A New Zealand Pacifist with Scottish Roots

baxterArchibald McColl Learmond Baxter was born in the small settlement of Saddle Hill in the province of Otago, New Zealand, in mid-December 1881. His parents were both of Scottish descent, with Baxter’s maternal grandfather a pioneer settler who made it to New Zealand in 1859. Despite this early start in the colony the family never managed to make a particularly good living for themselves, a fact that contributed to Archibald having to leave school when he was only 12 years old, instead pursuing a whole raft of different jobs that included the sheep shearing as well as working as ploughman.

Archibald’s first thought about war and enlisting when the South African War commenced in 1899. It was shortly afterwards, however, that he encountered a lawyer from Dunedin who sought to convince New Zealanders that pacifism was a much better approach. Archibal was intrigued about what he heard, and began to read pacifist literature. He was fascinated too by the words of Scottish labour leader Keir Hardie, who came to visit New Zealand. Archibald’s views consolidated, so that, by the time New Zealand soldiers were being drafted to join the British war effort, Archibald had long since decided not to enlist – and convinced his brother to do the same. Six of the Baxter brother were thus sent to gaol.

After military conscription had been introduced in November 1916, Archibald was arrested, with his case for exemption from service being rejected – a decision that kept Archibald in gaol as a so-called ‘objector’. New Zealand’s then Minister of Defence, James Allen, was not fond of ‘objectors’, and hence many of them were sent to war anyway. In the summer of 1917, Archibald, together with two of his brothers, was among a group of ‘objectors’ sent to Europe to fight in the war. As Archibald’s biography notes:

On the ship [to Europe] the men were stripped, placed in uniform, locked in a small cabin and abused by officers and volunteer soldiers. On 6 October they were sent to Étaples base in France. The commander was Lieutenant Colonel George ‘Hoppy’ Mitchell, who had been twice wounded in battle. He was determined to break the spirit of the conscientious objectors, and showed particular animosity towards Archibald Baxter. Baxter and three others suffered Field Punishment No 1 (called colloquially ‘the Crucifixion’): they were tied to a post in the open with their hands bound tightly behind their backs and their knees and feet bound for up to four hours a day in all weathers. With two others, Lawrence Kirwin and Mark Briggs, Baxter survived this humiliation only to be sent into the trenches. He was beaten, sent to a part of the front that was being heavily shelled, denied food, and finally, on 1 April 1918, taken to hospital in Boulogne, where he was diagnosed as having mental weakness and confusional insanity in his determination not to fight. Three weeks later a British medical board confirmed the diagnosis of insanity, although it suggested that this may have been exaggerated so that he could not be court-martialled by the New Zealand army. None the less, it was the end of Baxter’s war. He was taken to a British hospital for mentally disturbed soldiers, and sent home in August 1918, one of only two of the original 14 objectors (the other was Briggs) to hold out to the end.

Archibald later married Millicent Amiel Macmillan Brown, and had children. Archibald’s oldest son, Terence John, was to follow in his father’s footsteps during the Second World War, when he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector.

Please click here for Baxter’s full biography.

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