Lest we object: @burgewords comments on #AnzacDay #Anzac100

British stretcher bearers in Passchendaele in 1917.

Conscientious objectors often served as stretcher bearers, like these British men on the Western Front, 1917.

This Anzac centenary, it’s probable we will not hear the words ‘conscientious objector’ uttered much in the mainstream coverage.

BURIED not far beneath the commemoration of the Anzac Day centenary is a silence into which few voices will respectfully speak.

I join those few not to disrespect the First World War fallen and those who remember them – the slaughter and waste of war is too indelible to play word games with – but to fill a few silences alongside an international movement on a trajectory to one day rival Anzac.

My journey of discovery started where the Anzac legend was handed over by the last servicemen who carried the baton – with Britain and Australia’s oldest living First World War diggers.

Both Claude Choules, and Harry Patch lived to within a few years of the Gallipoli centenary, long enough to share potent memories and deeply-felt convictions about something which barely rates a mention on the day we have loaded with a century of war – they came to make no secret of their pacifism.

Anzac Day march at Manly, Brisbane, 1922. Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Anzac Day march at Manly, 1922. State Library of Queensland

For half the time Australians have been rising early on Anzac Day for dawn services, followed by marches, church services and games of two-up at the pub, Claude ‘Chuckles’ Choules refused to join the remembrance.

If anyone had a right to march, it was Claude. After lying about his age to get into the armed forces, he served in Britain’s Royal Navy in the wake of two brothers’ service at, and survival of, Gallipoli.

He subsequently served with the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, settled here, and, after fifty years of service, took up fishing and ballroom dancing.

It was left to his children to articulate his feelings about armed conflict, not long before his death in 2011.

A stupid waste of time and energy.

“He used to say that while he was serving in the war he was trained to hate the enemy, but later he really grew to understand that they were just young blokes who were the same as him,” Claude’s son, Adrian Choules, said.

“He said wars were planned by old men and fought by young men and that they were a stupid waste of time and energy.”

Harry Patch used much stronger language. “War is organised murder, and nothing else” this British tommy (or ‘digger’) asserted to former British prime minister Tony Blair in a BBC television documentary.

In the thick of the Western Front for months, Lance Corporal Patch saw his comrades torn apart, times he waited almost a century to recount when working on his book The Last Fighting Tommy, published shortly before his death in 2009.

Both Patch and Choules broke ranks publicly about the realities of combat only when enough time had passed that they must have wondered what the point of their service had been in a world still intent on waging war.

But there were many others who did not stay silent so long.

trowbridge2_1.0-fig05_019This Anzac centenary, it’s probable we will not hear the words ‘conscientious objector’ uttered much in the mainstream coverage.

Those who declared their disagreement with government war policy – often known as ‘C.Os’ or ‘conchies’ – faced imprisonment, torture, hard labour, capital punishment, and widespread public shaming throughout the wars of the twentieth century.

Often refusing active service on religious grounds, conchie stories are often limited to shadowy characters in war dramas, opening anonymous envelopes to white feathers, labelling the recipient a coward.

The mythmaking masked a variety of reasons men would not willingly succumb to war recruitment. Many went to war but bore stretchers instead of arms, or worked in field hospitals, where it was not always possible to escape the labels.

Governments with conscription legislation during the First World War, such as Britain and New Zealand, pilloried conchies with a level of desperation. The limp-wristed charicatures in the propaganda made little secret of the homosexual aspersions cast on men who refused to fight.

This, despite the many gay men who willingly served in theatres of war.

For those who agreed to fight but eventually abandoned their posts, the death penalty was a stronger disincentive, although Australia’s anti-conscription stance (despite two closely-fought referenda under Prime Minister Billy Hughes) meant Australia’s voluntary forces were not subject to being shot for desertion, like hundreds of British and five New Zealanders.

Instead, Australian deserters’ names were published in the newspapers.

Despite the efforts to stamp out the conscientious objection movement, it became so potent after another war that the world slowly started to wake up to the concept of pacifism as a choice.

It took the definition of what constituted a war crime. At the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-6, carried out by the International Law Commission of the United Nations, a much firmer legal entity was defined for the refusal to participate in conscripted killing.

