By Jared Davidson
To foil the demonstration planned for the release of William Cornish Junior, jailers in Wellington, New Zealand freed him an hour early. No matter—his comrades threw two receptions for him at the Socialist Hall, the headquarters of the small but influential New Zealand Socialist Party (NZSP). The first, held in August 1911, saw Cornish Jnr receive a medal from the Runanga branch of the Anti-Conscription League for his resistance to compulsory military training (CMT). The following night he received a second medal, the Socialist Cross of Honor.
The Socialist Crosses were probably made at the Addington Railway Workshops in Christchurch, a socialist stronghold and headquarters of the militant Passive Resisters Union (PRU). Fred Cooke, secretary of the NZSP, noted that ‘the design of this cross is based on the Victoria Cross…on the centre shield are engraved the name of the NZ Socialist Party, the number and the name of the boy. In the centre are a red flag and the words ‘Anti-Militarism’ and at the bottom is written “For Courage.”’
The conservative cartoonist William Blomfield was quick to jump on the paradox of antimilitarists receiving medals. His drawing of a menacing Cornish Jnr—medals abreast and Union Jack torn in his hands—is like a patriotic poster gone awry. Nor was this paradox lost on the NZSP. Cooke wrote in the Maoriland Worker that ‘many may ask why the Socialist Party is initiating the military authorities and their barbaric symbols of slaughter…We answer that our cross is symbolical of peace and brotherhood, and in after life the boys who have gained them can justly boast of striking a blow for liberty and fraternity.’ The Socialist Cross may have been based on the medals of militarist conquest, but in the hands of socialist party members its social value was quite different.
The medal has now gained another type of value thanks to its scarcity. It is not known how many were produced, but they appear only very rarely in museum and collectors catalogues and it appears only one is held by a cultural heritage institution.
So imagine my surprise when, after giving a talk on New Zealand’s labour movement at Occupy Christchurch in 2011, I was approached by a man claiming to have antimilitarist medals in his possession. At that stage I had no idea such medals existed and assumed he meant the gold badges worn by PRU members. Instead, in his dimly lit storage unit, he presented me with not one but two Socialist Crosses: a cross with the faded inscription #24 was in poor condition, but #5, given to PRU founder James Kirkwood Worrall, was as good as new.
Like Cornish Jnr, Worrall was an active opponent of CMT and the Act that had created it. The 1909 Defence Act represented New Zealand’s attempt to re-organise its defence forces; it made registration and military training compulsory for males between 14 and 20 years of age, and enabled magistrates to deal out a considerable punishments to those who did not. As a British dominion closely allied to the ‘mother country’ (one in five of New Zealand’s one million population were British-born), many accepted CMT as a necessary counter to the supposed German threat. By July 1911, over 30,000 youths under the age of 20 had been registered.
Yet a significant number of socialists, unionists and pacifists believed otherwise. Syndicalists viewed CMT as ‘a weapon of capitalist imperialism’ used against the interests of the working class, both domestically and internationally. William Cornish Senior complained that:
My son is told to defend his country. He has got to defend his father’s property…And how much property has his father got? None. Nine-tenths of the working class—the class I belong to—have no property… the ruling class—the capitalists—have got the cheek and impudence to ask the sons of the workers to defend their property! I am happy and proud to be the father of such a noble son who has the courage to say: No! No! No!
The PRU was especially active in protesting CMT. It conducted agitation in the form of stickers, pamphlets, mass open-air meetings and civil disobedience. Pledged to ‘resist coercion, conscription, and compulsory military training under all circumstances, and in defiance of all pains and penalties,’ the PRU harassed those undergoing nightly military drills; barracks were plastered with stickers declaring ‘The military strike is now on!’ while their lively paper Repeal also aided the fight. True to their pledge, PRU members refused all cooperation with the state. When prosecuted, they ignored fines; when jailed, they refused orders and staged successful hunger strikes. In some regions military drilling was in a shambles thanks to constant PRU disruption. In Christchurch during 1911, only 25% of those eligible for CMT turned up. A year later, after the first 12 months of CMT, 3,187 youths were prosecuted for refusing to parade—by 1913 this number increased to 7,030.
Worrall was one of those who were prosecuted under the Defence Act. Writing from Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, an internment camp for resisters, Worrall wrote of their hunger strike:
ten of us have refused the fifth meal offered us. Three of our number are ill, one seriously. It makes no difference, however, as we have decided that unless we are allowed to return to the barrack room and given our full rations, we will be carried off the island dead, or as near dead as our tormentors will allow us to get… Our message to you, our comrades, is to fight hard. No quarter! No compromise! No surrender! We are prepared to play the game to the last: all we ask is for you to do the same. Let the world know that this little country is game enough to challenge the power of the military autocracy which is threatening to overwhelm the world, and is ruining the workers of the world.
The hunger strike forced a compromise on the part of the government. Yet despite these examples, antimilitarist ‘shirkers’ and ‘anti-defenders’ were in the minority—a movement on the margins of a highly conformist Edwardian culture. They were often ridiculed by the mainstream press: ‘we have precious little sympathy with the silly, notoriety-craving youths,’ wrote one editor. The support of collective associations like the New Zealand Socialist Party and the Passive Resisters Union formed an important part of resisting militarism and in dealing with the reprisals. This support took the form of a unique working-class counterculture with its own institutions, values and symbols, and the Socialist Cross of Honor is one remarkable example. As Cooke wrote in 1911, ‘in the future, when working-class history comes to be written, our Cross will be held in high esteem.’
Jared Davidson is a historian, writer and archivist based in Wellington, New Zealand. A committee member of the Labour History Project with an interest in history from below, Jared is the author of Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill’s Ashes in New Zealand (2011) and Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism (2013). His forthcoming book, Between the Devil and the Sea: Censored Lives of the First World War is due out in 2019. More of his work can be found at https://jared-davidson.com/, and the occasional tweet @anrchivist.