Conscientious objectors

This hook presents a painting about the New Zealander Archibald Baxter, a conscientious objector who was subjected to harsh military punishment because he refused to fight.

Field Punishment No. 1 by Bob Kerr (private collection).(external link)

Field Punishment No. 1 by Bob Kerr (private collection). www.teara.govt.nz/en/artwork/34132/field-punishment-no-1

Context

New Zealander Archibald Baxter was a conscientious objector who refused to fight because of his pacifist beliefs. In 1917, he was arrested, imprisoned, and sent to war against his will, but he managed to resist any kind of war service. He was sent home in August 1918.

This painting by Bob Kerr shows Archibald Baxter enduring field punishment number one (also known as “the crucifixion”). Field punishment number one was a punishment for soldiers during the First World War. Soldiers were tied to a gun wheel or post for up to two hours a day, regardless of weather or safety, over a number of weeks.

Baxter described his painful experience of field punishment number one in his book We Will Not Cease: Autobiography of a Conscientious Objector (London: Victor Gollanz Ltd, 1939). It is also described in The Life of James K. Baxter by Frank McKay (Oxford University Press, 1990), pages 9–10.

To put the issue of conscription into context, from 1916 New Zealand enforced conscription rather than relying on volunteers. Our ANZAC allies rejected conscription. This may explain why 80% of New Zealand First World War memorials display only the names of those who died while in Australia First World War memorials include the names of all who volunteered.

Possible discussion questions

  • In what ways was Baxter’s refusal to fight heroic?
  • In what ways does society place pressure on people to conform? What happens when people don’t conform? Are the consequences of not conforming real or imagined?
  • What are the benefits of living in a society that values diverse ideas, beliefs, and choices? To what extent is New Zealand this type of society?
  • When is it right to refuse to do what a government or institution tells you to do?
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