The Notorious Baxters

posted by Mike on November 24th, 2007

At the dawn of the First World War, New Zealand surveyed its draft-age men and asked if they would be willing to fight. One out of six said they would not. When it came down to a choice between joining the army and going to prison, many changed their minds, but many others spent the war in detention. Of those imprisoned, fourteen were deported to Europe, three of them brothers: John, Archibald, and Sandy Baxter.

Archibald Baxter described this experience in his book We Shall Not Cease. He was a successful farmer and an outspoken pacifist and socialist, and when it came time for troops to go to war, he wasn’t even formally drafted—they simply arrested him. He believed in God and prayer but wasn’t a member of an organized church, and his pacifism wasn’t grounded in religion.

Once in prison, Archibald refused to obey all military orders. Each time soldiers forced him into a uniform, he ripped it right off. He was put on a troop ship and sent to England, where he was forced to wear a uniform and backpack, then handcuffed all his waking hours. After three weeks, he gave up and accepted the uniform. It would be his only concession.

Still committed to a “fight to the utmost against the power of the military machine,” he was sent to a French prison camp. In February 1918, he was sentenced to 28 days of a torture nicknamed “the crucifixion.” He was tied to a sloping pole by his hands and feet and left to hang outside. “When I was taken off, my hands were always black with congested blood,” he wrote.

One day, a sergeant saw Archibald hanging from the pole, wearing no overcoat and covered with snow. The sergeant rebuked the torturing soldiers, and Archibald’s sentence was ended.

Archibald’s will was not yet broken, so he was sent to the front lines at Ypres and placed in areas that were being actively shelled. He was knocked down by exploding shells, flipped upside down, spattered with mud. He recalls “a great mass of struggling men trying to extricate one another, and all around the crash of shells. Anything I did at that time was done instinctively as a man, not as a soldier, and was not what the authorities wanted.”

He survived the front, then was beaten and sent to another camp where he was starved. Previous attempts to starve him had failed, as soldiers would sneak him food. But now there was not enough food for anyone.

Emaciated and semi-conscious, he was sent to a mental hospital. There’s no evidence he was mentally ill, and some think that a friendly doctor had him committed to keep him alive, thinking otherwise he would be executed.

Archibald found this hospital to be “a place of wretchedness and depression,” made all the worse by the wailing and delusions of the other prisoners. He was moved to a hospital in England, where news of the outside world came from a magazine called The New Zealander. One headline: “Last member of notorious Baxter family sent to jail.”

Eventually, Archibald was returned to New Zealand and set free. He returned to rabbit trapping and farming.

Archibald did not blame the soldiers for what they did to him: he blamed “the military machine” they were part of. And his story is full of acts of kindness from soldiers. “I remember always the gentleness and humanity of the ordinary soldiers who were close to me in those times…. If the soldiers had not looked after me, I undoubtedly would have died. My feeling towards them resembles a prayer that something good might always follow them, and that the light should shine upon them.” He recalls that, shortly before his “crucifixion” began, a sergeant-major took him down the road, bought him a cup of coffee, and told him, “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hear that this crowd had failed to break you. Good-bye and good luck.”

A letter he had sent to his parents from France, to prepare them for his probable death, was copied and circulated throughout New Zealand. It came into the hands of Millicent Brown, the well-educated daughter of prominent educators. She had held conventional views about war, but reading the letter made her a pacifist. She sought Archibald out, they hit it off, and were married.

Like their pacifist parents, the next generation of Baxters tried to live their convictions. Terence, the elder son, spent World War II imprisoned as a conscientious objector. James, the younger son, became a noted writer. His biographer called him “New Zealand’s most widely read and admired poet,” and an American critic recently described him as “his country’s closest answer at once to Dylan Thomas, to Robert Lowell, to Walt Whitman, and to Allen Ginsberg.”

James K. Baxter was a prodigy as a poet and an alcoholic; his first book of poems was published at age 18, and at 19 he could match drinks with the aging ironworkers he toiled with. He dried out with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, which led to a lifelong practice of counseling the troubled and visiting prisoners.

As a young man, Christianity seemed the answer to his ongoing philosophical crisis, and he became first an Anglican, and later a Roman Catholic. Quite late in their lives, his parents also became Catholics—Archibald was 83, Millicent 77.

Though never forced to stand up for his beliefs like his father and brother, James became an outspoken critic of New Zealand’s society and government. Meanwhile he turned out poetry, plays, fiction, criticism, children’s verse, political ballads, and articles on the Catholic faith. His writing effortlessly connects the New Zealand countryside and his marital problems, Saint John of the Cross and the Public Works Department, the ghosts of the past and the burdens of the present.
In his early 40s, a vision prompted him to embrace voluntary poverty and dedicate himself to helping others and infusing white New Zealand life with the wisdom of the Maori, New Zealand’s aboriginal people. He separated from his Maori wife (he hoped temporarily), stopped wearing shoes, let his hair and beard grow long, and founded a series of short-lived communes.

Two of the communes were in urban areas where he counseled drug addicts, drawing on his own experience as a recovering alcoholic.

Two other communes were rural, based on what he called the “five spiritual aspects of Maori communal life—arohuni: the love of the many; manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and stranger; korero: speech that begets peace and understanding; matewa [prayer]: the night life of the soul; mahi: work undertaken from communal love.” His outlook was ecumenical; he went to daily Mass, but did not try to surround himself with Catholics.

James never did find a workable synthesis of Catholicism, pacifism, Narcotics Anonymous, and Maori culture. He left his fourth commune in 1972 at age 46, traveled and worked for a short time, and died from a heart attack. Archibald had died two years earlier at age 88.


When I was only semen in a gland
Or less than that, my father hung
From a torture post at Mud Farm
Because he would not kill. The guards
Fried sausages, and as the snow came darkly
I feared a death by cold in the cold groin
And plotted revolution.

—JAMES K. BAXTER from Pig Island Letters (1963)

Reprinted from the Catholic Radical, the newspaper of the SS. Francis & Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Massachusetts.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a comment