Acting in the true Anzac spirit

On Anzac Day, militarism dresses up in the mask of pacifism. It honours the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the Great War, gives due recognition to the horrors they endured, decries the excesses and blunders of the command and… maintains a delicate but strict silence on the causes and character of that war. Even now, a full century later, amid all the attention being given to the event, the origins and causes of that cataclysmic war go largely unexplained and undiscussed. This peculiar combination of remembering and selective ‘forgetting’ is the secret of the mass support and participation in the commemorations that take place in Australia and New Zealand.

(For the information of readers outside Australasia: Anzac is an acronym for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps, the name of the combined military force of the two countries during the Great War and for some time later. Anzac Day is celebrated every year in both countries on April 25, the date of the first major engagement of Australian and New Zealand troops, the landing at Gallipoli peninsular at the entrance to the Sea of Marmara, Turkey, in 1915. In this centenary year the commemorations spread out over more than a week).

Sacked sports reporter Scott McIntyre

Sacked sports reporter Scott McIntyre

This year the pacifist mask slipped momentarily. On April 25 the Australian broadcaster SBS sacked one of its sports reporters, Scott McIntyre, for a series of tweets McIntyre posted that were deemed “disrespectful” “highly inappropriate” by his employer and “despicable” by the Australian government’s Minister of Communications, Malcolm Turnbull. (Turnbull later revealed that he had personally intervened by calling the SBS boss to bring McIntyre’s tweets to his attention in the hours before the sacking.)

What did McIntyre tweet that was so “disrespectful”? He denounced “the cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with.” He said that he was “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine, and Japan,” (referring to events in both the World Wars.) “Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he added.

In short, he dared to puncture the official mythology surrounding the Anzac commemorations, and speak the truth about the two imperialist wars they celebrated. The substance of McIntyre’s tweets is well supported by fact. And if some of them appear immoderate or confused, keep in mind the smothering patriotic atmosphere in which they were made: a man gasping for air does tend to thrash about a little.

It is an undisputed fact that the Great War was a clash of empires, and therefore the only correct description of it is ‘imperialist.’ It is also generally recognised that at the time of the Gallipoli invasion neither Turkey nor its allies presented any military threat to Australia or New Zealand. The Anzac troops, acting as part of the military forces of the British empire, sought to open up a supply route through the Black Sea to Britain’s ally, the despotic czar of Russia. Secret treaties signed by Russia, France, and Britain a month before the invasion promised that the Turkish city of Constantinople (Istanbul) would be handed to Russia in the event of victory. A secondary goal of attacking the Turkish Ottoman empire was to secure control of the Middle East oil resources; oil was at that time replacing coal as the main fuel for the British navy.

Also well-known is the fact that the Anzac troops stationed in Cairo in the weeks prior to the Gallipoli expedition rioted on more than one occasion, raping and beating local people and setting fire to shops, bars and brothels. At Easter weekend 1915, some 2,500 troops were involved. “We thrash the black fellows with whips,” one soldier wrote. “Every nigger who is impudent to a soldier gets a hiding…I can’t say how many I’ve belted and knocked out. ”

Troops of the ANZAC Mounted Division on their horses, Palestine.. Ref: PA1-q-605-08-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Troops of the ANZAC Mounted Division on their horses, Palestine.. Ref: PA1-q-605-08-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Nor were these incidents out of character. In December 1918 Australian and New Zealand troops from the Auckland Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horsemen carried out a massacre of up to 120 residents of the Palestinian village of Surafend in response to the killing of a soldier, and burned the village and a nearby Bedouin camp. No one was punished for this war crime.

Scott McIntyre was punished for mentioning these unpleasant facts. Apparently, speaking the truth about these events was considered ‘likely to bring SBS into disrepute.” To his great credit, McIntyre defied the instruction to pull down the tweets, even though it cost him his job – they can still be read in full here.

In sacking McIntyre, the state-funded broadcaster – and the government Minister whispering in its ear – were acting in the true Anzac spirit. For the Anzac campaign and the Great War it was part of, in addition to being a predatory imperialist war, was also a war against the working class at home. Censorship and military conscription were the battlefronts of this war.

The New Zealand government’s first act of war, within weeks of declaring its support to the British empire, was to seize the German colony of Samoa. Its second act, a couple of months later, was to pass the War Regulations Act, which granted to the Governor-in-Council (effectively, the cabinet of the ruling coalition of the Reform and Liberal Parties) and its officers sweeping powers of arrest without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and censorship.

