A scene from the 2014 film Field Punishment No 1, which told the story of NZ WWI conscientious objectors including Archibald Baxter and William Little

Lockdown letters #29, Glen Colquhoun: An Anzac memorial

Letters to Hone Tūwhare and his Travelling Band of Constant Companions, continued. 

Read more from the lockdown letters here.


Dear Archie Baxter,

Well brother, I suppose it’s here again. Anzac Day and all that. I’m not sure what conscientious objectors make of it to be honest. I can’t really stomach all the chest-thumping any more. Not until we celebrate the sort of courage you showed at least. Standing up for what you believed in. Refusing to fight when everyone else was caught up in the righteousness. I reckon it’s time to admit what we did to you too. Those other conchies as well. The ones we beat. Starved. Humiliated. Stuck in prison. Can’t see the point in celebrating the day until we can say where we went wrong too.

I grew up with different stories of course. Was told New Zealanders were full of pluck when it came to war. Big hearted. Brave. Down-to-earth. But we tied you to a post in the snow in 1917 because you didn’t agree with us. Couldn’t see the argument. That was our government. Our army. I see memorials to the plucky everywhere I turn now. Can’t miss them. But there’s no acknowledgement of what you did. That cuts across all the other carry-on I suppose. Knocks the huff out of the puff.

It took us almost a hundred years to stop our jumping to it. Walk away from someone else’s scrap. Mind you we still do it. You guys were the first to put your hand up though. Ask why. I don’t just blame governments. They’re an unholy bunch at the best of times. I blame soldiers too. Men. And women now. Looking to test their courage. Prove themselves. Anyone who says I’ll do what you tell me. Point me and I’ll pull the trigger. Lets someone else think for them. What a surrender. There is no army anywhere without that.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend ourselves. But other people’s wars … I don’t know. Kicking down doors in places we don’t know only ever seems to make things worse. Say hello to Terence for me too. Your boy. I remember meeting him a while back. Among the living. I always thought it was the closest I’d ever get to knowing you. He was gentle. Gracious. But there was some steel to him. I drive past his old prison site sometimes. It’s just up the road. There’s not even a signpost. No flags. No song and dance. But Jesus, the sky over that piece of earth could bear witness eh?

Say gidday to Mark Briggs too. He sounds like a character. A force of nature. What we did to him still sickens. I’d love to bump into him. And William Little as well. He didn’t survive our interfering. Persuasions. I still shake my head. There’s a kid too. Three years old. I’ve seen her out on the beach at times. Maybe you guys could look out for her. Her name is Fatima. She was killed on a raid our soldiers were part of in Afghanistan. Caught some shrapnel curling into her mother. She was one of the ones we went to protect I suppose. Same as those seven kids blown up playing with grenades we left on the firing range in Bamiyan. I can’t see a memorial to any of them here either. I’ve watched them on this beach heaps of times though. I guess maybe it’s the first one they’ve seen. They run around making huts, forts. Ironic I suppose. But that’s kids for you.

Olive and I might go down there tomorrow and hang out with them. Leave the flags alone. There’s a heap of driftwood around. We might put a stake in the ground for you all. Make a cake. Remember. Those kids will be dead in their own country too I expect. Surrounded by love and fun. An unimaginable load of grief for the living. But I reckon the dead can be in more than one place at a time. You and I might swap some Burns too, eh? Forget the whole shambles. Get drunk on some lovely old poems. Frilly old cleavage. Lilt and flow. Seems like a good antidote to me. A plate of fruit salad and ice cream compared to all this stale old bread. Fake mana. Fake shrines. Fake holiness.

Dear Fatima,

As-salamo ’alaykom. My beautiful girl. It’s good to see you. Welcome to our big old beach. I’m sorry you had to be here so early. I really am. I wish it didn’t have to be like this. Let me put you up on my shoulders. There we go. Give you a ride. Now. See. You are the queen of the world.

Shall we go and meet some aunties? This is Aunty Rongo. Hmmm-Kiss. She is kind. She needs little people to push her chair around sometimes when it is stuck. Maybe you can help her? And this is Aunty Huia. Look out. Kkkiiiiiisssssss. She will show you how to eat pipi. And to make kete. And this is Whaea Maudie. Uh-oh. Biggie-Biggie-Hug coming up. She is fun. And naughty. She will teach you how to play the ukelele. And sing. And sing. And sing. And maybe how to cook bread.

I have a small girl too. Well, she is kind of big now. But there is still a small girl inside her. We walk on the beach and find shells together. Her name is Olive. And guess what? The shells we look for are called OLIVE shells. I know, right. I reckon we should call them FATIMA shells too. Just for you. Whenever we find one we will jump around and dance a little bit. Her friend is Emily. She is a big small girl too. She has a dog. His name is Buddy. He is a licky dog. I tell him to stop. But he licks me more. NGGGH. So maybe you could be his friend too?

Anyway, I just want you to know that all these people (and the dog) are yours. I promise you we will always hold you close here. We will tell you stories. And keep you warm. And take you for rides. When it is warmer we can swim too. Whenever you want to find us just sing and we will come and be with you. Tomorrow we are going to make you a hut. It’s going to be our Fatima hut. Or maybe a sandcastle. And eat cake. Just for you.. You will never be alone here. Ever.

Dear William Little,

Oh brother. It’s a holy thing to see you here. A painful thing. I can’t pretend otherwise. I get the feeling you just want to keep on going to be honest. Keep your head down. Hands in your pockets. Have no time for those who have any sort of truck with words. I don’t blame you for that at all. Nothing can make up for what we took away from you.

I just wanted to pay my respects. Tell you I visited you once. For what that’s worth. I don’t know if you remember it now. Walked my way around that cemetery at Gezaincourt until I found your stone. You were buried in a soldiers grave. As though that was all there was to it. No scrawl to say anything about you being a conscientious objector. About how you were arrested. Tried. Thrown in prison. Locked in a hold. Shipped to the front. Tortured until you agreed to carry a stretcher. Then killed in the last days of the war.

I left some flowers. Said a prayer. Not that a prayer from me would ever do anyone any good. I just want you to know that you’re not forgotten. I have your name on a post outside my house. Similar to the one they used to hang Baxter, Briggs and Kirwan on — hoping to make an example of them. Change their minds. People walk by. Ask why and I tell them. I reckon they should know. It’s just down the road from Foxton. Where they arrested you. I like to feel it’s a home for you of sorts. If you want it.

I’ve brought you a song as well. It seemed the least I could do. Maybe there’s a kid out there somewhere who will find it. Play it for you on their recorder. Especially on Anzac Day. Drown out the bugles. I’ll have a crack at it singing it for you tomorrow anyway. Just by myself. At the going down of the sun. And in the morning. It the only medicine I’ve got left at the end of the day, brother. Lest we forget. And all that.

William Little’s Lament, by Glen Colquhoun

 



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