21 Jul 2017

Exhibit highlights plight of conscientious objectors

8:39 am on 21 July 2017

A powerful exhibition focused on opposition to New Zealand's involvement in the First World War has opened at the Dominion Museum in Wellington.

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Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

About 300 conscientious objectors were jailed during the war, 14 were forcibly taken to the front and four subjected to the notorious Field Punishment No 1 - which involved being tied to posts under fire on the frontline.

In 1914 most New Zealanders supported the war, but when conscription was introduced in 1916 the true horror of the conflict was better know and more than 32,000 men indicated they were unwilling to serve.

Exhibition Manager Ian Wards said the Dissent exhibition would offer people a different perspective on the war.

"We are very aware that we don't want to portray war as this glorious jolly hockey sticks experience and to provide a bit of broader context for the public we want to have a series of introductory exhibitions that display different aspects of the was and Dissent is one of those."

Mr Wards said the number of dissenters was low but many were historically significant, such Archibald Baxter who was subjected to Field Punishment No 1 and became a rallying figure for pacifists.

"But Dissent isn't just about conscientious objectors - it's bigger than that. There were soldiers, iwi, religious groups and politicians that spoke out against the war," said Mr Wards.

Dissent - a Different Kind of Courage - tells their story via a 10-minute audio-visual experience.

Dissent exhibition creator James McLean.

Dissent exhibition creator James McLean. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The exhibition's creator, James McLean of Story Inc, said it attempted to capture the broad nature of opposition to the war.

"There are some very famous people. Four people who were taken to the front and given this dreadful No 1 Field Punishment and essentially tortured, but there are also ordinary soldiers who had great reservations about the war and people at home and also a very powerful story of iwi who objected to the war."

Te Puea Herangi of Tainui reminded Waikato iwi of the words of King Tawhiao (c1822-1894) which are quoted in te reo Māori in the exhibition.

"The killing of men must stop; the destruction of land must stop. I shall bury my patu in the earth and it shall not rise again ... Waikato, lie down. Do not allow blood to flow from this time on."

Mr McLean said it was essential for New Zealanders to remember those who opposed the war, as well as those who served.

"I think it's really important that we do know these stories and I don't think they are as well known as they should be. I think that the people who objected were heroes in their own way and whatever you think about the politics of it they were extremely brave people."

The exhibition uses extracts of letters written home by conscientious objectors such as Mark Briggs, who was subjected to No1 Field Punishment help illustrate the story.

"I was dragged on my back... I sustained a huge flesh wound about a foot long and nine inches wide on the right back hip and thigh.

"The track crossed the edge of an old shell crater which was full of water…. The MP asked 'Are you going to walk now? …' I replied '… I wasn't going to walk there…' He immediately threw me into the shell hole, and dragged me through the water... The MP said 'drown yourself now, you bastard, if you want to die for your cause.'"

Briggs was eventually so badly injured he was sent home, but even then he refused to sign his release papers.

Anti-conscription conference.

Anti-conscription conference. Photo: Supplied

Serving soldiers such as Private Alexander May who was writing to his brother from France also had reservations about the war.

"Dear Don, Just a few lines in answer to your letter which I got a while ago, and to tell you to use your block and don't leave New Zealand, swing the lead or take to the bush, but don't come across here…"

Historian David Grant - who wrote the book Field Punishment No. 1 about New Zealand's anti-militarist tradition - was at today's exhibition launch.

He said it was long overdue.

"The First World War story was not just about the soldiers who went away to war and suffered terribly. It was also about people who for various reasons resisted war and resisted conscription and their voice needs to be heard."

Mr Grant did have some reservations about the exhibit however.

"I'd like to see it as part of the main exhibition because I think the dissent story is part of the greater whole of the New Zealand story about the First World War.

"I think it is sad in a way that it is split off from the main war story over there, but I think this is very important and overdue and I'm delighted to see it and they have done a very good job."

The exhibition runs until 1 October at the Dominion Museum Building, alongside the The Great War Exhibition at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.