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Tomorrow is the 99th ANZAC day – the national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.

Founded following the WWI Gallipoli campaign in which 2,721 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives, ANZAC day has long been a day of solemn memory of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many, in all subsequent wars.

In recent years we have seen the general scope of ANZAC day widen to also acknowledge and commemorate the many who worked in roles that were more ancillary, but no less important (and in some cases nearly as dangerous) as the troops on the front lines. They have included resistance members, medical staff and the workers on the home front. But the story of the conscientious objectors has been conspicuously absent from the ANZAC day of remembrance…until now.

On Tuesday, I watched an excellent docudrama called ‘Field Punishment No. 1′ – the story of Archibald Baxter and the 13 other pacifists who defied conscription and who, on moral grounds, refused to fight in World War I. The 14 were jailed and forcibly shipped to the western front. Archibald Baxter was first transfered to a military prison in Dunkirk and subjected to "Field Punishment Number 1" in the depth of winter. He and the others were beaten, tortured and forcibly marched to the trenches.

One particularly moving scene in the trenches has Archibald discussing his views with a corporal assigned to guard him. I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence the corporal says to Archibald:-

"I have a son and if we survive this and go home, he will ask me: ‘What did you do in the war dad?’ What am I supposed to say? What would YOU say?"

Archibald replies:-

"If my son asks me that question, I’ll tell him that I did everything I could to stop it."

In another stunning visual scene, Archibald is forced to stand in an ammo dump, under fire by enemy artillery while the sergeant hides behind a wall of sandbags. With shells exploding all around him, Archibald remains steadfast and refuses to either return fire or cower from the barrage.

Archibald suffered a complete physical mental breakdown but survived the war and eventually returned to his home in Otago. He subsequently wrote an account of his experience called "We will not cease" which was published in 1939.

Whatever the views people may have on the issue of pacifism / conscientious objection, there is no denying that it takes significant courage and deep conviction to stand against the system…especially when the war machine is running at full power.

It’s time that their part of the story was told…

Undercoat website painting (Bob Kerr)
Field Punishment Number 1 (painting by Bob Kerr)

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