Ormond Burton Great War Story

The video for this story about Ormond Burton screened on TV3 News on 24 April 2015.

Teacher, soldier, war historian, pacifist, Methodist clergyman and writer, Ormond Burton served in the First World War with the New Zealand Field Ambulance, and helped tend to the wounded. He later joined the infantry and fought on the Western Front. Burton’s wartime experience and disillusionment with the Treaty of Versailles led to his pacifism. During the Second World War, he was a prominent conscientious objector.

Early life

Ormond Edward Burton was born in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden, in 1893. As a boy, Burton was already an avid reader and he did well in school. His parents, Robert and Alice, were both Methodists and Sunday school teachers. Burton’s early religious education left a lasting impression, and he was a member of the Remuera branch of the Young Men’s Bible Class movement.

First World War service

Burton was 21 years old and working as a schoolteacher in the Bay of Plenty when war was declared in August 1914. He considered it to be a 'just war' and therefore compatible with his Christian beliefs. [1] He enlisted in November, volunteering for the New Zealand Medical Corps, rather than in a combat role. Three months later, on 14 February 1915, he departed from Wellington aboard the troopship Tahiti with the New Zealand Field Ambulance, as part of the Third Reinforcements.

Once the Tahiti had arrived in Cairo, Burton joined the No 1 Field Ambulance—part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) about to leave for Gallipoli. His first experience of the war was aboard the Lutzow, attending to the wounded and the dying. He witnessed scenes of great suffering, made worse because the ship was severely understaffed. Originally a troopship, the Lutzow was converted to a hospital ship in order to cope with the number of injured soldiers. The men were taken back to Egypt, but many died before the ship reached its destination. He later wrote in The Silent Division,

The Lutzow made two terrible trips. On the first the only man aboard the ship with any medical knowledge was a veterinary officer. . . The men died by twenty and thirty a day.
On the second trip there was certainly the skeleton of a trained staff but the conditions were terrible. . . There were no beds. . . The few Red Cross orderlies were terribly over-worked. For twelve hours on end an orderly would be alone with sixty desperately wounded men in a hold dimly lit by one arc lamp. None of them had been washed and many were still in their torn and blood-stained uniforms. There were bandages that had not been touched for two or three days—and men who lay in an indescribable mess of blood and filth.
Most of them were in great pain, many could get no ease or rest, and all were parched with thirst. Those who slept dreamed troubled dreams and those who waked were in torment:
"Orderly! Orderly! Water! Water!"
"Orderly, for Christ's sake, ease me up a little."
"Orderly! I can't sleep."
"Water! Fetch me a drink."
"Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!"
"Orderly, fetch me a drink."
"I can't sleep! I haven't slept for three nights— give me morphia."
"Oh God! you don't know how this hurts."
"Oh thank you orderly, but can't you give me a whole cupful!"
"Orderly! Orderly! Fetch me a drink!"
"Look out there! They are coming! Take that you bastard!"
"Oh, God! Oh, God!—the pain!"
And so through all the long night it went on, like nothing so much as a scene from the Inferno. . . The hospitals in Cairo were like heaven to the men who made this voyage.

After his time on the Lutzow, Burton stayed on land as a stretcher-bearer. The steep Turkish terrain made it difficult to carry the wounded men back to the beaches, and a single journey could take up to three hours.

The sufferings of the wounded during these days of battle had been very dreadful. A man hit somewhere up on the slopes had as often as not to lie all day in the blazing sun, tormented with thirst and tortured by the swarming flies. . . Even when the stretcher-bearers had found a sufferer and bound up his wounds there was the three mile carry to the seashore. . . The New Zealand wounded were wonderful in their patience and self-restraint. Through all the terrible journey there was no word of complaint usually only expressions of regret "for causing the stretcher-bearers so much bother."

In December 1915, Burton and the rest of the Anzac forces were evacuated to Egypt. From there he was sent to France and the Western Front, where he would remain for 27 months.

In 1917, after one of his close friends was killed, Burton volunteered to take his place in the infantry. He would later remark:

I felt that I should in some fashion try to replace him. The war was still a crusade to many of us.

Burton soon distinguished himself, being awarded a Military Medal for ‘bravery in the Field’ in 1917, and later the French Médaille d’honneur in 1918. [2] He was eventually promoted to second lieutenant, and was wounded in action three times.

Before the company had proceeded 200 yards from the starting point Sergeant Burton took over the platoon, his officer having been wounded, and with remarkable zeal led his men in to the front line of the attack.
“On reaching the southern outskirts of Grevillers considerable opposition was encountered and the sergeant was sniped through the wrist. Nevertheless, though this arm was useless, he continued bravely to lead his platoon, and under considerable exposure from machinegun, rifle and shellfire he so advantageously disposed of his men that the ridge running south from the village was firmly secured against the enemy.
“The capture of the six machineguns which fell to the platoon’s lot was mainly due to the bravery and dash of the sergeant. It was not until many hours after being wounded, and when his platoon was firmly established on the ridge that Sergeant Burton was prevailed upon to be evacuated. I would suggest that the NCO be recommended for some decoration.” [3]

