Monday, July 28, 2014

Baxter (1) Conscientious Objector

When I started school, it was less than ten years after the end of the second world war, so feelings about the war were strong. Returned servicemen came and spoke to us about their experiences. The men who had been to the first world war were still in their sixties. I remember a couple coming to tell us about the glories of the first war.

By the time I got to secondary school the story had changed. We studied the cause of the First World War, but it was not clear what the cause was. The war the result of a series of blunders by the leaders of several Christian empires. Their mistakes cost millions of lives. Now a hundred years from the beginning of the war, it is all a bit of a embarrassment. I hope the centenary celebrations will not try to turn it into a glorious event.

Accordingly I was very interested in a book called We Will Not Cease by Archibald Baxter. It is amazing story. Baxter was a conscientious objector during the First World War. The New Zealand government only recognized conscientious objectors, if they belonged to pacifist churches (like the Quakers). Baxter belonged to the Methodist Church, which supported the war, so he could not be listed as a conscientious objector.

The army could not accept his stand, so it did everything it could to break his spirit. He would be forced to fight a war that was supposed to make the world free.

Baxter was arrested, and when he refused to obey military orders, he was thrown in prison. While in prison he was sometimes beaten and often went without food. After he had been prison for a year, he and twelve others were put on a troop ship and sent to the Western Front in Belgium. It was assumed that once they arrived in Europe and were subjected to war they would knuckle down and fight.

Baxter believed that fighting war was contrary to the gospel, so he continued refusing to obey military orders. This led to terrible punishment.

No 1 Field Punishment
The first punishment was called No 1 Filed Punishment. Baxter gives a full description.
"Right-oh," he said. "Come along. I've got my orders." He took me over to the poles which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stamp the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always blue with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time - his never did.

The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.

A few minutes after the sergeant had left me I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half an hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said, "Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it." But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning, as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst, strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender. The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.
After spending all day in this way for many weeks, the army realised that it was not going to beat Baxter and his mates, so they tried a new punishment. They were sent up to the trenches to face the full wrath of war.

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