Mark Briggs: flax worker, trade unionist, Red Fed, auctioneer, politician, conscientious objector, humanitarian, all round good bloke

David Grant assesses the place Mark Briggs holds in our country’s history of radical resistance to war.

In 2005 painter Bob Kerr asked me to write biographies of Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs for his exhibition on the two men’s experiences in France in 1917-18. It gave me the chance to reassess whether through their resistance they experienced the apex of the State’s intolerance towards anti-war and anti-conscription non-conformity within the country’s anti-militarist history – and whether we can in fact claim such a tradition.

In Field Punishment No 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs and New Zealand’s Anti-Militarist Tradition, I argue a bold ‘yes’ to these questions. Baxter was well-known through his remarkable wartime memoir, We Will Not Cease, and also as the father of James Keir Baxter, poet and counterculture figure of the 1960s and early 1970s. But Briggs left nothing and had an ‘ordinary’ family. So one of my motivations was to give voice to New Zealand’s most obdurate conscientious objector.

Briggs was working class. Born in Londesborough, Yorkshire on 6 April 1884, the son of a shepherd, he migrated, barely literate, to New Zealand with his widowed father and brother in 1904. All three found work in the flaxmills that dotted the Manawatū district. He joined the Manawatu Flaxmills Employees’ Industrial Union of Workers, initially a moderate arbitrationist union but becoming increasing militant as it covered growing numbers of itinerant flax workers living and labouring in dire conditions. Briggs led his union’s agitation for better pay and conditions, and it joined the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in July 1911. Briggs led resistance to some moderates wishing to disaffiliate as Red Feds. He attended the Federation’s second conference in May 1912 where he met Peter Fraser, Bob Semple, Tim Armstrong, Paddy Webb and Joe Savage; all became lifelong friends.

A month earlier he’d pleaded in Wellington with Minister of Labour John Millar for better conditions and pay for Rangiotu flax workers. The press got wind of the visit, decried that Red Feds were protesting about flax workers’ conditions, and the Rangiotu flaxmill manager then sacked Briggs. From then on he found it impossible to get work in the Manawatū district. In 1915 when the government was compiling its register of military service, Briggs was processing flax near Te Aroha in the Waikato.

In 1916, Briggs joined the Empire Auctioneering company in Palmerston North as co-owner and manager with his union friend Bob Brown. In December 1916 he was called up for army service. Retaining his strident socialist views despite his foray into capitalism, he rejected this compulsion because the government had not conscripted wealth before men. Rejecting the conscription system itself, Briggs refused to attend his appeal board hearing. In March 1917, after refusing to attend an army medical examination, he was arrested and confined to barracks at Trentham Military Camp.

From then on, Briggs’ story is one of unbending refusal to co-operate with the military authorities on any issue no matter how minor. For refusal to wear army uniform, to salute, and to drill, he was imprisoned with hard labour, and on continued stubbornness, had long periods of solitary confinement. In July 1917, he was one of 14 objectors marched through Wellington to the troopship Waitemata for transport to Sling Camp in England. They were sent to the front line in France. This was meant to be secret but one of the confined men, Garth Ballantyne, had a note smuggled off the ship by a crew member, letting the cat out of the bag.

The brutal treatment included confinement in the ship under armed guard, random physical violence, solitary confinement in handcuffs and/or leg-irons at all times except when eating, bread-and-water diets, verbal threats of court-martial and execution, being tied to poles by ropes twisted tightly in all weathers, and forced transportation to the front-line. Briggs and Baxter, alone among the 14, held out to the end. Briggs never budged in his refusal to kowtow to the authorities. Sling’s commanders found they could do nothing with him, save execution, which despite the threats was not allowed. He was the first to be sent to France. At the time he was on hunger strike.

In France, he remained characteristically defiant at every turn, refusing to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. He was carried, dragged, or flung onto and transported around in a handcart. He spent much time confined and guarded in a hut. He was the first objector to undergo Field Punishment No. 1, in which he was bound hand and foot to a pole, and left hanging for hours at a time in the open air in all weathers. It was extremely painful as hands and feet turned blue. But humiliation was the main aim, with field punishment poles being erected in full view of troops moving to and from the front line.

In March 1918, on the orders of Major-General Sir Alexander Godley, the supreme commander of the New Zealand forces, Briggs was dragged feet-first with cable wire fastened under his arms, over a mile to the front line along the duckwalk to which netting had been roughly nailed. His back, arms and neck were a mass of lacerations and blood oozed through the remains of his garments. A huge wound was gouged into his right thigh, ‘big enough to put your fist into’.