These powers overrode important democratic rights and legal protections, such as the right of habeas corpus and the normal rules of evidence. They were extended in their scope several times throughout the course of the war. Having proved extremely useful to the rulers during the wartime ‘emergency’, their term of operation was extended for two years after the end of military actions in 1918. For six years the country was placed under a kind of undeclared martial law.

The wording of the War Regulations spells out common provisions of martial law, such as the right of those guarding military installations to shoot at intruders and fire on boats entering a defended harbour, provisions for requisitioning supplies, prohibitions against trading with the enemy or communicating with “enemy aliens”, “showing lights at night which might be construed as signalling to the enemy” an so on. Since there was no war in New Zealand, these were rarely invoked. However, Auckland City Councillor and businessman Frederick Gaudin accidentally fell foul of the prohibitions on ‘communicating with the enemy’ by carrying some letters from formerly-German Samoa to interned Germans in New Zealand, following a visit to Samoa. Despite to government admitting that there was nothing objectionable in the content of the letters, Gaudin was court-martialled in Samoa and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. The case provoked a public outcry.

The most important features of the War Regulations were the scapegoating of foreign-born ‘enemy aliens,’ restrictions on freedom of movement and communications, and censorship of ‘seditious utterances.’

Enemy aliens suspected of being “disaffected and dangerous” could be detained at the discretion of the military authorities. (See p.36 of the online copy of the complete Regulations published on the NZ History website here. The page numbers in the following text refer to this document). If such ‘enemy aliens’ were charged with interfering with military operations, they could be court-martialled and executed. Compulsory labour schemes were set up to regulate and control the labour of enemy aliens.

Enemy aliens were defined as “anyone who is or has at any time been a subject of any State with whom His Majesty is now at war, notwithstanding that such person may also be by birth, naturalisation, or otherwise a British subject, or may have in any manner ceased to be a subject of any such State, and includes the wife of an enemy alien.” (p.22).

Gang of Dalmatian gum diggers draining the Aranga swamp, Maunganui Bluff, Northland. Creator of collection unknown: Photographs relating to Dalmatian gum diggers, life on the gumfields, and social events. Ref: PAColl-2144-2-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Gang of Dalmatian gum diggers draining the Aranga swamp, Maunganui Bluff, Northland. Creator of collection unknown: Photographs relating to Dalmatian gum diggers, life on the gumfields, and social events. Ref: PAColl-2144-2-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This definition included, for example, many of the Dalmatian workers in the kauri gum fields of Northland, who had once been citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire – despite the fact that the Yugoslavs were engaged in a struggle for separation from that empire and were mainly hostile towards it. Sending remittances to their families in Dalmatia now became illegal.

False rumours and hysterical petitions accusing Yugoslavs of disloyal acts began to circulate. The Massey government set in motion a plan to intern all Yugoslavs in the remote far north; this was abandoned after protests. However, Yugoslavs, whether naturalised or not, were required to register with the police, from where they were assigned to compulsory labour camps where they fulfilled tasks such as draining swamps, where they could easily be segregated from other workers.

Some Yugoslav workers were interned, usually for failing to report to police, along with hundreds of immigrants from Germany, on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour and Motuihe Island near Auckland. More than a thousand Yugoslavs were interned in Australia.

Laws against aliens suspected of being ‘disloyal or disaffected’ were later broadened to provide for deportation of British citizens arriving in the country if, in the opinion of the Attorney General, their presence in the country would be ‘injurious to public safety.’

Censorship of mails and telegrams was established (p.28) and powers of search and seizure were widened. A ban on selling, printing, delivering or possessing prohibited publications was introduced (p.40). Among the titles banned from public circulation were German language publications and some which had military significance, such as Jane’s Fighting Ships, but most were socialist and labour movement newspapers. Included in the first list of prohibited publications were International Socialist Review, an Australian socialist newspaper formerly edited by Harry Holland, as well as Direct Action and Solidarity and “all other printed matter published by the Industrial Workers of the World.”

Further publications were added to the list in the period after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the Russian Revolution of 1917, including the book The Black Prophet, a novel about the Irish famine by William Carleton, Green Ray, an Irish nationalist publication produced in Dunedin, and Novi Svijet (New World), a Yugoslav publication produced in Auckland.

