'Crucified' for refusing to take up arms

PAINTING PAIN: Wellington artist's Bob Kerr's depiction of Archibald Baxter enduring Field Punishment No. 1.
PAINTING PAIN: Wellington artist's Bob Kerr's depiction of Archibald Baxter enduring Field Punishment No. 1.

When their friends were fighting in World War I, Otago farmer Archibald Baxter and 13 others refused to take up arms - a decision that saw them persecuted by their own army, as a new film reveals. By Michelle Duff.

Hands tied behind his back, strapped to a pole in the freezing night. His feet tied just above the ground, so that he couldn't properly rest his weight.

This torture continued for several hours a day, in all weather. Twenty-eight days was the usual stint, if he survived, if the cold and the pain didn't blacken his hands with frostbite and squeeze the last breath from his lungs.

It was the kind of persecution you might expect from your worst enemy.

Not from your own brothers.

Field Punishment No. 1 was the name of the penalty reserved for the worst soldiers in the New Zealand Defence Force during World War I - including those who would not fight.

Now, a $2.7 million New Zealand on Air-funded film on TVNZ this week interprets the story of these conscientious objectors for the screen for the first time.

While thousands of young men willingly signed up for the war, numbers dried up as the wounded began to return. When conscription was introduced halfway through World War I, many refused to go on the grounds of pacifism.

By the end, 300 such objectors had been formally prosecuted and imprisoned.

As the battle raged overseas, the Government decided to make an example of 14 of the most staunch objectors, then imprisoned in Trentham Army Camp, and ship them to the Western Front.

The most famous was Archibald Baxter, a farmer from Otago who stood steadfastly against the war and would not take up arms.

Shot in and around Auckland last summer by director Peter Burger, Field Punishment No. 1 tells the story of Baxter and the 13 other men sent to Europe on the troop ship, Waitemata.

The screenplay has a quiet, thoughtful Baxter, played by Fraser Brown, alongside a brash and mouthy Mark Briggs (Byron Coll) another notorious objector who went on to become a parliamentarian after the war.

It depicts the men's worsening treatment as they continue to refuse to play the part of soldiers.

They ditch their uniform whenever possible, and refuse to carry rifles. For their rebelliousness they are thrown into military jail, made to undergo Field Punishment No. 1, deprived of food and beaten.

When Briggs refuses to go to the front, he is dragged with barbed wire across duckboards - a haphazard boardwalk of planks - almost drowned, and left without medical attention.

"It seemed like an extraordinary thing to stand up in a conflict like that and say this isn't the way to solve things. It was amazingly insane, really, " says Kathy Baxter, Archibald Baxter's granddaughter.

"But now we think maybe it's not such an impossible thing after all, maybe we could get to the point where we can manage without conflict. We're not there yet, but it's not an impossible dream anymore."

Baxter says the family agreed to the dramatisation of their grandfather's story because they felt it was a side of the war that was important to tell.

"There's going to be a lot of World War I stories coming out soon, and if we want to understand our history then we need to look at the full picture. There's no doubt that conflict had a huge impact on us as a nation.

"For us as a family, it affected our entire lives . . . we know our grandfather and he was a very wise person, and almost in a Maori sense like a kaumatua in the family, and he had a very strong influence on our family culture. We admired him, and we saw him as someone who stood for his principles."

The Baxters were a tight-knit family of farmers in rural Otago. Three of the brothers were shipped off to the front - and their choice not to fight had nothing to do with cowardice, she says.

"The Baxters, when they were at school, were a little gang, they weren't against beating others up, they were rough rural men. My Granddad knew how to shoot a gun so this was a matter of principle for them."

When her grandfather returned from the war he was physically and mentally bruised, but no more so than thousands of others, she says. He later wrote an account of his struggle, We Shall Not Cease.

"It was a horrific war, one that injured and killed a whole lot of young men who possibly didn't know what they were being sent to. Granddad would be very clear that his story was part of that, was only one of those stories.

"The view he took was that war wasn't the way to solve the conflicts of that era, and he kept that view all his life."
After the war, Archibald suffered recriminations from people who didn't agree with what he'd done. But for the most part the small, Scottish community was supportive, Baxter says.

"It would have been very hard to get those stories out of grandfather, he was more interested in telling us about the people who helped him."

In another family connection to the film, the role of objector Garth Ballantyne is played by Baxter's son - and Archibald Baxter's great-grandson - young actor and playwright Eli Kent.

"He did say it was odd being on set, surrounded by people who are pretending to be Baxters."

Recreating the Battle of the Somme in a dry paddock in west Auckland was just one of the challenges faced by Burger, whose movie credits include Until Proven Innocent, the tele-movie about the wrongful conviction of David Dougherty.

World War I buff Sir Peter Jackson lent some military tanks and an ambulance from his collection and film-makers broke the water ban to muddy up some of the fields. Other scenes were shot at the former Kingseat psychiatric hospital, with facades transforming the derelict buildings into French batiments and Belgium chateaux.

But for Burger himself, the strongest driving factor was the compelling storyline.

"The strength of Archibald Baxter in sticking by his convictions is incredible, really. Now it's easy to say war is terrible and we shouldn't kill each other, it's sort of blatantly obvious. To have the strength to stand against that when every other person around you says you're a coward and a shirker and punish you publicly for it . . . his story is an absolute inspiration."

Field Punishment No. 1 will screen on TV One, April 22, 8.30pm

FAMILY REJECTS CALL FOR APOLOGY

The family of James K Baxter has rejected calls for a government apology for his father's "crucifixion" during World War 1.

Surviving relatives say the government should instead apologise to the families of all soldiers for sending them to such a horrific war, as the centenary approaches.

Archibald Baxter, one of the nation's most famous pacifists, was one of 14 men subjected to torture known as field punishment No 1 for refusing to fight. The conscientious objectors were strapped to poles on the battlefield, beaten, thrown into military jail, and deprived of food after being forcibly sent to the Western Front.

A $2.7 million taxpayer-funded film Field Punishment No 1 will be screened by TVNZ on Tuesday, telling the story of the "conchies". Parliamentarians were given a private viewing at the Beehive last week. After the screening, the possibility of a government apology to the Baxter family, first brought up by Helen Clark in 2000, was raised by several attendees.

But Kathy Baxter, Archie Baxter's granddaughter, made it clear ahead of the film's public screening that an apology was not what the family wanted. "An apology is no way to look at this. The people who needed to be apologised to from granddad's point of view were all the families of all the people who went to war.

"When you make a protest, you are not a victim. Dad [Terence Baxter, James's brother ] is very clear about this, apologies are not appropriate for those who make a protest. For all the young men, it was a terrible experience."

Lippy Productions film-makers Donna Malane and Paula Boock based the script on military transcripts from objectors including Baxter, Mark Briggs and Garth Ballantyne immediately upon their return to New Zealand. "They're so powerful because they are firsthand accounts, and they are very raw," Malane said.

Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss said $15 million a year was dished out in the NZ on Air Platinum fund to tell the nation's stories. "Bringing it into our living room does make us confront our past. It's an achievement that a story that hasn't being told is being told."

The Press