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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Australasia and World War II – things you may not have known

 

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World War 11 and impact on New Zealand

I grew up in the backblocks of New Zealand, ignorant until quite recently about the impact of World War II at home, particularly friction between American and Kiwi servicemen.

Prior to the 90th birthday of a family member in New Zealand, I did a modicum of research to find out what it was like for a Kiwi lad growing up in the World War II years. Amongst other things, I discovered that when this fellow was 15 (April 1943), a brawl broke out between American and New Zealand servicemen in Wellington in what became known as “The Battle of Manners Street”. The brawl, which has been greatly exaggerated over the years, lasted about four hours and was eventually quelled by civil and military police. There were other antagonistic affrays between soldiers and sailors in Auckland and a second incident, in Wellington’s Cuba Street.

As happened in Brisbane and other Australian capital cities, women formed romantic liaisons with American troops. About 1,500 Kiwi women married Americans during World War II. As recounted in New Zealand History online: “The soldiers were starved of female company, and many Kiwi women were charmed by the Americans (sic) good manners and ability to afford taxi rides, ice-cream sodas and gifts of flowers.”

Between 1942 and 1944 up to 45,000 American soldiers and sailors were based in New Zealand, before or after the war in the Pacific.

Most readers would be familiar with the much-chronicled “Battle of Brisbane” – a vicious World War II brawl between US and Australian troops on November 26 and 27, 1942, an incident army censors sought to supress. The fracas was sparked by tension between US and Australian servicemen over the former’s extra-curricular activities with local women. American troops were better paid, better turned out and had access to luxuries like chocolates, nylons and cigarettes (Or as the saying apparently went ‘Over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ Ed). Smokes were available to US troops duty free from a canteen in Queen Street. Australian troops complained about the unfairness of this and, after briefly being given access to the canteen, the practice was deemed illegal.

In New Zealand as in Australia, allied troops engaging in public brawls was certainly not what the top brass wanted to read in newspapers. There is evidence that much of the detail about the three-hour Battle of Brisbane was hushed up at the time, likewise the Manners Street incident. Censorship was loosened in 2013 with the release of previously classified CIA documents. In one of these documents, a 1942 report by US war correspondent J Edward Angly (which I downloaded from the CIA website), observed that resentment was rife among Australian troops during World War II. The Americans were more affluent and by reasons of their manners and appearance, more attractive to local women. There was also some tension in that the Australian militia could not be sent to a Pacific theatre of war beyond their mandated territory. “The Americans know this and are inclined to rib the Australians about it,” Angly observed.

The “Battle of Brisbane,” where up to 4,000 people slugged it out on the streets, resulted in one fatality and eight serious injuries.

Anyone who has seen Queensland Ballet’s evocative production of ‘Cloudland’ would recall the tension between American and Australian servicemen, out for a night of drinking and dancing at Brisbane’s once famous dance hall.

On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Brisbane, Dr Judith Powell said in a blog the incident had become such a part of Brisbane folklore that when Queenslander Jeff Horn met reigning welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring at Lang Park, the event was billed as “The Battle of Brisbane”.

The Battle of Manners Street does not hold that kind of mystique, but looking into it allowed me to discover that World War II had more of an impact on Kiwis at home than we might realise.

On June 19, 1941, the liner RMS Niagara was sunk by a mine laid by the German auxiliary cruiser Orion off the coast of Whangarei, north of Auckland.  Everyone aboard escaped and was transported to shore.  But a large consignment of gold from the Bank of England worth £2.5 million pounds went down with the ship. The gold was a (then secret), payment from the UK to the US for munitions supplies.

German surface raiders operated in New Zealand waters in 1940 and 1941, sinking four ships. Japanese submarines also operated in New Zealand waters in 1942 and 1943. They sent reconnaissance aircraft over Auckland and Wellington, but did not carry out any attacks.

For all of that, Kiwis tend to remember the more emotive brawl between (inebriated) soldiers in Wellington’s streets and laneways. There were racial elements to both brawls, with the presence of African American sailors and soldiers in Australian cities a challenge to the then ‘White Australia’ policy. Various sources say the Battle of Manners Street was sparked by US servicemen and sailors complaining about Maori servicemen being served alcohol in the Allied Services Club. The Maori soldiers in turn complained the Yanks were getting preferential treatment.

