Memorial honours NZ’s most prominent pacifist

The sculpture by Shane Woolridge (Photo: Jeff Dillon)

By MICHAEL OTTO and JEFF DILLON 

The stand of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most prominent wartime conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter, who became a Catholic late in his life, has been honoured with the opening of a national memorial in Dunedin. 

Archibald Baxter (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Archibald Baxter Peace Garden – The National Memorial for Conscientious Objectors was officially opened on October 29 by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. The memorial, on the corner of George and Albany Streets, was designed by Baxter Design in Queenstown. It features an artwork by Queenstown sculptor Shane Woolridge, depicting in abstract the infamous number 1 Field Punishment endured by Baxter after he was made to go to the Western Front in World War I, having refused military conscription. 

Known by the nickname “The Crucifixion”, this punishment “consisted of being tied to a post in the open with his hands bound tightly behind his back and his knees and feet bound – for up to four hours a day, in all weathers”, stated the New Zealand History website. 

Convinced of the immorality of war as a young man, Baxter was to endure much suffering for his principles. He was placed as close to the front line in World War I as possible, with death and artillery fire all around him, and he was labelled as insane for refusing to wear a military unform. But he never relented from his beliefs. Of the original 14 conscientious objectors sent from New Zealand to England and then the Western Front, he and one other were the only ones who held out until the end of the war. 

At the same time, the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand describes his “saint-like absence of rancour, and readiness to find humanity in the common soldier”. 

This sentiment was echoed in an article in The Common Good in 2005, which stated that Baxter “is also a light within the Church. Being Christian for most of his life and a Catholic in the latter years, he took the teachings of Jesus on justice and peace very seriously. He should be recognised as one of New Zealand’s true saints, a source of inspiration for those seeking moral courage or looking for moral leadership”. 

Archibald Baxter was the father of prominent New Zealand poet James K. Baxter. 

The older Baxter’s autobiography “We Will Not Cease”, was published in England in 1939. The Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand describes it as “a powerful account of dissent and its consequences, and [it] has become a classic of New Zealand literature”. 

According to the 2017 paper by University of Otago Professor David Tombs, in Archibald Baxter’s public writings, he [Baxter] was highly reticent about his religious beliefs for most of his life. 

“He deliberately kept his religious beliefs to himself, saying little to his wife or brothers, but this was because his faith was important to him, not because it was irrelevant (and he was a Kiwi farmer),” Professor Tombs wrote, adding that “Baxter is best understood as a non-denominational (broadly Protestant) Christian believer, who ‘believed but did not belong’ (until his conversion to Catholicism) . . . “. 

“He did not see his Pacificism as dependent on his Christian beliefs, he saw killing people in a war as wrong, and he saw this as a sufficient reason for his stand,” Professor Tombs wrote. 

                                                      Part of the memorial site (Photo: Jeff Dillon)

 

The professor also wrote that, “At one of the most challenging moments in his [Baxter’s] life, during Field Punishment, it seems that he found comfort and strength in God, and this was a turning point in enduring the punishment”. 

Baxter, and his wife Millicent, were received into the Catholic Church in 1965 in Dunedin. 

Professor Tombs noted the role played in this by Fr Stuart Sellar, whom Archibald Baxter met when he [Baxter] was in the Mater Hospital for a minor eye operation and Fr Sellar was the hospital chaplain. 

Professor Tombs referred to a book by Penny Griffiths on the life of Millicent Baxter, which told of a friendship developing between the priest and the Baxters, and the couple’s interest in Catholicism grew. In this, they were encouraged by their son James, who had already been received into the Catholic Church. 

The Baxters asked Fr Sellar if they could be pacifists and Catholics. The priest gave them St John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris to read, and the strong papal teaching on peace reassured them. 

According to The Common Good article, Archibald Baxter “continued to live in Dunedin, and he remained active in the cause of social justice and a pacifist all his life”. He died in 1970, aged 88. 

The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust stated that a grant of $369,000 from the NZ Lottery Grants Board in 2019 was a significant boost to the memorial project, which was also supported by Dunedin City Council, three community trusts and many individual supporters. 

Stuff reported that two other suggested sites in Dunedin for the memorial were knocked back after opposition from some institutions and from some in the community.  

“A temporary sculpture of Baxter appeared at Frank Kitts Park, Wellington in 2016, and prompted calls for a permanent place to honour conscientious objectors,” the Stuff article stated. 

At the opening in Dunedin, Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust chairman, Professor Kevin Clements said that it took about ten years to go from the beginning of the idea through to actual fruition. 

He noted that when you stand near the memorial and look down Albany Street and across to the Otago Peninsula in the distance then you can identify high on the hillside there the Soldier’s Memorial dedicated to those men from the Peninsula who were killed or wounded in World War 1. It was somehow fitting that the two memorials to courage counterbalanced each other. 

Commenting on the Soldier’s MemorialProfessor Clements said: “It is entirely appropriate that that’s there, so that we acknowledge all those who lost their lives in war, and the soldier up there can look down on here to a very different kind of memorial, a memorial to those who chose a different path, had to have a different kind of courage to say no to war. And we want these two spaces to be in conversation with each other, so that together we can begin thinking about ways in which we can be more creative in the future about how to build peace and to maintain it.” 

The Deputy Prime Minister welcomed people to “this celebration”, and he used that word advisedly – “it is a celebration of courage”. He also praised the efforts of the trust members who had stuck to their task. He wanted to begin his main part of his speech by commenting also about Parihaka. He noted that the invasion of Parihaka happened in 1881, which he believed was also the year that Archibald Baxter was born. 

 He also noted the wrong of what amounted to statesponsored torture with field punishment number 1, and in as far as he could he wanted to apologise for that being done in the past. 

Mr Robertson spoke about the form of the sculpture and noted that its bent form was representative of one of the great attempts in New Zealand of someone attempting to stand upright. “Our commitment to peace and disarmament is intertwined in our identity, it is part of who we are on the world stage, it is part of standing upright as a New Zealander,” he said. 

 

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