Story: Baxter, Archibald McColl Learmond

Page 1 - Baxter, Archibald McColl Learmond

Baxter, Archibald McColl Learmond

1881–1970

Pacifist, writer

This biography was written by David Grant and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Archibald McColl Learmond Baxter was born at Saddle Hill, Otago, New Zealand, on 13 December 1881, one of eight children of John Baxter, a farm labourer, and his wife, Mary McColl. Both the Baxters and the McColls were Scottish pioneers; Archibald's maternal grandfather had arrived in Otago in 1859 and his father in 1861. The family was poor and Archibald was forced to leave school at the age of 12. He thinned turnips, shore sheep, minded cows and shot rabbits, and worked his way to become head ploughman at Gladbrook station, about 60 miles from Brighton. Later he carted coal and became a roading contractor.

Baxter seriously considered enlisting as a volunteer for the South African War of 1899–1902, but during that war heard a plea for pacifism from a Dunedin lawyer that changed his life. He read pacifist and socialist journals prodigiously and was much influenced by the words of British left-wing labour leader Keir Hardie, who visited New Zealand in 1912. By the time the national register was taken in 1915 – requiring men to register their preparedness to serve in the First World War – he was committed to rejecting the war both as a pacifist and as a Christian socialist. By then he had also helped to persuade his clannish family that war was wrong, and six of the seven Baxter brothers (the seventh was married and therefore had a case for exemption) refused to enlist and went to gaol for their beliefs.

Following the introduction of military conscription in November 1916 Baxter was quickly balloted and arrested without even being given notice that he was required to serve in the army. He argued for exemption as a conscientious objector on religious grounds, but because he was not a communicant member of a church whose constitution opposed military service his appeal was denied. In common with other objectors he was moved from gaol to gaol; from 1917 he was held in the prison attached to Trentham Military Camp. By the end of that year there were over 100 objectors in prisons and prison camps around the country. The minister of defence, James Allen, believed that these men should be sent to war. In July 1917 the Trentham camp commander, Colonel H. R. Potter, relieved overcrowding in his prison by sending 14 objectors, including Baxter and two of his brothers, Alexander and John, on the troopship Waitemata to Britain and the front line.

On the ship the men were stripped, placed in uniform, locked in a small cabin and abused by officers and volunteer soldiers. On 6 October they were sent to Étaples base in France. The commander was Lieutenant Colonel George 'Hoppy' Mitchell, who had been twice wounded in battle. He was determined to break the spirit of the conscientious objectors, and showed particular animosity towards Archibald Baxter. Baxter and three others suffered Field Punishment No 1 (called colloquially 'the Crucifixion'): they were tied to a post in the open with their hands bound tightly behind their backs and their knees and feet bound for up to four hours a day in all weathers. With two others, Lawrence Kirwin and Mark Briggs, Baxter survived this humiliation only to be sent into the trenches. He was beaten, sent to a part of the front that was being heavily shelled, denied food, and finally, on 1 April 1918, taken to hospital in Boulogne, where he was diagnosed as having mental weakness and confusional insanity in his determination not to fight. Three weeks later a British medical board confirmed the diagnosis of insanity, although it suggested that this may have been exaggerated so that he could not be court-martialled by the New Zealand army. None the less, it was the end of Baxter's war. He was taken to a British hospital for mentally disturbed soldiers, and sent home in August 1918, one of only two of the original 14 objectors (the other was Briggs) to hold out to the end.

Baxter returned to labouring around Brighton to save money to buy a farm. He was 39 years old when he married Millicent Amiel Macmillan Brown on 12 February 1921 in the Dunedin Registrar's Office. Millicent's father, John Macmillan Brown, was one of the founding professors of Canterbury College, and her mother, Helen Connon, was the first woman in the British Empire to take a degree with honours. Millicent had sought out Baxter after reading of his courageous stand during the war. Despite privations and the opposition of her family it proved a loving and enduring marriage. Until 1930 they farmed at Kuri Bush between Brighton and Taieri Mouth. Two sons were born in Dunedin, in 1922 and 1926. The elder, Terence John, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. The younger, James Keir, became a prominent poet and counter-culture figure of the 1960s. James's poem 'To my father' (1947) gives a personal view of Archibald Baxter's character and influence:

…I have loved
You more than my own good, because you stand
For country pride and gentleness, engraved
In forehead lines, veins swollen on the hand;
Also, behind slow speech and quiet eye
The rock of passionate integrity.

The Baxters returned to Brighton in 1930. Archibald remained an active pacifist. With Millicent he founded the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand No More War Movement in 1931 and they organised petitions to end military conscription and promote international disarmament. In 1937 the family travelled to England, and the same year he addressed the War Resisters' International Conference in Copenhagen. While living in Salisbury, Baxter recorded his wartime experiences in a memoir, We will not cease, which was published in London in 1939.

During the Second World War the Baxters were active in the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union. Their house was often full of pacifists and conscientious objectors seeking advice and succour. In later years they lived in Dunedin, and encouraged by James K. Baxter, converted to Catholicism in 1965. Archibald Baxter died in Dunedin on 10 August 1970, aged 88.

We will not cease was much acclaimed on its publication in England, but almost all copies were destroyed in the Blitz. The book did not become well known in New Zealand until it was republished, first in 1968 and again in the 1980s. Baxter's reputation rests not only on the immense physical and moral courage he demonstrated in following his conscience in the First World War, but also on the humility with which he recounted his experiences. He wrote of the many small acts of kindness shown to the objectors by ordinary soldiers in France. His saint-like absence of rancour and readiness to find humanity in the common soldier contrasts with his son James's sense of outrage in his poems of protest against the Vietnam War. We will not cease is a powerful account of dissent and its consequences, and has become a classic of New Zealand literature.