Spectrum 305. A matter of principle
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The story of Duncan McCormack and his fight against conscription in World War I. He served a jail term along with the future Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and other socialist objectors.
Duncan McCormack speaks with Alwyn Owen. He says when war broke out he was very definite in his mind that he wouldn’t go to the war and would take any consequences whatever.
Personal circumstances led him to become a conscientious objector, reinforced by political convictions and strong Christian beliefs.
He came to New Zealand in 1913 as a 20 year old, and after the death of his brother at sea as the result of profit-seeking capitalism was drawn to socialism. He says when war broke out, the Labour Party was pretty much against it. It was contrary to the idea of socialism.
He says the churches were behind the government in the war, and he ended up leaving the church because of it. He says he was considered to be a traitor to the country and a shirker and a coward and the churches were really a recruiting platform for the war.
Enlistment was voluntary up until late 1916, but Duncan McCormack recalls the propaganda against young men who did not want to fight. They were insulted and white feathers were sent to them through the post. He has an envelope he was sent containing an Epsom salts packet, with written on it “If you can’t go to the front, go to the rear.”
He finally received his call-up papers in December 1916. He says he went on with his work and completely ignored it, knowing that he would be arrested.
He then describes his arrest, marching down High Street in Auckland between two military policemen. Passing by some construction workers, he recalls the policemen being booed, whereas he received a little cheering. He says most working men were against the war.
First he was taken to Fort Cautley in Devonport, then to Rutland Street Barracks (the military headquarters in Auckland) for questioning by Major Price. He was insulted and brow-beaten but was adamant about his attitude. Then he was sent by rail to Trentham camp in Wellington where he was immediately sent to Hut 21, which held between twenty and thirty other conscientious objectors.
He recalls the procedure of being ordered to accept his military kit, which he refused to do, and of being questioned before the camp commandant, in order to test his determination. His first sentence was served in the Alexandra Barracks in Wellington in Buckle Street, for a month on half-rations. He and 14 other men had to pull a heavy roller up and down a yard, for no purpose.
He then appeared before a Court Martial but the sentence was already determined by Parliament in the Conscription Act - 11 months hard labour, which he served at The Terrace jail in Wellington, which he says was very grim.
It was there that he met Peter Fraser and other Labour identities, who had spoken against conscription: [Robert] Semple, Tom Brindle and Jim Thorn. They had been sentenced on sedition and did not get hard labour, but spent their time mostly studying. They were not allowed to speak to other prisoners but he exchanged a few words with Fraser, who encouraged him.
He says Fraser's ideas changed a lot by the time he got into government himself during the Second World War. He recounts meeting him as Prime Minister during the war and being snubbed by Fraser, once he realised where they had met previously.
He talks of hearing of other conscientious objectors such as Archibald Baxter being shipped off to France. He himself was only in The Terrace jail for a short time, as there were too many objectors, so some were sent to prison camps to do tree-planting. He went to Paparoa Prison farm outside Christchurch, which was hopelessly over-stocked with sheep.
When he had served his sentence, he was immediately returned to Trentham Camp and Hut 21, court-martialled again and given two years hard labour. He recalls other objectors he served with, including a spiritualist and a Sinn Fein supporter called "Paddy". His imprisonment continued beyond the end of the war in November 1918, until the end of his sentence. During the influenza epidemic the cell-doors were left open so they could attend to other prisoners who were sick. They could look up through a trapdoor in the roof and see the night sky, which he says he hadn't seen for many months.
On release, they were met by military police again and taken to barracks in Christchurch and given a soldier's discharge and pay, which was very little.
He says he experienced very little feeling against him in the building industry after the war. He says his views changed when the Second World War came and if he had been of age he probably would have served, as it was a war for freedom against fascism, different to World War I which he says was a fight to re-distribute the spoils of colonialism.
Reference number 21884
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Documentary radio programs
Nonfiction radio programs
Radio New Zealand. National Programme (estab. 1964, closed 1986), Broadcaster
McCormack, Duncan McNeill, Interviewee
Owen, Alwyn (b.1926), Producer
Dell, David R. S. (David Raymond Scott), 1959-, Recording engineer