All newspapers had to be approved by the censor before publication (p.160). Newspapers were forbidden from indicating where their content had been altered or deleted by the censor. (p.45) The censorship was extended to cinema. The Minister of Customs was empowered to confiscate any book or publication imported into New Zealand where he deemed that the sale or distribution of the book would be ‘injurious to the public interest in respect of the present war” (p.151)

The definition of ‘seditious utterance’ was broadened to include making statements with ‘seditious intention,’  ‘seditious tendency’ and ‘seditious conspiracy.’  Some of the forms of sedition specified were “To excite disaffection against His Majesty or the Government of the United Kingdom, or of New Zealand, or any other part of His Majesty’s dominions,…to excite, procure or encourage violence, lawlessness, or disorder,…to discourage the prosecution of the present war to a victorious conclusion,” and, significantly, “to excite or encourage opposition to laws … relative to compulsory military training or service during the present war”. (p.84)

It became a form of sedition, then, simply to argue against military conscription.

The fact that socialists and the labour movement were the target of these “regulations” became even clearer with the clause defining as sedition “to insult, annoy, offend or discredit, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere, the subjects, or any class or classes of the subjects, of any State which is in alliance with His Majesty…” (p.85) [my emphasis].

Along with restrictions on ‘utterances’ came restrictions on freedom of association. The Commissioner of Police was empowered to prohibit ‘meetings having reference to the war.” (p.89)

Freedom of movement was also curtailed. Any person over the age of fifteen who sought to travel overseas was required to obtain written permission to leave the country from the Minister of Internal Affairs (p.41). Passports were introduced at this time; they were required for any person arriving in New Zealand (other than from Australia) (p.70).


This usurpation of power in the name of the war effort did not go unchallenged by the labour movement.

“We seem to be getting to that perilous stage where Government by regulation and Order-in-Council takes the place of Parliamentary Government,” wrote the Maoriland Worker, the chief newspaper of the labour movement, in September 1915. “[A] military officer may seize any person who was so culpably negligent as to have been born outside of Japan, or Servia, or Russia, or France, England etc, and make a prisoner of him (or her), deny him (or her) any information as to what he or she is suspected of having done, deny him (or her) the hitherto boasted British right to a trial by a jury of his (or her) peers, and keep him (or her) a prisoner as long as the war, or even longer. All that is necessary is that the military officer shall assure himself that he has ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the alien to be seized is “disaffected” or “dangerous.”

“No one has a right to enact a liberty-destroying law of that sort behind the back of Parliament, and anyhow it is too great and too dangerous a power to place in the hands of any military officer. Surely the shocking sentence inflicted on F. E. N. Gaudin should have convinced everybody of this fact… The …regulations referring to printed matter, also constitute a grave danger…”

The Maoriland Worker went on to point out the hypocrisy of the clauses concerning ‘advocating violence:’  “Every speaker at a pro-war meeting advocates violence, as does every pro-war newspaper!”

Before long, individuals and organisations were being prosecuted for expressions of opinion. Egerton Gill, secretary of the Freedom League, was fined £50 in November 1915 for circulating leaflets declaring the League’s intention to oppose Conscription if it were introduced. The magistrate declared that this would be ‘likely to interfere with recruiting of His Majesty’s forces”. The prosecutor read into evidence a parody of the song “Onward Christian Soldiers” that appeared in one of the pamphlets of the League:

Onward Christian soldiers, making evermore
Costly preparations, for murdering by war,
Battleships, torpedoes, arms guns and shells,
Anything for slaying foes, the provider sells.

Newspapers for lying, when the truth costs dear,
Fools to do the dying, patriots to cheer,
Rulers, priests and preachers, hypocrites galore,
Praying to the Prince of Peace for victory in war.

Christchurch shopkeeper William Reynolds was fined £50 in February 1916 for displaying some items in his shop window, including a picture which “showed the shadowy form of a woman with a scythe, mowing men down, and the Accused had written over it: Wanted. Thousands more.” Later that year, Reynolds was sentenced to three months hard labour for circulating an anti-war leaflet. Reynolds was an agent for the  Maoriland Worker. The Denniston Miners’ Union sent a message protesting the ‘unreasonably cruel and harsh’ sentence.

From 1916, as the government moved to introduce military conscription and a union-led campaign opposing conscription gained strength, the sedition laws were increasingly used to target the labour movement, and in particular its leadership.

