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.

FOMM back pages

New Zealand politics stirs ghost of Norman Kirk

Norman Kirk meets Gough Whitlam in 1973. Photo: Archives NZ

I became aware of New Zealand politics, circa 1960 when a tall Kiwi farmer with coiffed hair and a plummy accent won an election in his own right. After serving as interim PM in 1957, Keith Jacka Holyoake went on to become Sir Keith and later the country’s Governor-General, the only person ever to hold both offices.

The National Party (Conservative) leader ruled New Zealand politics from 1960 to 1972, ousted by a Whitlam-esque Labour figure, Norman Kirk (left). After a promising start, Kirk battled ill health through 1974 and died in office, aged just 51.

Kirk, a working class man who built his own h0me at Kaiapoi, could have been anything. He once said, “People don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

As Labour scholar Vittoria Trevitt recounts for the Chifley Research Centre, Kirk immediately set about turning New Zealand politics on its head. Social security benefits were increased and new social programmes introduced. Like Whitlam, Kirk ushered in a single parent’s pension. He encouraged Kiwis to build new homes, formed appeal boards so tenants could oppose rent increases and introduced ‘second chance’ re-finance loans for divorcees and others.

Workers benefited from a ‘no fault’ national accident compensation scheme. The Kirk government also increased the minimum wage, improved leave entitlements and fast-tracked equal pay legislation.

As an aspiring scribe in the early 1970s, I became a Kirk fan when he established a fund for writers. And idealists initially embraced the “Ohu Scheme”, where marginal land in remote rural areas was granted to people who wished to establish alternative settlements or intentional communities.

By Trevitt’s account and other sources, it was Norman Kirk who scrapped compulsory military service; Kirk who on day one called NZ troops back from Vietnam; Kirk who ensured that people who had served in the military would have entitlements and employment opportunities. He refused to host a Springbok tour in 1973 because of South Africa’s apartheid policies and confronted France over nuclear testing in the Pacific. And he turned Waitangi Day into a public holiday. Not bad for just 21 months in office.

Kirk’s successors, Hugh Watt and Bill Rowling, lasted until late 1975 when they were rolled by Rob Muldoon’s National Party. In turn, Muldoon was ousted nine years later by David Lange, whose term as Labour Prime Minister is possibly best remembered by his refusal to allow US nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters.

(Vin Garbutt sings Lynn Clark’s anti-nuclear song Send the Boats Away (song starts at 0.58)

As head of New Zealand politics, Lange held office for two terms and Labour reigned until 1990. After Jim Bolger’s stint as National PM (1990-1997), the National’s Jenny Shipley had a two-year spell before being evicted by Labour’s Helen Clark, who held a coalition together for three terms before resigning from politics, seemingly disillusioned.

Since 2008, the National Party’s John Key has held sway, until his surprise exit from New Zealand politics last year in favour of caretaker PM Bill English.

So to the Kiwi Labour Party (they spell it with a ‘u’). Exiled since 2008, they have been buoyed by polls, a young, positive leader in Jacinda Ardern and a Whitlam-esque slogan: “let’s do this.” (kia mahi a tenei). Ardern stands a better than 50/50 chance of becoming New Zealand’s third female prime minister and the eighth Labour leader since Joseph Ward in 1906. If so, Australia’s government ought to be worried.

She may have to form government with the Greens and the Maori party, but the polls are saying it could happen. Roy Morgan election poll projections show Labour with 49 seats, Green with 11 seats and Maori Party two seats (62 seats).  The poll predicts National will win 50 seats, NZ First seven seats and Act NZ one seat (58 seats).

I had lost touch with what is now known as the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, after a flirtation in the early 70s with the vanguard movement, the Values Party. As has happened here, many staunch Labour voters in NZ have drifted to the Greens. As a former Labour diehard source puts it: “Labour has sold us out before and they’ll do it again. They can only be a real government of progress with the guidance and support of a Green coalition partner.” 

Lobbying Kiwis living abroad

This week we got an email from James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa.

“Kia Ora,” he began, meaning G’day or What’s up Bro?

The Green Party needs every vote we can get to ensure the outcome is the most environmentally-friendly and progressive result possible.”

Don’t sit this one out,” said James (Bob resisting the urge to add “to Red Molly”- this one is for RT fans- ed.).

Party Vote Green from anywhere in the world to make sure New Zealand remains a great place to call home.”

The Greens have a reformist agenda which includes a Zero Carbon Act, a Climate Fund and a 1.2 billion tree planting programme. The party opposes new coal mines, fracking, and deep-sea oil and gas drilling.

My sources in NZ and the UK reckon the campaign to recruit expat Kiwis (assisted here by the Australian Greens), is a smart move. “People living in London and elsewhere like the idea of ‘the clean green NZ’. We also have a lot of youth abroad and they tend to vote progressive,” one Green supporter said.

Last I heard there were 650,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia. There’s no shortage of election issues in New Zealand politics: housing shortages and property prices, health needs/shortages, offshore drilling, water purity and river pollution are just a few. Swinging voters, the so-called “Middle NZ” – people who typically own more than one property – might be swayed to the conservatives by speculation of a Labour/Greens capital gains tax (NZ doesn’t currently have one).

In the Red corner, Labour’s effervescent leader Jacinda Ardern, 37, is gaining an international profile.

As this BBC article “Can ‘stardust’ beat experience?” reveals, Ardern’s elevation to the top job in Labour politics is no accident. A left-wing activist in her teens, she worked in former PM Helen Clark’s office and in the UK as a policy advisor to Tony Blair. She’s been a politician since 2008.

In the Blue corner, incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Bill English has been a politician since 1990 and Finance Minister twice. He was deputy PM under John Key from 2008 to 2016. In December 2016, When Key suddenly resigned as prime minister, English won the leadership unopposed (with Key’s endorsement).

A new National Party promotional video seeks to counter Ardern’s appeal to women by portraying English, a father of six, as a family man. Bill’s wife Mary recalls the era of cloth nappies when her husband was a stay-at-home dad.

“Bill ran the nappy bucket. That was his job.”

The video includes positive interviews with Education Minister Nikki Kaye and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. Former PM John Key praises English for keeping a cool head during the global financial crisis and shrewdly notes Bill’s love of rugby.

Now that ought to do the truck.