Today, Archibald Baxter is overshadowed by the reputation of his son James K. Baxter, New Zealand’s most famous poet and barefoot prophet and social critic of the 1960s. But in 1916, Archie came under intense scrutiny from the authorities for his refusal to join the military and fight for Great Britain in its war against the Central Powers. A rabbiter from Brighton near Dunedin, he had the audacity to question the government’s right to compel men to fight in a war that was happening 12,000 miles away. Baxter saw the war as a family scrap among the crowned heads of Europe – a war in which millions of working men like himself were being forced to throw away their lives to satisfy the vanity and ambition of their imperial masters.
In an atmosphere of almost hysterical patriotism, Archie and his six brothers all became conscientious objectors. They were all imprisoned for their beliefs except Mark who, though pacifist, was exempt from conscription as a married man. Archie, two of his brothers and eleven other ‘conchies’ were shipped off to Britain on the troopshipWaitemata in July 1917. Taken to the Western Front, Archie and others were beaten, starved and threatened with death if they refused to don the uniform.
Interned at ‘Mud Farm’ in Belgium, Archie himself was subjected to Field Punishment No. 1, also known by the troops as ‘the crucifixion’. For day after day, and for hours at a time in all weathers, he was tied to a forward-sloping stake by his ankles, knees and wrists, cutting off the circulation and causing him excruciating pain. Later, he was made to stand near an ammunition dump under enemy shelling, and was forced to take a tour of front-line trenches under fire. Later still – his mind broken but not his will – he was confined in a military asylum, another house of horrors.
After the war, Archie returned to New Zealand and in 1921 married Millicent Macmillan Brown, daughter of John Macmillan Brown, professor of English and Classics at Canterbury College. Millicent’s mother Helen Connon was the first woman in the British Empire to take a university degree with honours.
Archibald Baxter recorded his wartime experiences in a memoir first published in 1939,We Will Not Cease (Auckland: Cape Catley, 2003). It has become a New Zealand classic.