Flax mill workers, Ngaruawahia. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19011107-6-4

Flax mill workers, Ngaruawahia. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19011107-6-4

In July 1916 the secretary of the Manawatu Flaxmillers Union, was prosecuted for ‘seditious intent’ for possessing a letter containing a resolution passed by a mass meeting of members of his union supporting a strike against the first attempt to impose conscription. In September, Wellington Waterside worker James Henry Rowe was fined £25 for making a ‘disloyal utterance.’ Rowe was alleged to have said, in a private conversation with a fellow worker about the rumoured sinking of a ship, the ss Britannic (this was deemed sufficient to constitute “publishing”) “It serves the **** right. I am not going to fight for my country. What has the country done for me?”

Within a few months, some of the central class-struggle leaders were behind bars. Robert Semple, former coal miner and long-time leader of the Federation of Labour, was charged with seditious intention after speeches in Wellington and Auckland in which he brought a message of solidarity from anti-conscription fighters in Australia. A referendum in late October 1916 had rejected conscription in that country, and Semple’s speeches reflected the enthusiasm of the moment. In New Zealand, the Military Service Act had passed into law in August of the same year.

“As far as Australia was concerned, the conscription issue was not fought by the capitalists to win the war, but to screw the workers industrially and smash their organisation,” Semple had said.

“I tell you [that] there is going to be an awakening of the working class. They have been bound in chains for ages. Slowly but surely your liberties are slipping away… Wealthy monopolists of this country are taking advantage of war to steal the people’s liberty in the name of patriotism and some day the great masses will wake up and find themselves bound and fettered. The hour has arrived in this country when we have got to break the chains of despotism.

Robert Semple, Red Fed leader, 1910. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: 1/2-174828-G

Robert Semple, Red Fed leader, 1910. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: 1/2-174828-G

“In every war it was the opportune time for the reactionist and commercial vulture to do his dirty work in the name of patriotism. They are doing that now… Conscription and liberty cannot live in the one country. Conscription is the negation of human liberty… Conscription was not intended in this country to fight the Kaiser, but to fight trades unionism and the working classes. They are more afraid of the trade unionists, the capitalists are, than the Kaiser. Why? The Kaiser belonged to the same school that they belonged to. The Kaiser stands for despotism, robbery, plunder, oligarchy. The workers stand for liberty. They fear the rising of the working class population a sight more than the Kaiser because the Kaiser belongs to the same school as the rest of the robbers in the rest of the world. The psychological effect of my experience in Australia has kindled a flame of rebellion in my soul, and, regardless of the consequences, I intend to fight, by God, that infamous rotten law (to wit, the Military Service Act, 1916), that has been passed upon the heads of the people in New Zealand.”

Again in January 1917 the Maoriland Worker sounded the alarm, when the government announced the new regulations prohibiting meetings ‘having reference to the war.’

“The latest War Regulations clothe the “Commissioner of Police” (which we suppose in the last analysis means the Attorney-General) with all the attributes of a dictatorship, and empowers him to prohibit meetings having reference to the war… Every person who attends such prohibited meeting is to be held to be guilty of a crime and liable to a year’s hard labor. Not only will this far-reaching Regulation affect political Labor, trade union and Socialist meetings. It will apply with equal force to every Church whose pastor is sufficiently Christian to preach the whole of Christ’s Christianity…

“The police are to be clothed with power to forcibly enter any place by day or night where it is suspected that people are discussing the war. It may be a Catholic religious service, it may be a gathering of Quakers, it may be a Methodist prayer meeting, it may be a political meeting of the Labor Representation Committee or an industrial meeting of the Trades and Labor Council or any trade union—the police are to be let in, and will of course insist on their right to take notes as the service or meeting proceeds. It is quite unnecessary to point out that such a Regulation lays the axe to the root of every religious and civil liberty,” the  Maoriland Worker said. Not long afterwards, the office of the  Maoriland Worker was itself raided by police and searched.

Within days of Semple’s conviction and jailing, Fred Cooke, a Christchurch Socialist, James Thorn, secretary of the Longburn Freezing Workers Union, and Peter Fraser, were also convicted of sedition and jailed, after addressing mass meetings opposed to conscription. Fraser was arrested as he entered a conference called to campaign for repeal of the Act. Tom Brindle, Labour Representation Committee delegate to that conference, took breakfast to Fraser in jail, and was himself arrested and charged with sedition.