Up to 1,000 people, including some civilians, were involved in skirmishes which were quelled by civil and military police three or four hours after the violence started. No reference to the riots appeared at the time in local newspapers or on the radio.

According to a 2013 update by stuff.co.nz, false rumours that two American serviceman had died that evening persisted for decades.

It is worth pointing out that servicemen on furlough typically went on drinking binges and in New Zealand at the time, pubs closed at 6pm.

The ‘Six O’Clock Swill’ was notorious for prompting binge drinking and bad behaviour in general.

Hard to imagine the Australian and US military having such antipathy today, drunk or sober, especially when it appears that we are still able and willing to support the American military when the occasion arises. Although Australia was not directly involved in missile strikes on Syrian targets, PM Malcolm Turnbull has not ruled out joining the US, UK and France in future military action if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad again uses chemical weapons.

Never mind that, you say, what happened to the gold?

Oh, the gold? Yes, 94% of it was salvaged for HM Government by an old ship that found the wreck by dragging its anchor back and forth across the Whangarei harbour (exploding the occasional mine). According to this Wikipedia entry, there are still five gold bars down there – somewhere.

Even after 78 years, the legacies of war keep surfacing. Kiwi environmentalists are pressuring the government to assess the risk of a major oil leak from the Niagara.

Auckland Conservation Board chair Lyn Mayes told the New Zealand Herald last year that the rusting hulk was a ‘ticking time bomb’. While only sporadically leaking oil over the years, the Niagara’s two main oil tanks still contain 2000 litres of oil.

Which makes you wonder about the wrecks of 30 ships sunk by German and Japanese submarines around Australia’s coastline between 1942-1945.

I  don’t like the use of the word ‘famous’ in this list of shipwrecks as so many of them represent lives tragically lost at sea. But it is a fascinating peek into our war-time history.

 

 

Overdue letter to Ma

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Hey Ma, I’ve been meaning to write this letter for such a long time – like, 50 years or more. Excuse the casual introduction but that’s the way people address their elders in the 21st century. You’d be amazed at the technology today. We email, skype (video phone calls) and tweet (too hard to explain), using hand-held telephones which can take photos, home movies and, oh, make phone calls. You can be constantly in touch with family and friend on social media, firing off messages and photos through the ether.

You’d marvel (and I suspect not totally approve) of my putting your photo on the Internet where millions of people can check you out, if they have a mind. Life now is so different for teenagers. In your courting days, Dad had to ask permission of your father to take you out and have you back at the front gate by 10pm. You communicated with hand-written notes and secret glances across the high street or at the dance hall. Today, girls as young as 12 and 13 are allowed to have boyfriends and ‘sleep overs’ with their girlfriends and who knows what goes on when their hand-held computers are passed around.

You may already know this if there’s some kind of Wikipedia (online encyclopaedia) in Heaven. You believed in the Hereafter, which was probably a good thing, given that you had only 48 years on the planet, including 11 years in your adopted homeland, New Zealand. Women with breast cancer in the 1960s were often diagnosed late and treatment was limited to a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Then your doctor signed you up for new, experimental drug treatment.

“It may not help me, but if it helps some other puir soul in the future that’ll be a fine thing,” you said, faith grounded in the Scottish Methodist church.

It is true that the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s was one in 20, and is now one in eight. However, this is mainly due to more people living longer – into the age bracket where they are more likely to get breast cancer. In the 1960s, the life expectancy of a female was 73. Since then, life expectancy has improved to 84 and a great many women live into their 90s and beyond, mainly due to the vast improvement in diagnostic techniques for cancer and all manner of illnesses, great advances in heart surgery, vaccines and treatment for the sort of chronic ailments that put people in a pine box in the 1960s.

The ability to detect cancer early has greatly improved. These days, most women in the target age range have routine two-yearly breast scans (mammograms) which can find otherwise undetectable tiny tumours. And treatment with less invasive surgery, more effective drugs (chemotherapy) and/or radiation can then ensue.

As a result, of early detection and improved treatment, the survival rate has greatly improved since you were afflicted. The five-year survival in 1965-1969 was just 64%, according to the Cancer Journal for Clinicians. So if you’d been diagnosed late, your chances were slim. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the five-year survival rate now is 89.4%.

Ma, at 67, I have a suspicion of blokes my age who talk too much about their mothers, living or dead. But I have sort of kept you alive in a sense, writing a couple of songs based on your observations and impressions and my memories of the new country. Lucky I kept a few of your old letters and notes of the six-week journey on the Rangitiki in 1955.

