WWI Pacifists, Conchies and Rejects

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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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Blogging and human rights

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Protest in Iran photo by Christopher Rose https://flic.kr/p/7CJsu7

In case you were curious, the word blog in Farsi looks like this – وبلاگ. Iranians who didn’t like the way things were going in their country started وبلاگ’ing (blogging) like crazy after the 2000 crackdown on Iranian media. Iranians who interact with the internet are by definition risk-takers.

As recently as late 2016, five Iranians were sentenced to prison terms for writing and posting images on fashion blogs. The content was decreed to ‘encourage prostitution’.

The Independent quoted lawyer Mahmoud Taravat via state news agency Ilna that the eight women and four men he represented received jail time of between five months to six years. He was planning to appeal the sentences handed down by a Shiraz court on charges including ‘encouraging prostitution’ and ‘promoting corruption’.

The immediacy of blogging appeals to those who live under oppressive regimes. They use the online diary to inform the world of the injustices in their country as and when they happen. I cited Iran (Persia) as just one example of a country where expressing strong opinions contrary to the agenda of the ruling government is extremely risky business.

The founder of Iran’s blogging movement, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian blogger, spent six years in prison (the original sentence was 19 and a half years), before being pardoned by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Derakhshan also helped promote podcasting in Iran and appears to have been the catalyst that spawned some 64,000 Persian language blogs (2004 survey). Clearly there is/was a level of dissent among people who think the right to free speech is worth the risk of incarceration or worse.

Blogging can be a lot of things in Australia, but risky it rarely is, so long as you are mindful of the laws regarding defamation and contempt of court. Not so for bloggers or citizen journalists of oppressed countries who try to get the facts out.

It is no coincidence that most of the countries guilty of supressing free speech are among the 22 countries named by Amnesty International as having committed war crimes. They include Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and, closer to home, Myanmar, where persecution and discrimination persists against the Rohingya. Amnesty’s national director Claire Mallinson told ABC’s The World Today that not only are people being persecuted where they live, 36 countries (including Australia) sent people back into danger after attempts to find refuge.

Amnesty’s Human Rights report for 2015-2016 does not spare Australia from criticism, particularly our treatment of children in custody, with Aboriginal children 24 times more likely to be separated from their families and communities. We are also complacent when it comes to tackling world leaders and politicians accused of creating division and fear.

Still, at least if you live in Australia you can openly criticise something the government is doing (or not doing), apropos this week’s Q&A and the Centrelink debt debate.

According to literary types who seem to have warmed to my turn of phrase, FOMM is not a blog as such, but an example of ‘creative nonfiction’ which I am told is not only a genre, but also something taught at universities.

I never knew that.

Bloggers in comfortable democracies like ours use blogs to write about cats, dogs, goldfish, cake recipes, fashion, yoga, raising babies, travel adventures and produce how-to manuals about anything you care to name.

The definition of a blog is ‘a regularly updated public website or web page, typically run by an individual or small group, written in an informal or conversational style.’

Scottish comedian and slam poem Elvis McGonagall, who you met last week, satirises the blog format with this entry.

Monday:

Woke up. Had a thought. Dismissed it. Had another. Dismissed that. Stared at the cows. The cows stared back. Scratched arse. Shouted at telly. Threw heavy object at telly. Had a wee drink. Had another. Went to bed.

Tuesday to Sunday – repeat as above

The definitive blog is an online daily diary, kept by people while travelling, carrying out some stated mission like preparing for an art exhibition, producing an independent album, dieting or training for a triathlon. Most of these literary exercises are abandoned at journey’s end, or on completion of the mission. A fine example of this is folksinger John Thompson’s marathon effort to post an Australian folk song each day for a year. He did this from Australia Day 2011 to January 26, 2012.

Some of the tunes have ended up on albums by Cloudstreet, Thompson’s musical collaboration with Nicole Murray and Emma Nixon.

The social worth of a blog, though, is when an oppressed human being writes a real time account of what atrocity or infringement of human rights is happening in their third-world village, right now.

There are millions of blogs circulating on the worldwide web, many of which are concerned with marketing, selling, promoting and luring readers into subscribing to the bloggers’ products and/or clicking on sponsors’ links. It is nigh-on impossible to find a list of blogs independently assessed on quality, although some have tried.

The Australian Writers Centre held a competition in 2014 to find Australia’s best blogs, dividing entries into genres like Personal & Parenting, Lifestyle/Hobby, Food, Travel, Business, Commentary and Words/Writing. The competition attracted hundreds of entries which were whittled down to 31 finalists.

The AWC told FOMM it has since switched its focus to fiction competitions but has not dismissed the popularity of blogging. Even so, continuity is an ever-present issue.

The 2014 winner, Christina Sung, combined travel and cooking, two topics which spawn thousands of blogs worldwide, into The Hungry Australian. But as happens with blogs, the author has somewhat moved on since then. As Christina last posted in September 2016: ‘Hello, dear readers! Apologies for my lengthy absence but I’ve been working on a few writing projects lately.’

Likewise, the author of The Kooriwoman, the Commentary winner for a blog about life as an urban Aboriginal in Australia, has not posted since January 2016.

It is not uncommon for finely-written blogs like those mentioned to have a hiatus or disappear without notice, for a myriad of reasons linked to other demands and distractions in the authors’ lives.

The few lists of Australian blogs you can find tend to rank them on popularity (numbers of followers or clickers). The top 10 blogs in this list are all about food or travel.

Hands-down winner Not Quite Nigella is a daily blog curated by Lorraine Elliott who according to blogmetrics has 28,523 monthly visitors. It’s not hard to see why – the blog is constantly updated with recipes, restaurant reviews, travel adventures and the like, featuring mouth-watering photos and a chatty prose style.

So there are those like Lorraine who make a living from blogging and those who start with a skyrocket burst of enthusiasm and fall to ground like the burnt-out stick.

Whatever your absorbing passion in life happens to be – cross-dressing, wood-carving, wine-making, writing haikus, collecting Toby jugs, quilt-making, proofreading or growing (medicinal) marijuana, you can bet someone out there has created a blog.

Just yesterday for no reason other than a bit of light relief after months of heatwave conditions, I searched for ‘grumpy spouse blog’ and got 22 hits. Have a look at this one – it’s choice.