There were further prosecutions of both rank-and-file unionists and leaders over the next months. Soon, Tim Armstrong, Lyttelton watersider and former Waihi miner, Wellington waterside worker Sidney Fournier, and Peter O’Rourke and James O’Brien, both West Coast miners and Labour Party leaders, were also behind bars. By May 1917 some 35 union leaders were either in jail or facing charges. Paddy Webb, Labour Party Member of Parliament, was charged with seditious utterances in May 1917, then was himself drafted in the October 1917 ballot. In March 1918 Webb was sentenced to two years hard labour for refusing to don the uniform, resulting in his Parliamentary seat being declared vacant.

Like the flaxmillers, seafarers and watersiders, the West Coast miners had pledged to strike as soon as the first among them was conscripted. The government apparently judged that these unions were capable of making good this pledge; members of the coal miners,’ seafarers’ and watersiders’ unions were granted exemption from conscription. The pretext for exemption was their indispensable role in the war economy. “To hell with your bribery,” Semple responded to this manoeuvre. “You are not going to bribe us and conscript our labour. You are not going to play us against the other fellow.”

In spite of the exemption, the coal miners remained at the centre of opposition to conscription. In April 1917 a strike to protest against conscription began at Denniston, Millerton, Stockton, and Reefton mines on the West Coast and Huntly in the North Island, following ballots of the workers more than ten-to-one in favour of the strike.

The Maoriland Worker wrote 11 April: “Ever since Parliament enacted Conscription a struggle has been proceeding in industrial circles, and particularly in the mines and on the waterfront, between certain of the trades union officials on the one hand and the membership on the other hand—the latter straining all the time in the direction of industrial revolt to protest against Conscription, and the officials using their official positions and opportunities to avert a strike. The position now is that the “rank and file” have taken control and have declared a strike against Conscription. The ancient lie about the strike being the work of the “leaders” won’t cut any ice in this case. The miners have openly stated that the strike is not for any other purpose than to protest against Conscription, which they hold was forced on the people in total disregard of the will of the vast majority. What the outcome will be, who can say? We are very much in the dark as to what is happening on the coal fields, and have to largely depend upon the daily press for our information. One thing is certain: never in our history were wise counsels needed so much as at this juncture.”

The government declared the strike ‘seditious’ and a wave of searches and arrests followed. At Denniston, the union hall and the homes of the miners’ union president and secretary were raided and the two officials arrested. Likewise at Runanga. Three carloads of police descended on Huntly.

The Maoriland Worker reports: “They invaded Huntly, Pukemiro and Te Akatea. At Huntly they made four arrests—Messrs. J. Jones, president of the Miners’ Federation, and also president of the Huntly Miners’ Union, J. Jordan and Maloney (executive members of the Huntly Union). At Te Akatea Mr. J. Cummings (secretary of the Te Akatea Union) was seized; and at Pukemiro, Mr. Winton (secretary of the Pukemiro Union) was taken. The officials were arrested in the mine, and all of them were taken to Auckland, where they appeared before the S.M. At Te Akatea summonses have been issued against some nine miners, who are charged with taking part in a “seditious strike.” These cases are set down for hearing at Huntly on April 12. In each case the Miners’ office was raided, and the secretary’s private residence searched. At Huntly the police seized the Miners’ Hall, and took full possession, refusing to allow the Miners’ Union to hold its meeting in its own building. This made it necessary for the Union to meet in the street.”

Socialist Mark Briggs and Field Punishment No. 1.  Painting: Bob Kerr

Socialist Mark Briggs and Field Punishment No. 1. Painting: Bob Kerr

By 1918 287 men had been charged with sedition or disloyalty, of whom 208 were convicted and 71 jailed. The repression succeeded in driving back the anti-conscription movement. The police turned their attention to hunting down conscientious objectors and ‘shirkers.’

The conscientious objectors included some who objected to military service on religious grounds, and also some class-struggle unionists, such as Mark Briggs, former Manawatu flax worker and leader of the flaxmillers union. Briggs was among the group of objectors who were sent to the front in France, repeatedly tortured, beaten, and threatened with being court-martialled and shot, and then subjected to “Field Punishment No. 1” – being bound to a post at the front lines.

The disruptive and intimidating effect of the heavy police interference in working class organisations under the anti-democratic War Regulations, combined with the jailing of a large number of class-struggle leaders under the sweeping sedition laws dealt heavy blows to the union movement, and to the anti-conscription movement which rested on it. The unions emerged from the war in a gravely weakened state.




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