When the late Saddam Hussein flew into a hyperventilated rage following the Western Coalition's attack on Iraq in 1990, he famously promised to respond with "the mother of all battles". Had the dictator been a better student of history, he would have realised how flatulent his threat was.

This is because the inventory of "the mothers of all battles" is clogged with the names of campaigns from World War I - a conflict where New Zealanders did far more than their fair share of fighting and dying, often in places most of them had never heard of for a cause that seldom rose above glib one-liners like "For God, King and Country".

The bellicose euphoria did not last, though. By 1916, New Zealand had to introduce conscription as the stream of volunteers all but dried up. But how they got there made little difference to the soldier on the frontline. Brave, boisterous, or bullied cannon-fodder are, after all, still cannon-fodder, as the deaths of 2779 New Zealanders on an obscure Turkish peninsula 100 years ago demonstrate.

And here we are now, a century on from Gallipoli, bearing little recognition to the callow nation that was drawn into the "Great War." But as we commemorate the carnage, we should also spare a thought for those who did not go: the conscientious objectors, or "those bloody conchies" as they were branded.


There were exemptions to military service on the ground of religious beliefs, but only 73 objectors met this qualification. To put this figure in context, by the end of the war around 400 men had been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces, and 2600 conscientious objectors were subsequently punished in other ways, such as being prohibited from voting for 10 years, and being excluded from employment in government departments - all in addition to the sneers that they had to endure from their fellow citizens, often for the rest of their lives.

Initial support for some objectors was forthcoming from the churches. The Catholic and Protestant Churches formed a 'Peace Committee', founded on the principle that war "as a means of settling disputes between nations is utterly opposed to the mind of Christ".

However, it was not just those for whom military service was "contrary to divine revelation" (in the wording of the Military Service Act) that lined up to object to being conscripted. They were joined by union activists, socialists, Irish nationalists in the country, secular pacifists, and Maori who had responded to Princess Te Puea's call to the Waikato people that they had their own king, and therefore had no need to fight for the British monarch.

The punishments imposed on conscientious objectors ranged in duration and severity. At the more extreme end of the state's vengeance towards its recalcitrant citizens was the treatment meted out to the pacifist Archibald Baxter. After confinement in New Zealand, he was banished to a prison in Britain, where he was tortured. On one occasion, he was lashed to a wooden pole so tightly that the ropes "cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation." He later described how the pain "grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said: 'Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it'."

It was because of degrading occurrences like this (on top of the immeasurable horrors of the battlefields) that Western civilisation was left permanently damaged by the war. Enlightened, law-bound rule collapsed in some places, resulting in a loss of confidence in the very values for which the public were continually being reminded the war was being fought.

Our soldiers are rightly memorialised for their role in the war, but as for the conscientious objectors - who endured their own forms of sacrifice - they grew weary with age, and the years condemned them, and as a nation, we pointedly did not remember them.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.