In We Will Not Cease
, Archibald Baxter recounts his experiences as a conscientious objector during World War I. Baxter was a New Zealand farmer who had no “official standing” as a conscientious objector because he did not belong to any particular pacifist religious sect. Initially imprisoned by New Zealand authorities, Baxter and thirteen others were eventually sent to the front in France. Baxter steadfastly stuck to his belief that all war is wrong, refusing to follow military orders or to take any kind of non-combat role.
[a:Bertrand Russell|17854|Bertrand Russell|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1357460876p2/17854.jpg], probably Britain’s most famous pacifist of the day, got off easy with just imprisonment in comparison to Baxter’s experiences. While many of the enlisted soldiers were kind to Baxter, he faced treatment from New Zealand and British army officers that ranged from indifferent to barbaric. When he refused to wear an army uniform, his hands were cuffed behind his back for three weeks straight. He was denied treatment for a toothache unless he agreed to serve. At one point he was given nothing to eat for several days. He had no money to buy food, since he received no pay, and he had to depend on a kindly cook to keep from starving. He was deliberately placed in a location undergoing heavy shell fire from German artillery and ordered not to move. Throughout all of this he was repeatedly reminded that he could be executed at any time.
Baxter was also placed on the notorious Field Punishment No. 1, the “crucifixion” punishment used for recalcitrant soldiers during WWI. While guidelines indicate that this punishment was to be used for only two hours a day, Baxter spent upwards of three to five hours a day, every day, tied to a post for almost a month, even during a blizzard. He describes it:"The ropes...cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position...The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck."Field Punishment No. 1, a somewhat milder form than that used with Baxter (From Library and Archives Canada)
Baxter steadfastly maintained his beliefs under these conditions, patiently answering endless questions as to why he was holding out. Sometimes these questions were asked with genuine curiosity, sometimes they were accompanied by beatings, but he never wavered, stating:"I object to Governments forcing the people of a country under conscription to murder the people of another country. I am making my protest against it in the best way I can. War is an evil thing, should be done away with, and I believe can be done away with. It seems right to me to stand out against it and I intend to stand out against it, no matter what I suffer, even if they kill me."
Whatever your feelings about Baxter’s political views, it’s hard not to be impressed with his unflinching commitment. Persecuting Baxter and his fellow conscientious objectors with such bizarre zeal served no useful purpose and only diminished those who mistreated them. It is ludicrous that so much effort would be expended over the beliefs of a few men in the midst of the global insanity that was World War I.
(A free online copy of this book can be found at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre