Saturday, April 25, 2009

Conscientious objection in the First World War

There is a very good section on this topic on the site. In some prisons in this country, instances of daily strip searches were noted. Those prisoners incarcerated for their conscientious beliefs who protested against such treatment had privileges such as family visits taken from them. A number were even deported to Britain. It wasn't until November 1920 when conscientious objectors were released from custody in New Zealand. Even so, they were disenfranchised for up to 10 years after their sentence.

Grey River Argus, 26 July 1917, Page 2
When the last transports sailed with troops, fourteen conscientious objectors to military service were placed on board from a guard from Trentham Vamp. There are still a number of religious objectors in camp, says the "Dominion." Some of these are willing to do work' about the camp, other are not, but all refuse to do anything which would tend to make them soldiers. It may be mentioned that there is a clear distinction between the religious and the conscientious objector. The former objects on religious grounds; the latter objects to conscription. Both types give considerable trouble to the camp staffs by refusing to work, drill, or put on uniform — a few have even refused to draw their pay. On the other hand, there are among the religious objectors a number who cheerfully perform orderly work and fatigues. So far none of the objectors have refused to take their meals.
Grey River Argus, 10 October 1917, Page 4

Some striking comments were made by a returned soldier on the subject of commissions in the New Zealand forces. A 3rd Reinforcement man returned to the Dominion in June last year, having been in Gallipoli three times, during which campaign he received rifle bullet wounds in the neck and shoulder. He served with the Battalion, and re-enlisted in May this year. Asked his opinion upon camp matters, he said : "The average returned soldier who re-enlists has no hope of getting a commission, in fact, they do all they can to block him. As far as I can see, social 'pull' is the chief qualification, and ability doesn’t count …

Asked about the conscientious objectors, he said: "We had a new batch in this week — I suppose there must be 25 or 30 there now. They are, of course, under guard, and will do nothing. Talk about conscientious! The majority are about the hardest cases in camp, and the language to be heard among them is enough to turn the air blue. They have a court-martial every, week or so to thin them out, and then they take a trip to Wellington for 11 months. By the way, the staff instructors who belong to the First Division are getting pulled out now, and drafted into the reinforcements; some have had their jobs since the beginning of the war. I'm not making any reflections on them, however; some have tried to get away before and were not allowed to go."
Auckland Star, 4 December 1917
Trentham Camp has at present two large hutments set aside for the flotsam and jetsam of the Military Service system, the deserters and conscientious objectors. The latter number nearly forty, and the majority have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, while the remainder are awaiting, cheerfully, it is said, a similar fate. About twenty of the objectors have religious reasons, and there has been much amusement among the others owing to the long arguments taking place among the religious objectors, who rely on different texts, and endeavour to prove each other in the wrong.

The men are allowed excellent food, plenty of literature, visitors, and the comforts which their friends bring, so that they are not at all displeased with their lot. They look forward to spending their terms on the prison tree-planting areas in the North Island, where a small batch is already at work.

Whether the objectors will get the work they expect is at present doubtful for the English authorities have found good use for this class of person, and they might be better able to deal with them that the New Zealand authorities. Fourteen New Zealand objectors were sent to England several months ago, and a report is being made on the experiment by the New Zealand representatives in England. When that arrives, the future policy in regard to the conscientious objector now in camp will be decided. Meanwhile, their future is uncertain, but they are comfortable, and as they are all together, they are able to reinforce each other in their passive resistance doctrines.
Grey River Argus, 16 February 1918, Page 4

WELLINGTON, February 12. In the absence of the Defence Minister, the Prime Minister has replied to statements made by Mr. H. Holland (editor of the "Maoriland Worker") in an election speech relative to conscientious objectors. Mr. Massey states that no man has been sentenced more than once for the same offence. The ages ranged from twenty-two to thirty. The men were not taken Home in irons. If any were sent from England to France in irons the obvious conclusion must mean that it was necessary for the authorities to take such precautions.
Grey River Argus, 15 November 1918, Page 2
Three questions are being asked the Minister of Defence by Mr H. K. Holland, as follows: (1) Whether he will furnish a report as to the number of members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces who have been subjected to the punishment known as crucifixion, or field punishment; (2) whether Clark Briggs, one of the fourteen 'conscientious objectors deported last year, is now in hospital and classed C 2 permanently unfit; and if so, when will he be returned to New Zealand? (3) whether he will call for a full report in connection with the case of Clark Briggs and also a return showing the number of New Zealand conscientious objectors subjected to field punishment No 1?
Grey River Argus, 4 August 1920, Page 2

