“You’re far too good a Highlander, Baxter,” he said, “not to be fighting for your king. When you get to France you’ll be throwing Germans over your head on your bayonet.”
“Yes, my ancestors fought for the king… I’m fighting too, only I’m fighting against a war.”
“Oh well,” he said,” they might get you a job rocking cradles.’
“If people of your views run the world,” I answered, “there soon won’t be any cradles to rock.”
– [A prison doctor tries to talk Archibald Baxter into fighting in WW1: quote from We Will Not Cease]
There are two kinds of war hero: those who show bravery while fighting, and those who actively resist violence. Young Archibald Baxter heard a lawyer explain that war was wrong simply because killing was wrong; so when WW1 broke out, Archie refused to enlist and was arrested. He was sent to prison several times and finally, he and other pacifists were loaded onto a ship and taken to Europe. He was imprisoned in England where they put him in chains and fed him on bread and water. To break his stubborn spirit, Archie was sent to the battlefield in France, where army officers tormented him.
Archie was tied to a post outside for up to four hours a day – the ropes so tight his hands turned black. Another time, they dragged Archie out onto the battlefield next to an ammunition dump during a German artillery attack. Incredibly, he was still alive when the explosions and mud settled.
Ordinary soldiers admired his courage, even if they disagreed with him, and were often appalled by their officers’ behaviour. One officer gave Archie a vicious beating then ordered some soldiers to throw him onto a wire covered walkway. But instead of smashing Archie down the soldiers lowered him gently down.
Archibald Baxter has never been hailed as a war hero by the media. His son, James K Baxter, was praised as our finest poet, and today it’s time New Zealand also recognised Archibald’s inspiring life.