When women had the courage to be different

Christchurch peace activist Ada Wells, front right, with the delegates who formed the the National Council of Women.
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Christchurch peace activist Ada Wells, front right, with the delegates who formed the the National Council of Women.

OPINION: "New Zealand as a whole seems so absolutely obsessed by the idea of fighting evil with the devil's weapons that I must confess to a feeling of hopelessness", wrote Sarah Page to fellow peace worker Charles Mackie in 1915.

Events marking the centenary of WWI have become commonplace, with many honouring the courage, commitment, suffering and triumph or loss of those who served in the armed forces.

Less well known are the stories of that minority group who took a very different approach: people like Page and her colleague in the Canterbury Women's Institute (CWI), Ada Wells – who went against prevailing sentiment and wrote and spoke out for peace.

Wanting to highlight the courage, convictions and experiences of this group is a research project led by the Disarmament and Security Centre, titled, "Pacifist women, men and their families in Canterbury".

The project aims to tell some of the stories of people who took part in these tumultuous events – especially women -  by way of lectures and presentations, displays, articles and a website.

The background to women's involvement as peace advocates in the 1900s can be seen in the writings of women active in the suffrage and women's movement of the 1890s, including the CWI and the National Council of Women.

When the Defence Act of 1909 brought in Compulsory Military Training, starting with Junior Cadets from the age of 12 and continuing to the age of 21 (later raised to 14 to 25 years) there was reaction throughout the country including from mothers.

Christchurch was the leading peace city with a very active Passive Resisters Union and an Anti-Militarist League, as well as the umbrella group for peace organisations throughout New Zealand, the National Peace Council which formed in 1911.

Secretary of the National Peace Council right up until the time of WWII was Charles Mackie, who was assisted in his work by women including CWI members Rose Atkinson and Ellen Vickers Howell. The women also attended the court hearings when the young resisters' cases were being heard and gave moral support. Many of the resisters served prison terms, with one small group being incarcerated in Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island.

One of the younger leaders of the peace movement in Christchurch at this time was Ida Bradley who supported the young resisters and organised a Children's Peace League. In January 1913 she was among thirteen women who presented a letter to the Mayor of Christchurch, Henry Holland, calling on him to "summon a public meeting of women to be held in the City Council Chambers to discuss the whole matter of the Defence Act as it concerns the youth of the country".

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When Britain declared war in 1914, the New Zealand Government had already promised to send an expeditionary force. Public feeling was fervently in favour of the war effort and volunteers flocked to join up – some 14,000 in the first week.

This was a difficult time for the peace groups and the National Peace Council could no longer hold public meetings. Small groups continued to meet in private homes however and Mackie kept up his voluminous correspondence with sympathisers throughout the country and peace organisations in England, Australia and the US. The work of the Peace Council was closely scrutinised by the military authorities, with Mackie reporting that all his letters were being opened by the military and some boxes of leaflets sent from England simply didn't arrive.

The CWI, led by Sarah Page and Ada Wells, continued to take a stand, with letters to the editor, and published statements. In 1916 they hosted the visit of Adela Pankhurst, a founding member of the Women's Peace Army (and daughter of the leading British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst), who spoke in Christchurch as part of a nationwide tour.

With insufficient men coming forward to meet New Zealand's commitment, conscription was introduced in 1916, and led to Military Boards being set up to hear the appeals of those who did not want to fight. Those who opposed conscription are generally referred to as COs, but there were several distinct groupings that came under this heading. Historian David Grant has identified these as those who objected on religious, ethical, or political grounds or those based on ethnicity or race. Many North Island Maori, for example, especially in those regions where large tracts of land had been confiscated by the Government during the land wars of the 19th century, felt little allegiance to the British crown; and many Irish living in New Zealand also had little desire to support the British war effort. Reports of Military Board hearings show other diverse reasons being put forward, such as belonging to an essential industry or family or domestic situations. In one such case a young man was supporting his two sisters while three brothers were already serving at the front. Many others asked for an extension of time so that they could let or sell their farm; or carry out essential seasonal work such as harvesting;

Of those whose appeals were not allowed many agreed to non-combatant service; others were court-martialled and  imprisoned. By April 1918 there were 188 men in prison throughout the country with about 60 in Paparua Prison near Christchurch, including Sarah Page's twenty year old son Robin.

The Disarmament and Security Centre (DSC) would like to hear from any family members of women and men who took part in these momentous events including Maori COs, who may have family letters, photos or memories that would give further insight into their experiences. Anti-war poetry and information about servicemen whose wartime experiences persuaded them to become convinced pacifists, is also of interest.

To contact the DSC please email kate@chch.planet.org.nz

Margaret Lovell-Smith is lead researcher for the 'Pacifist women, men and their families in Canterbury' project which aims to tell the stories of those who opposed the war.

 - Stuff

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