Burton’s attitude in the field was often at odds with the strict philosophy of non-violence that he would adopt after the war; having vowed to abstain from alcohol through a youthful association with the Temperance League, and concerned for the well-being of the soldiers, he thought that any drunk officer should be court-martialled and shot, regardless of rank or achievements. [4]

Conditions on the Western Front in winter were horrific. Instead of the heat and the flies of Gallipoli, the soldiers had to contend with the mud and the cold. This is Burton’s account of winter in the Ypres salient:

Men lived in comfortless iron huts, in old gun-pits rotting with age, grimed with smoke and swarming with rats, and, further up toward the line, in the captured German pill-boxes. . . Even where the walls and roof were secure the foundations had been cracked, and the water was rising. Often beneath the floorboards were horrors unmentionable, and the stench rising was sickening. Yet these fearful dungeons where the German machine-gunners had fought, died, and after that been buried were the only shelters in the wide muck of desolation. Men lived in them, and so utter was their need that these horrible places were looked upon as homes. [5]

In 1917, he was asked to write a history of the New Zealand Division, copies of which were given to troops at the armistice under the title Our Little Bit—later revised and published as a full-length book (The New Zealand Division, 1919). After the armistice, Burton returned to Wellington. He was also asked to write the official history of the Auckland Regiment (The Auckland Regiment, 1922). In the 1930s, Burton worked on his own account of the war and the experience of the New Zealand soldiers, published in 1935 as The Silent Division. Near the end of the book, he wrote:

The mass of Germans and British alike were decent human beings. The great tragedy of the war was not so much that human beasts found unnatural licence, but that ordinary men. . . who loved and were loved, were drawn into hideous conflicts in which their plain duty appeared to lie in the desecration and destruction of the lives of other men as kindly and decent as they. [6]

From soldier to pacifist

After the war, the peace process and the treatment of Germany disheartened Burton. He thought that the terms imposed upon Germany under the Treaty of Versailles were too harsh, and that they had more to do with revenge than with facilitating peace. [7]

When the First World War ended there came, for many of us, the Great Betrayal. . . .The disillusionment was rapid and complete. Victory had not brought a new world, and we saw in a flash of illumination that it never could. War is just waste and destruction, solving no problems but creating new and terrible ones. [8]

By 1923, his pacifist convictions were well established, and that same year he published a pamphlet entitled ‘Shall we Fight?’ Burton felt that it had become his duty as a Christian to act against the war.

It is now evident that the settlement has not removed any of the causes of war, and that another conflagration is inevitable.
It is no use waiting until all are agreed and unanimous negotiations can be passed.  Action is imperative. The future belongs always to the prophets and dreamers, and those who have faith and vision sufficient to be fools for the sake of the kingdom of God. [9]

He committed himself fully to pacifism and to the pursuit of his religious ideals, becoming a Methodist minister in 1934, and founding the Christian Pacifist Society (CPS) in 1936. Despite sharing principles with non-Christian pacifists, he regarded their position as inferior, describing humanist pacifism as ‘an armchair philosophy.’ [10] In 1939, just after the Second World War was declared, Burton was arrested and charged with obstructing police. He had attempted to speak out against recruitment in front of a crowd of some 200 people who had gathered outside of Parliament.

Over the following months, Burton continued to hold regular meetings and to speak publicly against the war. Arrested multiple times, he served several years in prison, away from his family.

As a Christian man, there was no other thing I could do, save to preach the full Christian Gospel as I understand it. If that brings me into conflict with the law of the land, I deeply regret the fact, but my first obedience is to God. [11]>

Burton remained a pacifist throughout his life, opposing the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and protesting against the conflict in Vietnam. He died in 1974 at the age of 80, survived by his wife and two children.


[1] Ernest Crane, I Can Do No Other, p.11

[2] Ormond Burton’s Army Personnel File (Archives NZ), pp.19-22

[3] Sergeant Dick Travis, message to battalion commander, 29 August, 1918; cited in I Can Do No Other, p.1

[4] Burton, The Auckland Regiment, p.191

[5] The Auckland Regiment, p.182

[6] The Silent Division, p.304

[7] Burton, Against Conscription

[8] Against Conscription, p.1

[9] Burton, Shall We Fight? p.6, p.27

[10] Burton, Into the Way of Peace, p.3

[11] “SENT TO GAOL,” The Evening Post, 23 April 1941

Further information

Ormond Burton’s Army Personnel File (Archives NZ)

O.E. Burton, Shall We Fight? Clark and Matheson, Auckland, 1923

O.E. Burton, Against Conscription, The Pelorus Press, Auckland, 1949

O.E. Burton, Into the Way of Peace, Forward Books, Auckland, 1950

O.E. Burton, The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1935

O.E. Burton, The Auckland Regiment, Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland, 1922

MINISTER ARRESTED,’ Evening Post, 05 September 1939 (Papers Past)

SENT TO GAOL,’ Evening Post, 23 April 1941 (Papers Past)

‘BURTON GUILTY,’ Evening Post, 06 May 1941

Ormond Burton Cenotaph record (Auckland War Memorial Museum)

Burton, Ormond Edmond (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography)

Ernest Crane, I Can do No Other: A Biography of Ormond Burton, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1986

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