War and the peacemaker

By Andrew Stone

Gallipoli stretcher-bearer, Western front hero, battlefield author, jailed pacifist _ Ormond Burton occupies an unusual place in New Zealand military history.

Ormond Burton (left) in the trenches at Le Signy Farm in France during World War I. Photo / supplied, John Douglas Publishing
Ormond Burton (left) in the trenches at Le Signy Farm in France during World War I. Photo / supplied, John Douglas Publishing

In 1942, at the age of 49, World War One hero Ormond Burton went on trial in the Supreme Court at Wellington.

He faced prosecution for his staunch Christian pacifist beliefs, which meant he refused to fight in World War Two.

His principles cost him dearly: Justice Archibald Blair had no truck with the argument Burton advanced, that it was his democratic right to speak as his conscience dictated.

The jury, encouraged by the judge that the mouths of "cranks" needed to be shut, found Burton guilty of three charges relating to the contents of a Christian Pacifist Society Bulletin. Burton, editor of the journal, had published an anti-war poem and commented on the sedition trial of his fellow pacifist Archie Barrington.

Though the jury recommended mercy for Burton, a twice-decorated veteran, Justice Blair invoked a section of Crimes Amendment Act and sentenced Burton to two-and-a-half years' jail. The judge offered Burton the chance to walk free if he stopped writing or speaking against the war. The returned Gallipoli serviceman refused, and was sent down.

Robbie Burton, Ormond's son, says his father was not surprised by his sentence. "I don't think he felt he could talk his way out of it," the 85-year-old told the Weekend Herald. Besides, the judge "probably felt he was doing his bit for the war effort by putting him away".

Then a boy of 12, Robbie, his sister Mary and their mother Nell got to see Burton at Napier Prison, where he spent his time writing and gardening. During his sentence Burton was moved to a jail near Wellington, closer to his family.

"That was a help to us," his son recalled. "It meant we could see him more often."

ORMOND EDWARD Burton was born in Auckland on January 16, 1893. At an early age he knew where he stood. At Remuera School he annoyed classmates by refusing to swear. At a Presbyterian Church Bible class, the teenaged Burton took on an evangelist he felt was trying to convert boys with propaganda.

After Auckland Grammar he trained as a teacher, before leaving in early 1915 for Gallipoli as a medical orderly. He was 22.

While New Zealand and Australian troops landed on the Turkish peninsula, Burton was on the transport ship Lutzow, ready to receive casualties. They arrived in droves.

In Concerning One Man's War, Burton writes of a voyage back to Egypt with a hold full of wounded soldiers: "There was so much to be done, and so little that one could really do; fix a bandage here, ease a man just a little on a hard stretcher, perhaps get him back on it, give someone a drink, a word here and there, an opiate to someone so that he might die a little more easily."

In the early decades of his life, Burton was a believer and a soldier. He carried badly wounded and dying men from the steep hills and gullies of Gallipoli before switching to the infantry as a combatant on the Western Front.

He survived bullet injuries and felt the whisper of a sniper's shot pass desperately close to his head more than once.

At Anzac Cove he recalled "a strange intuition" made him stop. "A bullet smacked into the bank just where my head would have been had I kept moving. A Turk, half-a-mile away, had that point covered with telescopic sights on a fixed rifle. Why did I stop? - some strange telepathic connection between the Turk and myself ? Some super-sensitive hearing capacity stimulated by the unusual circumstances? Some intervention on the part of the angels and archangels, in whom I have come of late years to have considerable belief? I don't know, but I stopped and lived."

In 1917, Major General Sir Andrew Russell, head of the New Zealand Division in France and one of the few commanders to emerge from Gallipoli with his reputation intact, asked Burton to write about New Zealanders in the war. Titled Our Little Bit, it was given to soldiers at the Armistice.

Two decades later, Burton wrote a fuller account, which he called The Silent Division - New Zealanders at the Front 1914-1919. Unusually, for a military history, he wrote in an appendix that he had changed his views about war, and no longer saw it as a crusade towards a new world order.

Russell, his commanding officer, provided a foreword, saying a "golden thread" ran through Burton's narrative, which left out the names of the soldiers he rescued and later fought alongside. Russell clearly felt the younger, non-commissioned officer possessed a core strength respected by his comrades because he sought Burton's advice at least twice on matters of soldier morale.

Nearly 30 years later, Burton, aged in his 70s, completed an autobiography, A Rich Old Man , which was never published. However, his reflections on World War I from this work have now appeared as Concerning One Man's War, 1914 -1919 , a companion account to The Silent Division.

A more personal work, One Man's War takes the reader into the trenches and on to the battlefields. It captures, from the intimate perspective of a literate veteran, the noise and dirt and mud and death of conflict in a way few World War I books have managed.

Robbie Burton says his father was always a talker, when many returned soldiers from the Great War for whatever reason bottled their feelings.

"He was quite free and open about it."

In the course of World War II, Burton paid heavily for his trenchant beliefs. Arrested five times for dissent, he was jailed twice for his defiance of emergency regulations and fined to boot.

The Methodist Church tired of him after it set down instructions that its preachers could not encourage the war effort or nurture resistance. Burton was charged by the church for refusing to accept its discipline. In the end, after bitter debate, he was expelled.