Although practically every country which were allied against the Central Powers in the recent war have liberated their conscientious objectors, New Zealand, a mere speck in the Southern Seas, zealously follows a spirit of vindictiveness, and to-day many of Her most noble-hearted men are incarcerated behind lock and bar. It has often been said that if one wants to find a real jingo of English descent he must search out of the Old Country, and the truth of this statement is fully borne out by the attitude taken by New Zealand-born men and women in respect to the war, and incidentally to the conscientious objectors. With that grand old Imperialistic bombast, and the "glorious Empire” obsession which sees good in everything that a Tory ridden Government does, this kind of person vies with his brother in the Homeland, in pursuing a policy that is reminiscent of the dark ages.

A mild sensation was caused among the patriotic circles of New Zealand recently by General Russell. We do not know just why the brave General made the statement he did about the conscientious objectors, but suffice it that in his opinion there was neither sense nor reason in keeping these men in prison. The General could have well added a lot more when he was on the subject, but his somewhat strained expressions were sufficient to call forth an indignant protest from a small section of soldiers, Women's Societies, Employers' Associations, local bodies and a number of other drum-beating organisations. The latest protest comes from a meeting of military patients in one of the dominion's hospitals, and as an illustration of Christian sentiment it is about the most crazy and war-intoxicated utterance that has emanated for some time in this age of "peace," brought about by a "righteous" war. Not satisfied with the unjust imprisonment imposed upon men who valued their conscience as their most sacred possession, and the disfranchisement of civil rights for a period of 10 years, these poor misguided cripples of war demand that the conscientious objectors should be deprived of their civil rights in New Zealand for all time.

The pity of it! To think that men who return from a struggle, not of their making, shattered in limb and body, should in the dark days of their suffering favour a law which metes out punishment to men who use a God-given gift — the right of free-will and the guidance of their conscience. It is bad enough to listen to the protests of the ''toy soldiers," who stayed at home and bled the real soldiers' dependents white, but for men who can look back on the horrors of war (and in doing so know the evil of the whole business) and then, demand that their fellow-citizens should be silent factors in the country, is one of the tragic illustrations of what effect war has on the minds of some people. We often hear the statement: "If a country is not worth fighting for it is not worth living in," but we never hear this applied to that contemptible citizen who took advantage of the war conditions and bumped up the prices of commodities to such an extent, that in some cases, whilst the husband was away fighting for freedom his dependents were being exploited in every direction. No, it is not to such men as these that the taunt is flung, but to the peace-loving, conscience-inspired man, who bore the brand of a shirker rather than be false to his innermost convictions.

It is not the duty of anyone to question the ideals of another, but in many cases the men who had the most stones cast at them were those who fought to make the lot of the soldier and his dependents a little easier. We pride ourselves on our Democracy; we are willing to trade with Russia because she is a “hopeful market", we would employ Germans to-morrow if they could be obtained at a low rate of wages; but we still have our old British dignity in one respect— and as a result those who shirked their "duty" in the glorious war "to make the world safe for Democracy" are herded with felons behind prison bars. lf we spoke truly we would say we are a nation of hypocrites, prostituting daily every law of Christianity. In many cases the soldiers call for vengeance on the C.O.s, but the day might yet dawn when it will be to men possessing the latter 's ideals that they will look to for better things.
Grey River Argus, 20 October 1920, Page 3




(Special to " Argus.") ; WELLINGTON, Oct. 19.

To-night in the House, Mr Massey announced that the Conscientious Objectors and Military Prisoners, other than those with criminal convictions are to be all released on Armistice Day. He also announced that there will be no further prosecutions of the Conscientious Objectors after Armistice Day.
Of course, during World War II, it happened again. That time, though, it couldn't be said that it was just a Tory-led backlash against those who didn't want to heed the call of war drums: the Prime Minister was Peter Fraser, an ardent anti-conscription activist during the First World War.


  1. Can't say as I've researched much on CO's in Oz but I do know that any Dept of Education employees who were CO's were automatically made into stretcher bearers.

  2. Thanks for that, Jayne. Wouldn't surprise me. That may have been what they did with those deported from here, as well.

    Sometime, I'll look more deeply into the subject. It only seems to be touched on, now and then.