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Sunday, 22 June 2014 00:00

Conformity at War

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On the 12th of June the Young Ambassadors met in Wellington and spent the day together preparing for our trip. It was really exciting to meet the great people that I will share this trip with, and I am really looking forward to our departure on 11/07/14. On the 12th we visited the National Portrait Gallery for the exhibition on the First World War. This exhibition really got me thinking about my project, and I found a drawing of Archibald Baxter to be particularly stimulating. Recently in my English class we have been studying poems such as “The Cold Hub” written by James K Baxter (Archie’s son). These poems all seem to question the idea of conformity. It is through these texts that we began a class discussion about Archibald Baxter during WWI. Archie was born in Otago in 1881. He refused to register to fight in WW1 because “All war is wrong, futile and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.” Baxter was not accepted as a conscientious objector (someone who has the right to refuse to perform military service). Baxter was deported to the front but refused to work for the army. Baxter experienced a lot of punishment by the army for not following orders. His most common punishment was Field Punishment Number One. This was where the convicted man was restrained to a fence post a few kilometres behind the front line, often with his toes just touching the ground so as to cause stress as the convict tried to stand flat footed. It is alleged that at Ypres Baxter was actually placed in an area that the Germans were shelling, however he was not hit. Archie was also beaten and starved, and in 1918 he experienced a physical and mental breakdown. He was hospitalised and returned to New Zealand.




It was the drawing (that I have included above) which challenged me to consider the different types of heroes from WW1. Looking at this drawing, Baxter looks like a normal man – he doesn’t look exceptionally heroic. The men who are commonly considered the heroes of WW1 are covered in medals and wear army uniform. However, whilst standing in the National Portrait Gallery I realised that Archibald Baxter was just as heroic as any soldier who fought in WW1. He didn’t refuse to follow orders because he was scared, as he was given the option of working in other areas of the army such as for the medics. Baxter refused to take part in the war because he strongly believed that war was a futile concept. Even when faced with all the punishments that were thrown at him, Baxter stood by what he believed in throughout the entire war. The men who fought in WW1, in a way, were just conforming to society. That’s not to say that they weren’t brave and heroic, as they still risked their lives for a greater good. However, I think Baxter is just as heroic as he refused to give up on his beliefs even when experiencing extreme physical and mental pain. At the time, of course Archie was considered to be a criminal with no respect for authority. However looking at Baxter’s story now, we can see that he too was a brave hero of WW1. As it turns out, Baxter’s logic seems reasonable to our generation. Therefore Archibald’s story proves that we must appropriately commemorate the war in order to learn from it in the future.


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