Mark Briggs was born in Yorkshire, England, and came to New Zealand with his brother and widowed father in 1904. The family worked at various flax mills in the Manawatū region, and in October 1906 Briggs joined the Manawatū Flaxmills’ Employees Industrial Union of Workers.
Briggs was an active figure within the union. He became increasingly radical and supported their affiliation with the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour – or ‘Red Feds’ as they were known – in 1911.
In December 1915, the National Register was introduced, requiring all men aged 17 to 60 to declare whether they were prepared to fight or otherwise help with the war effort. Briggs filled out the form but stated that he was a conscientious objector and would not serve the army either at home or abroad.
On 1 August 1916, the Military Service Act was introduced, and in December of that year Briggs was called up for the army – although he appealed for exemption on socialist grounds. He did not attend the appeal hearing as he saw little point in doing so.
Some time later a military officer with the rank of major appeared at my place of business and handed me another notice, at the same time saying: "you will parade at Duke Street, Palmerston North, at half-past nine to-morrow morning."
I replied: "I will not"
The Major then said: "Will later in the day suit you?"
I said: "No,"
He then asked: "You are the Mark Briggs who was drawn in the ballot, are you not?"
I replied: "I have had sufficient notifications from the military authorities to lead me to believe I am."
In March 1917, Briggs was arrested and sent to Trentham Military Camp in Lower Hutt. Refusing to wear uniform or follow any orders, he was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour.
In mid-1917, the Minister of Defence, James Allen, decided that objectors should be dealt with as if they were soldiers. Briggs, and 13 others, were rounded up and put aboard the ship Waitemata in Wellington, which was due to sail for England. During the voyage, Briggs established himself as their unofficial leader.
After arriving at Plymouth, England, the prisoners were transferred to Sling Camp. There, the objectors refused to carry out gardening work, and they were placed in solitary confinement. A real effort was made to break their spirits, and after a while, several of the men gave in. Briggs remained staunch. He protested further, and went on hunger strike.
Briggs became one of the first objectors to be sent to France, and in October 1917, he was sent to the Base Camp in Étaples. After a month, he was sent to Belgium, and arrived at Poperinge, outside Ypres.
Not long after, Briggs refused to peel some potatoes and was charged with disobeying a lawful command. For this, he was sentenced to 28 days of Field Punishment Number One.
I was dragged over to one of the posts erected for the purpose, and was fastened to the post. I was, in fact, handcuffed to the post with my hands dragged round behind me, and my feet were also lashed to it with a rope. This was early in December, which is practically mid-winter in France. Needless to say, the cold was intense, and I suffered agonies during the hours I was left in this position.
Briggs was eventually transferred again, and ended up at Otago Camp, about a mile from Ypres. Here, the officer in charge was particularly brutal. After he refused to walk to the frontlines, military policemen tied cable wire under his arms and ordered soldiers to pull him.
I was dragged on my back. … [My] clothes ... were dragged away, and consequently my back was next to the "duck walk." The result was that I sustained a huge flesh wound about a foot long and nine inches wide on the right back hip and thigh.
Despite his injuries, Briggs was not taken to hospital. On 3 June 1918, the medical board classed him as C-2, meaning he was unfit for active service. In August 1918, Briggs was finally cleared to return to New Zealand.
Having consistently denied ever being part of the army, he refused to sign the discharge papers or accept the soldier’s wage offered to him after he disembarked in Wellington. His papers were posted to him instead.
Briggs settled back into life in New Zealand and got married. In 1936 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, the old Upper House of Parliament, by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, who hoped that Briggs would act as its ‘conscience.’
James Allen, who was the Minister of Defence during the war, was also in the Upper House, and publicly apologised to Briggs for what had happened to him.
Mark Briggs died in Palmerston North in 1965 at the age of 80.