Conscientious objectors

About this guide

This guide is a tool to help those researching New Zealand’s conscientious objectors in the First World War. It predominantly describes material available at the National Library of New Zealand, but also describes material from other sources where relevant.

Why research this topic?

Conscientious objection in the First World War brought the dichotomy between an individual’s personal values and an individual’s duty to the state to the forefront of public consciousness. The actions of a few individuals who absolutely resisted the demands of the state helped form a pacifist ideology that would continue to grow throughout the 20th century.

Modern scholarship and public opinion is far more sympathetic to these objectors than their contemporaries were, and the actions and treatment of men like Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs should be remembered as a fundamental part of New Zealand’s First World War history.

Want a more general view of the war? Take a look at the following guides:

The First World War | Guide for Schools | Archives NZ’s War Guide

Get an overview

New to the topic? Read up on the background and general history of objection in New Zealand.

Conscientious objection – NZHistory.net.nz

www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/first-world-war/conscientious-objection

This is a great, easy to read source, with a relatively broad scope. It also refers to some relevant examples, and contains some interesting images.

NZHistory also has good overviews of Maori conscientious objection – Māori objection and Māori resistance to conscription.

Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism – Te Ara

www.teara.govt.nz/en/conscription-conscientious-objection-and-pacifism

Covers the New Zealand Wars and Second World War as well as the First World War. Te Ara links to some primary sources, and gives some useful references and suggestions for further reading.

Fighting war – Jared Davidson

libcom.org/history/fighting-war-anarchists-wobblies-new-zealand-state-1905-1925

This article is very in depth, and specifically focuses on examples of anarchist resistance to conscription. It contains a large bibliography of other related sources.

Pacifism and conscientious objection in New Zealand: a bibliography

natlib.govt.nz/records/21918164

An excellent resource for material to look into once you have the background. A copy is available for use in the reading rooms, or you can interloan it through your local library.

A painting by Bob Kerr, showing the duckwalk Mark Briggs was dragged down on the western front.
A painting by Bob Kerr, showing the duckwalk Mark Briggs was dragged down on the western front. Appears in David Grant, Field Punishment No. 1. Record page.

Searching and browsing

Search across the Library’s collections – start with broad terms like ‘conscientious objector’ and then narrow your results down with the filters on the left, or by using more specific keywords that you find.

Subject headings

Many collection items have subject headings, giving you a way to get to more material.

Unpublished collections

Published collections

Across collections

Poster for the Military Service Act 1916\. Proclaims enactment, describes reservists' and employers' obligations, and describes the consequences for not enrolling.
A public poster for the Military Service Act of 1916, which introduced conscription, and criminalised conscientious objectors. Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-1916-01.

Newspapers

Thanks to Papers Past, searching and browsing wartime newspapers is one of the easiest and most useful ways to research this topic. You’ll find current affairs articles, opinion pieces, images, and cartoons.

Use the advanced search to restrict your search to a particular date range or newspaper.

The Maoriland Worker and NZ Truth were outspokenly anti-militarist during the First World War, and are good places to browse if you’re looking for sympathetic views towards conscientious objection.

Some newspapers in the Library’s collection have not been digitised, but are on microfilm. This collection is useful if you are researching papers from a specific date, and can be viewed in the Library reading rooms.

Several relevant newspaper clippings have already been gathered together within the Arthur Nelson Field papers, and can be viewed in the reading rooms.

Articles

Articles, particularly book reviews, about published works can give you some extra context and information. Have a look at these:

Search Index New Zealand to find abstracts of other articles, and find out how to access copies.

Portrait of Archibald Baxter, taken in the 1940s. Ref: 1/2-037732-F.

Books

Few books have been published specifically about conscientious objection in New Zealand during the First World War. You can use them to get an overview of the topic, and a starting point for looking into primary sources.

David Grant, Field Punishment No. 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs & New Zealand’s anti-militarist tradition

A very complete account of the lives and experiences of New Zealand’s two most famous First World War conscientious objectors. Includes a number of images, cartoon extracts, manuscript extracts, and an extensive reference list. Also contains a large selection of paintings by Bob Kerr.

Record page | In New Zealand libraries

Paul Baker, King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription, and the Great War

Has detailed sections on shirkers, pacifists, anti-militarists, and conscription and its resistance. Also includes many interesting primary sources, and some demographic data of objectors.

Record page | In New Zealand libraries

Elsie Locke, Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand

Gives a more general and sociological perspective, and is particularly useful for looking at pacifist movements and national attitudes towards anti-militarism and objection. Also includes sections on women’s and Māori attitudes towards conscription.

Record page | In New Zealand libraries

Manuscripts, memoirs, and published primary texts

Given that promoting conscientious objection before and after the war was illegal, there is little written primary material. However, there are two particularly relevant larger texts, both available online.

Archibald Baxter, We Will Not Cease

New Zealand’s most famous conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter, recorded his experiences during the First World War in his book.