By the Vietnam War, conchies began a serious coming out process. The most famous of this era was Muhammad Ali, who said of his resistance to being drafted: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”

Australian teacher and conscientious objector William White made a stand in Sydney in 1966 when he refused to report for military service under Australian conscription laws.

William White being dragged from his house by the polic in 1966. (Photo: John Fairfax)

William White’s arrest in 1966. Photo: John Fairfax

“I am opposed to a state’s right to conscript a person,” White said. “I believe very strongly in democracy and democratic ideals, and I believe that it is in the area of the state’s right over the life of the individual that the difference lies between totalitarian and democratic government.

“My opposition to conscription, of course, is intensified greatly when the conscription is for military purposes. In fact the National Service Act is the embodiment of what I consider to be morally wrong and, no matter what the consequences, I will never fulfill the terms of the act.”

Many Australians have a conchie in the family, and it is fitting we remember them too.

White’s voice added fuel to the Moratorium Protests that swept across Australia in May 1970, when an estimated 200,000 people marched to end the Vietnam War.

His image, being dragged by a pack of police from his home, caused embarrassment to authorities but embedded a greater sense of resistance in ‘the conchie’ than the cartoons disseminated fifty years prior.

Thirty years after White’s imprisonment, conscientious objection was ratified in a United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution, which was subsequently extended to include those already serving in military forces who “may develop conscientious objections.”

On May 15, the annual commemoration of the world’s conscientious objectors will take place. It’s an international grassroots movement allied to other twentieth century groundswells in racial, gender and gay rights.

Many Australians have a conchie in the family, and it is fitting we remember them too.

But it’s Anzac Day first, a day on which it’s only fair to leave the last word to someone who was able to join the dots between fighting and objecting – Harry Patch.

“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves.”

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  1. The bravery of the conscientious objector is rarely mentioned. Often their families were embarassed by their stance and were unsupportive, yet they too were heroes.

  2. Laurie Forde says

    Wars are run for the arms manufacturers and other exploiters

  3. The myth that is ANZAC is finally being challenged. Whether we believe in god and religion we all have a conscience and that should be our moral compass. I’ve been asked on many occasions over the years if I would have done “so and so”, only to reply “it’s none my business and we all have to live with our conscience.” During research on WW1 I’ve probably read approximately 3,000 files and am appalled at what men and their families were expected to deal with from the powers that be. Many, many files are mundane, some are amusing (one fellow in 1923 asking for a photo of his grave since his parents had been notified that he was K.I.A.), and an equally silly reply from a Major at Base Records. One record of man committing suicide, another of a man sent home in disgrace, but was in fact probably suffering from PTSD from trying to assist his dying best mate. Families trying to retrieve one personal item to remember their deceased son by. And on and on it goes. Such a waste.

    • Thanks for sharing your reading of all those files! I am sure the truths about broader objection to war will continue to “come out” over this century.

  4. In WW1 my grandparents fought on the losing side, while my husband’s fought on the other side. All did their duty.
    The State conscripted them all ; in thanks the State later sent my two to their murder by a different method, viz the gas chambers, during the next world war. Re read John Donne’s famous poem No man is an island. This year we both will attend Anzac ceremonies for the first time, in the full knowledge that sadness over the loss of young lives on all sides is being exploited by the winners to perpetuate acquiescence in the face of continuing engagement in others’ wars. The message of Donne’s beautiful poem is tthe oneness of humanity. State killing is built on deception and the selfish interests of a few. Self-defence is another thing however ; that question divides even the Quakers.