When children are left motherless, nothing fills the void and a step-mother, if there is one, is just a (hopefully nice) woman who loves your father. In the 1960s, teenage boys were not encouraged to grieve – we didn’t know how. We became blokes, drinking beer and listening to rock music, getting obsessed with the All Blacks and (trying) to chase girls. As life went on, it should have been obvious that crude sublimation was never going to help a sensitive lad who lost his mother at 17. That major life trauma shaped chapters of my 20s and 30s and got buried beneath the rest of the baggage until it came time to unpack and let go.

Yes, I should have persevered with the piano, as you insisted, because as you said, it could have earned me a living of sorts. Instead, I managed to harness this other gift for words. I came to music later in life − a self-taught musical dunce by the Conservatorium standards. Nevertheless, I’m told the words and music fit together fairly well.

And you missed my weddings, Mum. I married young, spent 12 or 15 years working, travelling, being a drunk, and getting sober. I met a great woman, well, actually I met two. The first one when we were both much younger. If you’d been around you might have persuaded us that 18 and 21 was a bit young. We sort of outgrew each other, but we both got re-married and went on with our lives. Now, this other great woman, she’s been in my life for 34 years. You’d be pleased with my choice, although she’d tell you the choice was all hers! (Who chased who? Ed.)

And then there’s this great extended family, in Australia where we live and back home in Aotearoa. In your last year there were just the seven of us and three wee bairns. Today in Australia, New Zealand and Canada the whanau, as the Maoris call it, number 42, all loyal, loving people, including your 6ft 5in grandson.

We keep in touch with your sister’s daughter in Scotland and another cousin in England. I went to visit your surviving sister in England a few years ago – she’s in her mid-90s and still living in her own flat.

When I saw this tiny white haired-woman come to the door it gave me a pang. When we lose mothers young, we forget what they looked like, but to me, she looked as if you might have done had you been alive today.

I gave her one of our CDs (the modern version of an LP), one of four albums, most of them songs I wrote. Your sister said: “You got that from Winnie, you know. She could play anything on the piano, your Mum. She didn’t need the music – if she knew it, she could play it.”

Well that does sound familiar. I have fond memories of listening to you practice the organ at the wee wooden Methodist church. I’d call in after school and try out the latest Beatles song, picking out the melody with one hand.

I knew there was a reason I loved all those great Hammond organ songs of 1967 – Whiter Shade of Pale, I’m a Man, Light My Fire. It was hardly Trust and Obey, but the music helped me through a difficult year.

So this is me, belatedly toasting my absent mother, and the countless other mothers whose leaving left their children bewildered and lost.

Yours aye,

Bob Jnr

 

 

Housing bubbles here and abroad

(New housing in Pokeno, 57 kms south of Auckland city. Risky motorway photo taken by Bob, who will go to any length for FOMM readers!)

Kiwis and Aussies aged 45 and over share one obsessive thought at this moment in time: how will our kids ever be able to afford their own home? Unless the housing bubble bursts, they probably never will be able to, even when the Boomers die off and leave their kids a residual estate.

The housing market both here and in Aotearoa has got away from humble wage earners. On my all-too quick visit to the old country, Auckland’s steaming hot housing market was all anyone could talk about. After a January dip in median prices (a reaction to new tax laws introduced in late 2015), the March figures revealed a $100k hike in the median price to $820,000.

Stories abound of people who bought a cottage in a then-dowdy Auckland suburb for $100k or less in the 1980s and sold last week for $1 million. The New Zealand Herald’s front page on April 13 proclaimed “Here we go again” to head a story about Auckland’s median house price. The story continued on page 3 where Labour Housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the $70k increase in the median price in just one month was almost one and a half times the median income in Auckland.

Not surprisingly, investors accounted for 44% of the 3000+ sales used to determine this alarming figure. This is similar to the Australian trend, where for the past two years just over 50% of housing loans have been made to investors.

Buyers with cash and/or equity are surging into the Auckland housing market and many pundits feel it is inevitable that it will join Sydney in having a $1 million median house price.

Everyone I spoke to told me that Auckland/New Zealand has the highest income to mortgage ratio in the world. The crusty old journo in me demanded that this be verified. The International Monetary Fund, which keeps track of housing costs vs income, indeed placed New Zealand 1st, ahead of Germany, Estonia and Austria. In sixth place came the UK and in 9th place Australia.

