never knew this broody-looking Scottish stonemason and my Dad told us little about him. Like so many soldiers who came back from World War 1, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few, he may well have suffered post- traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt.
I find it dismaying that the Federal Government is spending $325 million on the commemoration of Anzac Day 2015, almost twice what it sets aside for the treatment of traumatised soldiers returned from far more recent conflicts.
The momentum began in 2012 when former PM, Julia Gillard approved $83.5 million over seven years to fund initiatives related to the Centenary of Anzac and the 100th anniversary of Word War 1.
“Anzac Day in 2015, I believe, will be like the bicentenary,” Ms Gillard said at the time. “It will be one of the commemorations that shape our nation and our understanding of who we are today.”
The budget seems to have blown out a bit since then. The spend compares with $166 million set aside in the Department of Veteran Affairs budget to meet the mental health needs of the veteran and ex-service community, including those returning from Afghanistan.

I still don’t understand why we have such a national obsession with the events of April 25, 1915 on a beach in Turkey, half a world away. There is so much less focus on the battle of the Western Front, where, as historian Tony Robinson informed us on SBS the other night, a forward-thinking Australian general, John Monash, played a pivotal role. Rather than relying on troops bunkered down in trenches until commanded to advance, Monash provided troops with tank and air support, a tactic which worked brilliantly and, as Robinson observed, is still used today.
So tomorrow I’m watching the Light Horse regiment and the parade down the main street and taking a moment to think about how Australia might be today if all those young men from the cities and towns had not gone off to war. I won’t be wearing my Dad’s medals (he didn’t believe in it), and I definitely won’t be draping an Australian flag around my shoulders.
Someone ought to outlaw that.