Read online at the NZETC

Henry Holland, Armageddon or Calvary: The conscientious objectors of New Zealand and the process of their conversion

Henry Holland was the most outspoken labour critic of conscription and advocate for the objectors. He edited the Maoriland Worker from 1913-18, when he became MP for Grey. This book is his record of the punishments and treatment of conscientious objectors.

Read online at the NZETC

Smaller and fragmentary items

We hold a number of other unpublished, smaller, or fragmentary works.

A collection of the memoirs of Millicent Baxter (Archibald Baxter’s wife) and a transcript of her interview with Michael King.

Minute Books of the New Zealand Freedom League, an Auckland organisation formed to promote anti-militarism and assisting objectors.

The diary of Rose Atkinson, who attended the trials of anti-conscriptionists in Chirstchurch.

Compilations of papers from various pacifist organisations from during and after the First World War:

Papers relating to conscientious objection to military service and the transcripts of some legal proceedings involving objectors, produced by the Religious Society of Friends in New Zealand.

Photographs and cartoons

Published secondary material, including the books listed above, is a great place to start when looking for images.

There are only a few directly relevant photographs in the collections (such as this photograph, viewable at the Library), but a lot of material that can provide context. See the images section of the main First World War guide for more help.

Cartoon showing a man, fearful of being made to enlist in the army, entering a Quaker Church to claim conscientious objector status.
"The Shirker's Last Refuge", cartoon from the Observer, July 1, 1916.

Newspaper cartoons can give you an idea about prevailing social attitudes. Search Papers Past for general terms, and slang like ‘shirker’, to find these.

Oral history

The Library holds a large number of oral histories, including interviews with soldiers, objectors, and their families.

You can browse records for oral histories online (follow the link to Oral History Collections, but will need to come into the Wellington reading rooms to listen.

Nga Taonga Sound & Vision have Millicent Baxter’s interview with Radio New Zealand’s Looking Back programme – you can search their site for it and order a copy.

Māori and conscientious objection

Newspapers are a particularly rich resource for items relating to Māori attitudes toward conscription.

Te Kopara , a newspaper published in Te Reo Māori during the First World War, can be browsed at the New Zealand Digital Library's website.

Papers Past includes many articles covering the relationship between Māori and the armed forces, though usually from Pākehā publishers.

Some good starting points from Papers Past include:

The non-violent objection of many Tainui Maori and the actions of resistance by the Maori Princess Te Puea Herangi provide important context. For more on this, see:

Michael King, Te Puea: A Biography
Record page | In New Zealand libraries

Eric Ramsden, “Memories of Princess Te Puea”, Te Ao Hou, Summer 1953
Read online

Princess Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Herangi, wearing the New Years medal she received in 1938, the Commander of the British Empire.
Princess Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Herangi, ca 1938. Ref: PAColl-5584-58.

Government and public records

Archives New Zealand holds many records on First World War conscientious objectors and military defaulters. The most informative were created by the Army Department (these have the code AD). Files about objectors imprisoned in New Zealand can also be found in Justice Department Prison Branch records (coded with J40), but restrictions apply.

To find these, go to the Advanced Search 'records' page on Archway, the search tool of Archives New Zealand. Now put the department's code (AD or J40) in the 'Former Arch ref' search box, and use terms like objector or defaulter in the 'Keywords' box. You can also find records on courts martial, discipline, deserters, and aliens by using these as keywords with the same search.

Some of the key records are:

  • Territorial Force - Religious objectors advisory board [AD1 Box 734/ 10/407/15]
    Lists the names of 273 objectors that came before an Advisory Board in 1919. These includes pacifist, socialist, Irish and Māori objectors, and comments on each objector (type of objection, where imprisoned, conduct etc).
  • Territorial Force - Conscientious objectors sent abroad [AD1 Box 734/ 10/407/3]
    Includes letters from and about the 14 objectors sent to the Western Front, including Mark Briggs and Archibald Baxter.
  • Territorial Force - Exemptions - Religious objectors [AD1 Box 734/ 10/407]
    Includes letters and reports about objectors and their treatment.
  • Territorial Force - Religious objectors return of [AD1 Box 724/ 10/22/13-21]
    Nine reports on the number of objectors, but they contain no names or personal information.
  • Chaplains; Prisoners of War; Reservists - Military - NZEF [New Zealand Expeditionary Force] - Undergoing sentence [AD1 Box 1029/ 59/76]
    Summaries of defaulters, prisoners of war and internees in New Zealand, including Jugo-Slavs.

You'll need to view the actual files at the Wellington Office, as most have not been digitised. However some objectors and defaulters have a digitised personnel file on Archway, which can be found by a simple search using their name.

Also useful is the alphabetical list of military defaulters published in the NZ Gazette (14 May 1919), which can be accessed at Archives New Zealand.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the following team for creating this guide:

  • Jonathan Jackson
  • Jay Buzenberg
  • Reuben Schrader
  • Jared Davidson