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Anzac Day Heroes - 2006

24 April 2006

We will remember them.

They were true sons of New Zealand. They were men who acted with unsurpassed courage and determination in the face of war. They thought deeply and weighed the morality of their actions carefully. They stood up for their beliefs and were prepared to take the consequences. They were men who stood steadfast against the prevailing mood of the day. They were true New Zealand heroes.

These were young men who took the tough road of pacifism when the path to war was easy. They refused to wear military uniforms or join the killing of their fellow human beings. They were our conscientious objectors.

Of those who registered as conscientious objectors at the time of the First World War, 60 were exempted from fighting and 273 were sent to prison. 14 more were imprisoned on a troopship and taken to the front line of the war in Europe where several were given "No1 field punishment", which involved being tied to a stake in the open while the war was fought around them. Still their resolve never wavered.

According to New Zealand Prime Minister Massey "the state comes first" (before conscience) and that "if they won’t do their duty they must be driven".

Beside these brave kiwis were others who opposed conscription and the First World War for a variety of reasons.

Peter Scott Ramsey, President of the Christchurch Anti-Conscription League was given 11 months jail with hard labour when he addressed a public gathering with these words –

"To hell with the consequences. I have the courage of my convictions. I have been a member of the peace movement since I was 14 and a half, and I am not going to give up the principles for which I have fought for so many years for the class to which I do not belong".

In an illuminating observation on the background to the war a trade union conference in 1916 called for the conscription of wealth before the conscription of men, sought trade union pay rates for soldiers and a better deal for their dependents at home. The war was seen as having been generated by wealthy interests on both sides of the conflict which ordered young men to fight to the death.

Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana was the most celebrated Maori objector. He was arrested at his Tuhoe settlement at Maungapohatu and charged with sedition for arguing that Maori should not fight for a Pakeha King and Country when Maori ancestral lands had been taken by a Pakeha government 50 years before in the confiscations in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty which followed the New Zealand wars.

Waikato Maori were particularly resistant to conscription. In traditional fashion they performed whakapohane (baring of the buttocks) to insult the government envoy Maui Pomare who came to plead with them to join the war. 44 Maori were arrested but refused to wear the military uniforms they were given. Six were court-martialled and sentenced to 2 years hard labour at Mt Eden jail.

Of 552 Maori called up in conscription ballots, only 74 joined.

On Anzac Day of all days we should salute the actions and honour the memories of these great New Zealanders.

But instead we will have plenty of the clichés of war – "death with honour", "supreme sacrifice", "gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy", "served their country", "sacrificed their lives" etc

It’s easy to see why.

No less than 10% of New Zealand’s total population went overseas to fight in the First World War. We were the absolutely farthest country from the conflict and yet sent more troops per head to war than any other country. More than half of these men became casualties with 18,116 being killed.

Two of my great uncles died in the fighting and most New Zealand families had similar experiences.

This is why Anzac day resonates so strongly through New Zealand communities. Every town – large and small has a memorial of some kind to honour those who were killed from their area. "Lost their lives" is how we quaintly describe it.

Most of our young men who went to war were caught up in the patriotic fever of the times. This was to be the "war to end all wars" and our boys would be "home by Christmas". It was to be a "boy’s own adventure" – a chance for excitement and overseas travel. The war was to be short and victorious. How wrong they were.

I will remember my great uncles on Anzac Day. But I will remember first those who opposed the war and tried to stop the killing. They took the hardest road in the face of bitter hostility, personal suffering and social isolation.

These are our true Anzac Day heroes. We will remember them.

John Minto

Column in The Press

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