  5. It annoys me no end to watch Abbott strutting around Turkey, pretending to be serious about something he knows nothing about, and has no history of. I’ve been trying for four years to have a grave marked by OAWG. My cousin died on the 26/09/1914 before embarkation, as did a further 19 men between August and December 1914. The marking of the grave would cost approximately $700. I’ve thought about attending the ANZAC ceremony but don’t think I can make the leap while I see the injustices to soldiers, former and serving, living and dead. I also question the three VC’s handed out in Afghanistan and query what is duty and what is valour. The award is an Australian Victoria Cross. Afghanistan is modern warfare, what an anachronism, with well equipped, well feed, soldiers wearing body armour etc. I suspect that the awards were purely political to keep the interest of the masses engaged. I had nineteen participants in WW1, from my Grandfather who died of the Flu in 1919, to numerous cousins, some were wounded, some who died, one a P.O.W. who enlisted again in WW11,, one who was wounded, sent home and then re-enlisted, and another, Robert McBride Marshall, who also died of injuries after his return in 1920. Robert McBride Marshall’s file is particularly upsetting reading, he had a fall in camp at Salisbury, UK, in 1919 while waiting to be returned to Australia, and probably suffered a depressed fracture of the skull, he is described variously as “insane”, “enfeebled”, “quiet”. He died within months of his return, from epileptic fits etc. He’s also in an unmarked grave in Springvale, Vic, so that is another fight I have to have. We have discussed that in the light of our current multicultural citizenry would Australia be able to raise a fighting force, we suspect not. Maybe that’s a good thing.

  6. kateolivieri says

    Hi Michael, I came across this just now, it’s good to read a slightly different perspective of all the events to mark the Anzac centenary. I wrote something this morning on a related theme. I wouldn’t normally link but I thought you may be interested in the perspective of someone who cares a lot about Anzac events but also wants wars over. http://kateolivieri.com/2015/04/25/anzac-day-2015/.

  7. Thankyou Michael,
    Several years ago I did some research on Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and whether it can be categorised as a memorial to peace. This is what I wrote:

    The shrine from its initial proposal and construction to the way it is guarded preventing certain people using the shrine to remember those who have died in war has been intensely political.

    Colonel Kemsley was closely associated with the shrine proposal and also had connections to the paramilitary and fascist White Army. Veteran Labor MP Maurice Blackburn proposed that rather than spend the money on building this symbol of patriotic loyalism and militarism, the money should be spent supporting war widows and orphans, and writing off the debts of soldier settlers. Instead, many of these soldiers-settlers were forced onto the susso constructing this temple for a mere pittance in wages during the depression.

    The Shrine was opened in 1934, and even that year the Victorian Council Against War attempted to lay a wreath which said in part “…to the brave men of the world and of Australia in particular, who were slaughtered during the armed war of 1914-18. In memory of them, we pledge ourselves to do our utmost to prevent the world imperialist war which now threatens.”

    An official confiscated the wreath labelling it as ‘highly offensive’.

    In 1966 20 mothers from anti-war group Save our Sons attempted to lay posies with the inscriptions “Honour the dead with Peace”. Colonel Kemsley remonstrated with them and with the march fast approaching offered a compromise: they could only lay their flowers by eliminating the word “peace”.

    In the 1980s the ideological nature of the shrine again came to the fore when Women against Rape wanted to lay wreaths for all the women casualties of war, and were violently denied access to the shrine with many arrests, violence and abuse. Similarly, the Gay Ex-servicemen’s Association were denied the right to lay wreaths at the shrine.

    One of the organisers of the 1984 ANZAC Day protests, Dr Adrian Howe, told the media “We’re not against the right of people to mourn. But we don’t have to turn mourning into a public spectacle that glorifies male violence against women. [Anzac Day] equates nationhood with manhood. It is so-called national tradition which silences women and perpetuates violence against them.”

    Or reflect on the Women for Peace act of silent witness at the shrine in 2003:
    “7 women went to The Shrine War Memorial in Melbourne on Remembrance Day 11/11/ 03 for a silent, peaceful vigil for ‘No more wars, and peace in the 21st-century.’ The police set us up, wouldn’t allow us to be there, told us to move off the grounds. I was arrested. Another woman was assaulted by a digger, and the police refused to charge him. The other women were aged: 78, 69, 67, 58, 48, 40+. …”

    No, the Remembrance Shrine is clearly not a shrine for Peace for all Australians, although some people say it is. Maybe one day it will be, but it isn’t one now and it never was.

    • Well said. I clearly recall the group of women laying a wreath at a dawn service in the early 1980s in my home town. They wanted to remember women raped in times of war, and the best the town could do was whisper and criticise them for the simple laying of a wreath.