Early in 1915 Ormond Burton went to war as part the No1 NZ Field Ambulance. At Gallipoli he stayed aboard the Lutzow to tend the wounded and dying, but was later a stretcher-bearer. In September 1915 he was evacuated to Egypt, and by May 1916 was with the New Zealand Division in Flanders.
In the spring of 1917 a friend was killed and he volunteered to take his place in the infantry. In August 1918 he was wounded for the third time and awarded the French Médaille d’honneur. That year he was sent to Cambridge for officer training and in January 1919 he became a second lieutenant. He wrote books about the First World War, his reputation as a skilled war historian matching his reputation as a fearless soldier.
Burton had a change of heart after the war, when he quickly realised that the conditions of the Treaty of Versaille, signed between the allies and Germany, would not usher in a new age of peace. In A Testament of Peace, published in 1940, Burton wrote of ‘the Great Betrayal’: ‘We looked now for the new world for which we had paid as a purchase price, the best blood of a generation… The disillusionment was rapid and complete. Victory had not brought a new world, and we saw in a flash of illumination that it never could. War is just waste and destruction, solving no problems that creating new and terrible ones’.
In 1938, as the world prepared for the Second World War, he and others wrote a pamphlet which argued that, ‘Moral issues cannot be decided by preparations for war, which must cause international conflicts with their tragic accompaniments of economic loss, destruction of human life, and moral degradation… We further believe that our country should lay down its arms; declare its willingness to cooperate with all other countries on the basis of friendship and goodwill and a willingness to share our possessions; and that the true work of citizens is the building of character and co-operation, both individually and nationally’.
The day after the Second World War was declared in September 1939, Burton and two others condemned it before a crowd of 200 outside Parliament. Under emergency regulations only hours old, expressing such views was unlawful and all three were arrested. Burton was visited in gaol by the deputy prime minister, Peter Fraser, who was worried that Burton, a returned soldier and a charismatic speaker, might attract the nucleus of a large and embarrassing anti-war movement. Burton rejected Fraser’s plea to desist and resumed speaking in Allen Street. He was arrested and fined three times in the next four months, and after a large meeting in February 1940 at Pigeon Park, was sentenced to a month’s hard labour. On his release he went straight back to the speaking podium and was imprisoned for a further three months.
Describing his own situation, Burton wrote in A Testament of Peace, that ‘In the storm of fire and steel we can perhaps do very little except bear witness from our prison cells to the way of Christ. Many times our hearts will fail us with fear. After all though it is better to suffer on a cross loving the poor blind frenzied world and dying for it than to make new blood soaked battlefields and perish there in hate and fury. Love that is not daunted by suffering has always a resurrection’.
In 1942 Burton was charged with editing, publishing and attempting to publish a subversive document when he became editor of the Christian Pacific Society newsletter. Burton argued for his democratic right to think and speak as conscience dictated. Justice Archibald Blair disagreed, telling the jury it was a time when the mouths of ‘cranks’ would have to shut. The jury found Burton guilty, but recommended mercy. Under the emergency regulations the maximum sentence was 12 months’ imprisonment, but Blair invoked a rarely used provision in the 1910 Crimes Amendment Act and sentenced Burton to 2½ years. He was offered immediate freedom if he agreed to refrain from writing or speaking on pacifism, but he rejected the offer.
Ernest Crane, I Can Do No Other: A Biography of the Reverend Ormond Burton. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.
David Grant, A Question of Faith: A History of the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society. Wellington: Philip Garside Publishing, 2004.