Archibald Baxter - The Life of New Zealand’s Foremost Pacifist


Love in the time of anti-war – Frank Film tells the story behind New Zealand’s first pacifist memorial.

“There are thousands of monuments to soldiers across New Zealand,” says Kevin Clements, chair of the Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, “which is quite right and proper. But there isn’t a single monument to those who chose a different path. We felt we needed such a monument to remind people of the sacrifices and courage that it took to say no to the state.”

Currently underway in central Dunedin, the Archibald Baxter Peace
Garden/National Memorial for Conscientious Objectors, New Zealand’s first pacifist memorial, is putting this to rights. The 3m-high sculpture by Arrowtown artist Shane Woolridge, due to be completed in September this year, will honour the legacy of New Zealand’s conscientious objectors and the personal story of Archibald Baxter.

It is a story of steadfastness, deprivation – and love.

In an interview with Frank Film, Baxter’s grand-daughter Katherine Baxter tells the story of how her grandmother, Millicent, read a letter written by Baxter in 1918.

“I have suffered to the limits of my endurance,” the letter says, “but I will never in my sane senses surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like a cancer on the world. If you hear that I have served in the Army, or that I have taken my own life, do not believe that I did it in my sound mind. I never will.”

“Gran read the letter and was immediately taken by it,” says Katherine. “She decided as soon as she could she would try and meet him.”
Baxter by then had experienced the harshest punishments meted out to those who refused to participate in war.

When conscription was introduced in 1916, he had been arrested and sent to the Trentham Military Camp. From here, Baxter and 13 other conscientious objectors were sent first to Sling Camp in England, where they were subjected to beatings and confinement, then to the front line in France. “Most of them gave up when they were shipped to the front lines,” says Clements. “Some became stretcher bearers. Archibald didn’t, Marks Briggs didn't, a number of others didn't.”

At Mud Camp, Baxter and three others were sentenced to “field punishment number one” in which they were tied to a tilted post out in the open, their hands, knees and feet tightly bound.
“It was excruciatingly painful,” says Clements. “You were supposed to only have this punishment for eight hours – on two incidents Baxter was left there for 12-13 hours.”

Baxter eventually collapsed and was taken to a hospital in Boulogne, where he was diagnosed with confusional insanity.

He arrived back to New Zealand emaciated, says Clements, “and emotionally exhausted.”

By the time Millicent Macmillan Brown sought him out in Dunedin, he was a broken man. But once they met, says Katherine, “it was going to be what she did with her life. There was such a congruence of her love for him but also of her belief in what he stood for.”

They came from very different backgrounds.

Archibald Baxter grew up in a working class farming family in Brighton, just south of Dunedin.

Millicent was born into a privileged, academic family. Her mother Helen Connon was the first woman in the British Empire to take a degree with honours. Her father, John Macmillan Brown, was one of the foundational professors at the University of Canterbury.

As Millicent herself explains in a recording made in 1980, “Our backgrounds were as you can imagine entirely different. But backgrounds don't matter when one has union of spirit.”

They were married on 12 February 1921 and had two sons – Terence John, a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and James Kier Baxter.

Archie died in 1970 at the age of 88, but his story will now be told in a leaning tower of schist discs called “We Will Bend but not be Broken”.
“We are trying to depict the man and the pole,” says Woolridge. “He’s in a state of torture but I’m also trying to show him in a state of grace – a place he went to to control the pain and suffering. He never gave in – it is quite incredible.”

Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Co-Director/Editor: Oliver Dawe.
Written Word: Sally Blundell.
Research: Jessy Rolleston Palmer.
Production Assistant and Graphics: Liam Craig.
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch.
Sound Design and Mix: Chris Sinclair.
Sound Editor: Amanda Reid.
Colour Grade: Mike Kelland.


From material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.


Archival audio in this podcast was from the RNZ collection at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

Field Punishment No. 1', Bob Kerr
Field Punishment No. 1, Lippy Pictures

The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust