Mark Briggs Great War Story

The video for this story about Mark Briggs and the treatment of conscientious objectors in the First World War screened on TV3 News on 9 August 2014.

Mark Briggs objected to taking part in the First World War on socialist grounds. He was arrested and became one of 14 conscientious objectors forcibly deported to Europe and sent to military camps. All of the men were humiliated and abused to try to make them give in, and Briggs was dragged across nail-studded duckboards because he would not walk to the front lines. Briggs and Archibald Baxter were the only two objectors who held out until their return to New Zealand.

The courage of conviction

Flaxworker and socialist

Mark Briggs was born in Yorkshire on 6 April 1884, the son of a shepherd, Albert, and his wife Clara. He was raised as a Wesleyan (Methodist) but eventually rejected religion. In 1904, at the age of 20, Briggs came to New Zealand with his brother and widowed father. The family worked at various flax mills in the Manawatū region, and in October 1906 Briggs joined the Manawatu Flaxmills’ Employees Industrial Union of Workers. Briggs was an active figure within the union and became increasingly radical, supporting their affiliation with the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour – also known as the ‘Red Feds’ – in 1911. He met and befriended union leaders such as Robert Semple, Patrick Webb, Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser (who all were later ministers in the first Labour government).

Many of the flax workers lived in cramped and dirty accommodation, and in 1912 Briggs went to Wellington to discuss the issue with the minister of labour. He was subsequently fired from his job at the Rangiotū mill and could no longer get work at the other local mills, so he moved up north. In 1916 Briggs took up an offer from Bob Brown – a ‘Red Fed’ and friend from the Manawatū flaxmills’ union – to become co-owner of Brown’s auction business in Palmerston North.

Conscription

The national register was introduced in December 1915, requiring all men aged 17–60 to declare whether they were prepared to fight or otherwise help with the war effort. Briggs filled out the form but stated that he was a conscientious objector and would not serve the army either at home or abroad. On 1 August 1916 the Military Service Act was passed, and in December Briggs was called up for the army. He appealed for exemption on socialist grounds, and did not attend the appeal hearing as he saw little point in doing so. He was drawn in the third conscription ballot, but ignored the order to parade for medical examination.

Imprisoned

In March 1917 Briggs was arrested and sent to Trentham Military Camp. He refused to wear uniform or follow any orders, and was twice found fit for court martial and sentenced to hard labour. He served a 30-day sentence at Mt Cook Prison, and another 84-day sentence at Mt Cook and the Terrace Gaol (where he encountered his friend Peter Fraser). Briggs was kept away from the other conscientious objectors, as he was seen as a bad influence.

Sent overseas

In mid-1917 the minister of defence, James Allen, decided that objectors who had finished serving their first sentence should be sent overseas and treated as soldiers. On 13 July the commanding officer at Trentham, Colonel H.R. Potter, took matters into his own hands. His prison was overcrowded and there was a troopship in Wellington Harbour due to sail the next day. He rounded up 14 conscientious objectors from the Terrace Gaol and had them taken to the ship – the Waitemata. All these conscientious objectors were working class and their reasons for objecting varied: some were Irish and did not want to fight for England; others held personal, religious or socialist beliefs. According to Briggs:

When we reached the foot of the gangway, one of the boys in the front rank shouted: ‘Are we going to walk up the gangway, Mark?’ I replied: ‘Certainly not.’ We were then seized and forced up the gangway. As they were taking me up I called out to the wharf labourers: ‘You can tell the citizens of Wellington that there are eight conscientious objectors forcibly deported in civvie clothes from New Zealand.’ They replied: ‘You have our sympathy.’ I answered back: ‘We want more than that.’

The 14 men were placed into a bare 22- by 10-foot (6.7- by 3-metre) cabin. Twelve of them became seasick once the ship hit the open seas, but they had no containers or means of cleaning themselves. An officer remarked that: ‘the place smelt like a hyena’s cage.’ Some sympathetic soldiers onboard dropped food and cigarettes into the men’s cabin.

Briggs was regarded as a leader, and when the men were taken up on deck to have their hair cut, Briggs was the only one who resisted and had to be dragged ‘his heels rattling and bumping on the stairs first going up, then coming down.’ He managed to jerk his head around to resist the hair-cutting, so his cropped hair became covered with red marks from his own blood.

During a stop at Cape Town, South Africa, Briggs and the others refused to help with loading supplies and were made to stay below decks for the duration of their two-week stay, unable to see daylight.

Sling Camp

They arrived at Plymouth in England on 25 September 1917, and were sent to Sling Camp, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s main base. There the conscientious objectors were deprived of food, verbally abused, placed in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to long periods of solitary confinement. Three gave in under this treatment, but Briggs continued his resistance. He went on a hunger strike for the last five days he was at Sling, and was the first sent to France.

New Zealand reaction

In New Zealand news of the men’s rough treatment became public knowledge. Opinions were mixed – many thought the men had brought it on themselves. James Allen, the minister of defence, knew very little about what was happening to the objectors, but defended the decision to send them overseas: ‘No one regrets more than I do that it has been necessary to punish in any way the conscientious objectors, but it is obvious that unless something were done consciences would develop to an abnormal degree’.

Field Punishment No. 1

On 19 October 1917 Briggs was taken Boulogne in north-west France and then to Belgium. On 13 December he was charged with disobeying a lawful command because he refused to peel potatoes. He was sentenced to 28 days of Field Punishment No. 1: ‘I was dragged over to one of the posts erected for the purpose, and was fastened to the post. I was, in fact, handcuffed to the post with my hands dragged round behind me, and my feet were also lashed to it with a rope. This was early in December, which is practically mid-winter in France. Needless to say, the cold was intense, and I suffered agonies during the hours I was left in this position.’

Only four conscientious objectors were still holding out – Mark Briggs, Archibald Baxter, Henry Patton and Lawrence Kirwan – and all were punished in this manner. In theory it was to be a humiliation; in practice it often became torture. Baxter wrote, ‘When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood.’ Patton agreed to become a stretcher-bearer after enduring 21 days of ‘No. 1’.

After Major-General Sir Alexander Godley (commander of II ANZAC Corps) visited the camp, the remaining three were sent close to the front lines. When the objectors were asked to walk to the front, Baxter and Kirwan did so, but Briggs would not. The next morning the captain and the military police sergeant came into his hut:

The captain again asked if I was going up, and I replied, ‘No.’ The police sergeant then grabbed me by the wrists and dragged me out on my back to the parade ground, where three soldiers were waiting. The military policeman … found a long piece of cable wire, and, coming forward, fastened it around my chest immediately under my arms. The m.p. and the soldiers then harnessed themselves to the wire, and went off up the ‘duck-walk’ (a footpath constructed of planks with battens nailed across at short intervals, to obviate the difficulty of the soldiers traversing the mud). Along this track—as far as I could judge, a distance of about a mile—I was dragged on my back. … [My] clothes ... were dragged away, and consequently my back was next to the ‘duck walk.’ The result was that I sustained a huge flesh wound about a foot long and nine inches wide on the right back hip and thigh. The track crossed the edge of an old shell crater, which was full of water… The m.p. asked: ‘Are you going to walk now? Because if you're not, you're going into this shell hole.’ I replied I didn't know where I was going, but I wasn't going to walk up there, anyway. He immediately threw me into the shell hole, and dragged me through the water, and along the ground to the next shell crater, and by means of the long wire again pulled me through the water. When they got me out on to the bank at the other side, they just picked me up by the shoulders and tipped me head over heels back into the water. When I came upright with my feet at the bottom, the water was over my shoulders, The m.p. said: ‘Drown yourself now, you [bastard], if you want to die for your cause, You haven't got your Paddy Webbs and your Bob Semples to look after you now.’ They pulled me out, and dragged me along the ground to yet another shell hole, and they pulled me through this in the same way.

In spite of the severity of his injuries, Briggs was not taken to a hospital and for the first few weeks afterward he had to pull himself across the ground to get to the latrines.

Return to New Zealand

On 3 June 1918 the medical board classed Briggs as C2, meaning he was unfit for active service; and he was finally cleared to return to New Zealand aboard the Ruapehu, which set sail on 9 January 1919. Having consistently denied ever being part of the army, he refused to sign the discharge papers or accept the soldier’s wage offered to him after he disembarked in Wellington.

Briggs married Alberta Burrill in 1920, and in 1936 was appointed to the Legislative Council (New Zealand’s upper house) by Michael Joseph Savage (now the prime minister), who hoped that Briggs would act as its ‘conscience’. James Allen, the former minister of defence, who was now in the Legislative Council, publicly apologised to Briggs for what had happened to him during the war.

After Archibald Baxter wrote We Will Not Cease, his account of being a conscientious objector, in 1939, he sent one of the first copies to Briggs, with the inscription: ‘In memory of days that we can't yet afford to forget.’

Mark Briggs died in Palmerston North in 1965, at the age of 80.

Primary sources

Images

For images and other digitised material relating to this Great War Story from Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand see the related set on Digital New Zealand

Newspapers

The following newspaper item is from the National Library of New Zealand's Papers Past website

Service record

Mark Briggs' service record and medical files (PDF) have been digitised by Archives New Zealand.

Further information

Books

  • Baker, Paul. King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription and the Great War. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1988.
  • Baxter, Archibald. We Will Not Cease. London, Gollancz, 1939. (Second edition available at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BaxWeWi.html)
  • Grant, David. Field Punishment No. 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs & New Zealand’s Anti-militarist Tradition. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2008.
  • Holland, H.E. Armageddon or Calvary: the Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of their Conversion". Wellington: Maoriland Worker Printing and Publishing Company, 1919. (Also available at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-WH1Arma-t1-body-d15.html)

Websites

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Mark Briggs Great War Story

What do you know?