The ratio compares housing valuations to average income, the higher rankings showing that house prices have risen much faster than income. (Conversely, if you can score a job in Spain, where unemployment is still running at 22%, you can buy a cheap apartment and go running with the bulls in Pamplona).

If you were wondering how this is relevant, Spain’s economy went pear-shaped after their real estate market tanked in 2008. Caveat emptor!

The problem when housing markets get hot is the price rises are not matched by the prospective buyers’ incomes. In 2015, the median house price in Auckland increased $83,000, against a median income of $46,800. The data for this NZ Herald story, headed “Does your house earn more than you do?” was sourced from NZ Work and Income and the New Zealand Real Estate Institute.

In Sydney’s over-heated market, house prices are up to 12 times median income, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report in November. In mid-2015, the median Sydney house price was a headline $1,004,767, against a median household income of $85,067.

Meanwhile in Aotearoa, those determined to get their toe on the first rung of the housing ladder are fleeing south, as far as Huntly (a former mining town 97.2 km from the big smoke on State Highway 1), and north to Wellsford 77.3kms away. The plan is to buy, commute, save and over time upgrade closer to Auckland.

Pokeno, once a small Waikato hamlet just outside Auckland city limits, is now a forest of houses, if not nestling, then sprawling over the once green rolling hills. New housing is evident on both sides of the four-lane motorway which now extends to Hamilton and beyond. I had a trawl through real estate.com and was unable to find much new in Pokeno under $600k. So the early birds have already got their worms and now it is just another suburb of Auckland, a 57 km commute to the city.

Others have absconded to small towns like Te Aroha, Wairoa and Dannevirke, where a decent house and block of land (known as a ‘sixtion’) can be had for less than $150k.

New Zealand has few barriers in the way of investors – until recently there was no capital gains tax (as such) and no inheritance tax. Prime Minister John Keys introduced new measures in last year’s Budget, one of which was a tax payable if the (investment) property was sold within two years of purchase. Keys refused to call this a capital gains tax, saying New Zealand already had one, but the government has to prove “intent” to make a profit.

New Zealand also tightened its foreign investment rules and now requires all foreign buyers to declare a tax identification number from their home country. Kiwis don’t call it negative gearing, but as in Australia, expenses relating to investment housing (depreciation, interest, maintenance etc) can be offset against rental income.

Those who support a continuation of negative gearing in Australia claim that if it was abolished the property market would collapse. The Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) said 79% of its members and landlord clients believed that investors would abandon the strategy if Labor’s negative gearing changes were brought in. (Labor proposes to restrict negative gearing to new homes and ‘grandfather’ or exempt existing investment houses.)

REIQ Chairman Rob Honeycombe said the findings confirmed that changes to negative gearing would be disastrous for the Queensland property market.

“That will have a crippling effect on house values and on the rental market, where the private rental market plays such a critical role in keeping rents affordable,” he said.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, no doubt sensing the pre-election atmosphere, has declared he will make no changes to negative gearing in next week’s Budget. The estimated 1.5 million people who invest in residential property would be sure to vote for the politician with the least disagreeable tax policy.

Meanwhile, the 25-44 age group, once the heart of the first home buyer cohort, is struggling to save for a deposit, faced by high rents and stiff competition for affordable housing. Assuming they could find a house in Sydney or Auckland for $700,000, it still means they have to save $140,000 for a deposit (about 14 years at $200 a week).

Their plight creates a dilemma for well-intentioned property investors, those who have simply decided that bricks and mortar is the best form of investment. Sure, they get the tax breaks, but they also have to take the investment risk in the first place and then the secondary risk that they might get the tenants from hell. The third risk may be a Pamplona-type charge for the exits if Labor gets up and changes the rules.

Part of the solution lies with the 814,000 Australians (2011 estimate), who have paid off their mortgages. Whatever their circumstances, they are the only people who, either by gifting money or using their equity for a loan, can help their adult children buy a house. Waiting for the bubble to burst is another option. Or you could move to Spain…there are apartments in Pamplona priced from 39,000 euros (about $A58,000). Buena suerte con eso

 (Thanks to Laurel (She Who Also Sometimes Writes) for being a splendid substitute when I was abroad )