Anzac Day Amnesia

Archibald Baxter is a hero to me.  I remember him on every Anzac Day. It’s my way of saying that his story, marked by brutality and torture after he refused to fight in World War I, is a vital missing chapter in our collective memory.

Perhaps it’s shame and embarrassment that stops us from talking about the brutal way that he and other conscientious objectors were treated. How he was imprisoned and then effectively kidnapped to the front. How he was bruised, bloodied and beaten. Not once but many times.

On starvation rations for much of the time and sentenced to Field Punishment No 1, an exquisite form of torture. Tied tightly to a pole, sometimes crucifixion style, for up to four hours at a time. On occasion, the ropes tied so tightly that they cut into his flesh and completely stopped the circulation.

Baxter, Mark Briggs and others, ‘were tortured in varying degrees, in the most astonishing recorded instance of State-sanctioned cruelty which New Zealanders have ever inflicted upon fellow New Zealanders,’ writes David Grant in his book about New Zealand’s anti-militaristic tradition.

When I first read about this torture, a great emptiness opened up inside me. I felt ashamed that this was part of my history and largely hidden from view, explored by playwrights, artists, and poets, but missing from the official Anzac Day commemorations.

As the atrocities kept marching across each page of Grant’s book, I found it difficult to keep reading, that is, until the incident in Abeele, a little town on the border of Belgium and France.

Baxter always refused to go on parade when ordered. This day he was beaten severely by an officer but resolute still refused. The enraged officer ordered a group of soldiers to drop him onto the wire covered wooden walkway, complete with upward protruding nails.

This was a redemptive moment like no other in the story, offered by men who refused, perhaps for only a few minutes, to be brutalized by war. Instead of following orders, they picked Baxter up and gently lowered him to the walkway. Again and then a third time, they picked him up and gently lowered him.

Ordinary men, silently shouting their opposition to cruelty and by their loving actions, as the Jewish tradition says, responsible for bringing God into the world.

Baxter’s vulnerability called forth outrageous acts of compassion from others who were deeply affected by his suffering. His story creates discomfort because it shows the necessary fragility of the military that’s glossed over when we only tell the heroic tales that are officially sanctioned. We need this story in our collective memory lest we forget the tragic truth of the matter.


Image: Painting by Bob Kerr

12 Replies to “Anzac Day Amnesia”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I totally agree with you. How sad that we have still not learned the lesson, and spend 2 trillion dollars a year on on increasing our armaments, and even designing them with pre-determined enemies in mind. I think that the possibility that someone will start an atomic war is at least as serious as the huge issues of climate change, and yet we allow the insanity to persist.

    1. Thanks for your comments Struan. I appreciate you taking the time.

      On reflection, I think the fears that drive humanity to behave in these ways are complex and not easily understood or dealt with. From one perspective it seems crazy to spend all this money on weapons, from another, it is perfectly reasonable and some people might thin governments were irresponsible not to.

      It seems to me that we cannot understand all this by operating at a purely rational level. We have to take into account the unconscious and work with what rises up to meet us, both at an individual and collective level. But this is not a popular or easy stance.

      My small contribution is to think and write about it from time to time.

  2. I was appauled when I first read “We shall not cease”. Suddenly, sadly, to my horror, NZ was as bad as everyone else.
    I met a number of elderly men and women who had been conciencious objecters during WWIl at a peace convention in wellington in the late 70s. They were remarkedly peaceful compassionate people who really listened to the young and believed peaceful solutions were always possible no matter how difficult the problem.

  3. Thank you Sande. I too am sometimes fearful lest we remember only the acts of glory – many of which deserve to be held in honour indeed – but leave blank the pages for stories of a different kind of courage. If we made Colin Gibson’s hymn, Honour the Dead, part of our anzac services, we would go a little way in acknowledging this.

    1. Thanks Barbara
      I used Honour the Dead extensively when I was a school chaplain. All of them enjoyed singing it immensely. So too did soldiers when I was an army chaplain. Colin Gibson and Shirley did a magnificent job with the music and words.

  4. Thanks for publishing that. I feel that the day is in danger of being devoted to the glorification of militarism and over looks the senseless slaughter initiated by poorly planned ventures. There needs to be a peace day when the loss of all killed in wars is recognised. May the day when all weapons are beaten into plough shares be upon us soon.

    1. Thanks for your comments Garry.
      I think it’s important to keep the conversation going as we find ways of repurposing weapons!

    1. Thanks Deirdra
      It is a moving story and one that I think we need to keep uppermost in our collective memory.
      I really appreciate your comment.

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