Half a mile down the walk the provost-sergeant (military policeman) in charge ordered the other three soldiers to drag Briggs through freezing water in a shell-hole. The pain from his lacerations was immense, but he put up with it in silence. When he again refused to walk he was dragged into a second hole where the soldiers tipped him backwards into the water. Just as Briggs managed to raise his head above the water, the sergeant threw a handful of muck in his mouth yelling, ‘Drown yourself, you bastard. You’ve not got your Paddy Webbs and your Bob Semples to look after you now!’ Asked again to walk, Briggs muttered: ‘Never, as long as I draw breath.’ Later after he was dragged back to camp he could only crawl. One of the soldiers told him that he himself had been threatened with court-martial and execution had he not participated in the dragging. Others expressed indignation at the actions of the sergeant and even threatened to shoot him if he tried it again.

In two months the army gave up. In May 1918, still stoic and defiant and in pain from his injuries, Briggs was classified medically unfit for active service because of ‘muscular rheumatism.’ Colonel George Mitchell, the commander of the New Zealand army base at Etaples had written, half-admiringly, that Briggs would likely remain an objector to the end. He was repatriated to New Zealand in January 1919, still nominally in the army; but refused the soldier’s pay and discharge papers offered to him on disembarkation.

Briggs suffered opprobrium from patriotic New Zealanders and was shunned in the street in his home town, Palmerston North. Wisely he kept his head down, returning to the auctioneering business with Brown and later with Bert Cooksley, a Gallipoli veteran and political conservative. Briggs was a benevolent employer, providing gifts to his workers on birthdays and at Christmas and generous leave and support at times of bereavement. He found it hard to sack anybody. On 14 April 1920 he married hotel worker Bertha Burrill. On their wedding night she discovered, with horror, the grave scars etched into his back and the deep depression above his right hip. It seems extraordinary but Briggs seemed to suffer remarkably little from ongoing anxieties pertaining to his war experiences.

Baxter, with his new wife Millicent, remained a committed pacifist. Briggs turned his energies to community involvement. He played cricket and soccer; coached rugby and boxing and later became a committee member and patron of local clubs. He attended and spoke at many hui, having developed close links with Maori during his days as a flax worker. Through the Labour Party he became particularly friendly with Rangi Mawhete, president of Labour’s Māori Advisory Council, who from 1928 was developing a relationship between Labour and the Rātana Movement. He remained close to the Labour leadership between the wars. Savage, Semple, Fraser and Webb among others stayed at the Briggs’ family home when visiting Palmerston North. Twice he stood for Labour in city council elections, losing narrowly both times. Probably his war record was a factor in these defeats.

After Labour became the government in 1935, Prime Minister Savage tried to persuade Briggs to become a Labour member of the Legislative Council or Upper House. After refusing twice, he finally acceded in March 1936. Savage indicated that Briggs would serve as the ‘conscience’ of the House and that his appointment was a symbol to all those who opposed war. Briggs was quiet in the House, not taking naturally to the cut and thrust of political debate. But in June 1940, he did urge that the government exercise tolerance towards conscientious objectors in the new war (they didn’t). Controversially, he did not oppose the introduction of military conscription. With a growing political conservatism, and in line with the Labour leadership, he bought into the argument that while this war was tragic, they had to combat an aggressive and brutal foe who was breaking all bounds of human civility in attempting to destroy world democracy. Briggs did this with a heavy heart although with all other Legislative Councillors he had minimal impact on government policy anyway. In 1944, in one of his few later public speeches, he criticised the slowness and inequity of reviewing authorities reassessing objectors’ cases for release from prison camp, but was ignored. He died aged 80, on 15 March 1965, saddened by the growth in militarism and New Zealand’s preparedness to tackle communist expansionism through war.

Mark Briggs will be best remembered for his experiences during the First World War, and rightly so. I contend that Briggs was not a hero but an ‘ordinary’ man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, events that he faced with enormous moral courage. He and the other transported objectors were tortured in varying degrees in the most astonishing incidence of State-sanctioned cruelty in this country’s history. Forcibly taking the 14 men, without warning, to the front line to cure them of their insensibility represented the nadir in the State’s bigotry towards legitimate dissent. Twelve of the 14 succumbed to the army’s wishes, some in the most trying of circumstances. In a poignant irony, one, William Little, was killed within 18 days of becoming a stretcher bearer.

Baxter and Briggs prevailed, making them New Zealand’s first successful dissenters, succeeding against all odds in a young, immature, subservient, insecure and martial society that feared nonconformity, even more so under the stresses of war. They stood at the apex of the State’s intolerance towards such dissent. They are key in our tradition of anti-militarism that includes Moriori leader Nunuku-whenua; Taranaki’s Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi; the brave young working class men mostly from the West Coast and Canterbury who protested against compulsory military training when it was first introduced in 1911; the anti-conscriptionists of World War One; other pacifists before and in the early days World War Two, and the myriad of antiwar activists who emerged in the nuclear age. Briggs and particularly Baxter (through his book) became heroes to many of these later activists. They are exemplars of the cause of war resistance in this country, men of courage, spirit and principle, to be lauded in the same breath as Te Whiti, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

David Grant. From LHP Newsletter 45, February 2009