What set Burton apart from the 800 conscientious objectors sent to detention camps during the war was his gallant World War I record.

The Labour leadership of the day worried that his exemplary service and charismatic speech-making could easily nurture a troublesome anti-war movement. Indeed, within a day of war being declared in September 1939, he was arrested for denouncing the conflict. Peter Fraser, Labour's deputy leader, visited Burton in his cell and implored his friend to support the war effort. The former soldier ignored the plea.

On his release, Burton returned to his soapbox, paying the price on one occasion with a month's hard labour. None of these punishments shook his uncompromising Christian faith, and he remained steadfast in defence of his beliefs and fearless of those who did not share his world view.

Asked by the Secretary of Justice for his ideas about prison reform, Burton made a number of suggestions that led to better food and conditions for inmates.

Forced for a time to do cleaning jobs, Burton eventually went back to teaching. Readmitted to the Methodist Church in 1955, he continued to rail against liberals who challenged orthodox beliefs. In the 1960s the old Gallipoli soldier led marches against the Vietnam War.

Robbie Burton remembers his father as a patient man, and a pretty amiable soul: "I wonder what it would've been like to have had an ordinary father."

The Silent Division & Concerning One Man's War 1914 - 1919 by Ormond Burton (John Douglas Publishing) RRP $75

A lucky war for Kiwi survivor

Ormond Burton had a lucky war. Three times on the Western Front - a graveyard for thousands of New Zealand soldiers - he was was hit by bullets or wounded with shrapnel. Each time he survived his injuries. In One Man's War, Burton recounts these events with modesty and gentle humour and creates a vivid sense of the conflict. At the Somme, where Burton felt "New Zealand very definitely became a nation", he described how troops in a trench came under attack from a German howitzer, just as a group of officers were sipping welcome mugs of tea.

"A shell landed outside," he wrote. "After the right psychological pause, another fell screaming down. It was plummeting right into the middle of the tea drinkers. Mugs were flung away and the owners dived frantically for any scrap of cover within sight. All except Major Stephen Allen, who stood quite still, placing one hand carefully over his mug. The shell screamed down, drove deeply into the mud, and exploded. When the deluge of mud and bits and pieces had fallen, the Major quietly removed the covering hand, and went on drinking."

In early 1917, at Estaires in northern France, Burton earned the first of his war honours after he collected his badly wounded friend, Jock Mackenzie, from No-Man's-Land during a raid on enemy trenches. The Scots-born lieutenant was cut down by heavy fire coming from the German side. Burton reached him, "tensed up for the inevitable bullet", when unexpectedly the Germans clambered out of their trench with their hands in the air.

The action allowed Burton's stretcher teams to gather their wounded, apart from those closest to the German wire, who were taken in by the enemy. When all the wounded were collected, the Germans got back in position "and the war went on".

Burton wrote: "This was the finest and most chivalrous thing that I saw during the whole war. Those Germans had endured a shattering barrage. Their trench was a broken shambles, with the dead and wounded lying thickly at their very feet.

"We were just infantrymen in No-Man's-Land, and protected by no rule or custom of war. And yet they spared us, and allowed us to bring in men we could never have ventured near until twelve hours later when night fell."

In vain, Burton tried to find the German officer who instructed his men to creasefire. But the episode saw Burton change course, and leave the ambulance corps for combat with the Auckland Regiment. For his bravery, Burton was awarded the Military Medal.

Six months later, as the New Zealand Division battled in the mud at Passchendaele, Burton was shot in the chest from "point-blank range".

Looking down at his ripped tunic he noticed a "small, round hole more or less over the heart. This had all the appearance of the typical entrance wound of a rifle bullet. As there was no exit wound. the bullet was presumably in the chest somewhere."

Burton was evacuated for treatment but doctors could find only a metal splinter beneath his skin. He had undoubtedly been shot: two photographs he carried of his sister were punctured where the bullet hit, and a Bible tucked in his jacket was damaged.

The indestructible Burton soon returned to the front, and once more into harm's way. In March 1918, near a little French village called Mailly-Maillet, with barely a road separating the New Zealanders from German troops, Burton was hit by mortar fire.

The impact reminded him of "one of Peter Drummond's best efforts" - a reference it seems to being caned by a teacher at Auckland Grammar. "I felt a warm trickle down the leg. We investigated and found three wounds - one fairly deep where the shrapnel had fortunately missed the hip-joint but had gone well into the flesh."

Burton limped back to an ambulance station, where he ran into Vic Ramsey, an old friend from his Training College days in Auckland. They chatted before Ramsey went outside and was instantly killed by a shell-burst. Records Burton: "I was probably the last person he spoke to."

Burton rejoined his regiment as the war turned against Germany. Leading a raid near the village of Grevillers under fierce machine-gun attack, Burton was shot as he dragged ammunition across the battlefield. Luckily the bullet struck his left arm as it protected his chest and was deflected by a bone.

His actions that day, in August 1918, earned him a Medal of Honour from the French for capturing six machine-gun posts and securing the village.

It was the last he saw of action. Fixed up, he was promoted and had to leave for officer training, but not before a walk through the front line.

- NZ Herald

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