Page 1: Biography
Labourer, auctioneer, pacifist, socialist, politician
This biography, written by David Grant, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Mark Briggs was born at Londesborough, Yorkshire, England, on 6 April 1884, the son of Albert Briggs, a shepherd, and his wife, Clara Dooks. After a rudimentary village schooling he was apprenticed in his early teens to a local farmer and treated harshly. He ran away but was returned under duress. This experience is said to have formed his strong belief in social justice. As a youth he was a Wesleyan and went to chapel twice on Sundays, but he later rejected religion.
Briggs emigrated to New Zealand about 1904 with his father and brother. He worked as an itinerant labourer around the North Island before becoming a flax worker in Manawatū and Waikato. In Manawatū he joined the flaxmillers' trade union and became a supporter of the radical 'Red Feds'. In 1916 he and a fellow radical unionist, Bob Brown, went into business in Palmerston North as the Empire Auctioneering Company, and also operated an employment registry. He was called up for First World War service in the third military conscription ballot early in 1917.
Briggs refused to be conscripted into the New Zealand army as a conscientious objector on socialist grounds. His appeal was denied and on 23 March 1917 after rejecting an army medical examination in Palmerston North he was escorted to barracks at Trentham Military Camp near Wellington by armed military policemen. He subsequently refused all further military orders to drill and was court-martialled for failing to obey a lawful command. He was sentenced to 84 days' hard labour and served seven weeks in prison, where he met and conversed with Peter Fraser, in gaol for opposing conscription.
James Allen, the minister of defence, believed that conscientious objectors should be forced to go to war. On 13 July 1917 the Trentham camp commander, Colonel H. R. Potter, decided that 14 of his most recalcitrant prisoners would be sent on the troopship Waitematā to Britain and the front line. Briggs refused to walk up the gangplank and had to be dragged. He was imprisoned in a small cabin with no open portholes and was later stripped and forced to wear military uniform, humiliated by laughing and jeering soldiers. When they could, Briggs and his fellow objectors divested themselves of their khaki, wearing only underclothes or towels.
Brigadier General G. S. Richardson, commandant of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Britain, having a free hand to deal with the men, wanted them confined, given field punishment and then sent with their units into the trenches even if they had to be carried on stretchers. Sent to the New Zealand base at Étaples, France, in October, Briggs was defiant at every opportunity, refusing to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. In consequence he was carried, dragged or transported in a hand-cart, and cajoled unsuccessfully to try to change his mind.
Most of the 14 objectors succumbed to the privations. Archibald Baxter, Lawrence Kirwin, Henry Patton and Mark Briggs suffered Field Punishment No 1: they were tied to posts in the open with their hands bound behind their backs. Still rebellious in February 1918, Briggs, Baxter and Kirwin were sent into the trenches. Their camp was within the enemy's shelling range, and every morning they were required to walk 1,000 yards up to the front line. Briggs refused. The first day he was carried by sympathetic soldiers. On the second day military policemen tied wire around his chest, and he was dragged across rough ground and duckboards. This tore off his clothing, lacerated his body and gouged a huge flesh wound in his right thigh. At the line he was yanked through puddles of freezing water, pushed back into one and told to 'Drown yourself, now, you bastard'. Finally dragged back to camp he was denied medical treatment and for the next few weeks suffered intense pain. By mid April Briggs was returned to Étaples. It was now considered that he was likely to remain an objector 'to the end', and attempts to make him work became half-hearted. In June he was classified C2 (unfit for active service) because he suffered from muscular rheumatism, and early in 1919 he was invalided back to New Zealand where he refused the soldier's wage that was offered to him.
Mark Briggs had won his 'war' and in later years suffered remarkably little, mentally or physically, considering the privations he had undergone. His auctioneering business prospered and he expanded the furniture side of the firm. On 14 April 1920 he married Alberta Sydney Burrill in Palmerston North. They had one daughter. A quiet, thoughtful teetotaller, Briggs was generous and popular in business and caring to his family and friends. He became patron to cricket and rugby clubs and coached boxing.
A staunch supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, he stood on their ticket for the Palmerston North City Council in 1935 and 1938, polling well though unsuccessfully. His home was always open to Labour people. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1936. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage said his appointment was a symbol to all those who had fought against war. In 1940 he was the only member of Parliament of either House to vote against the introduction of military conscription in the Second World War. He died in Palmerston North on 15 March 1965 at the age of 80, saddened by the growing materialism of New Zealand society. He was survived by his wife and daughter.
Mark Briggs demonstrated immense personal courage and uncompromising conviction in the face of overwhelming odds. However, an obituary in the Evening Post in 1965 did not even mention his wartime experiences, erroneously reporting that he had arrived in New Zealand in 1920. More recently, as a symbol of opposition to war, his star has waxed as pacifism has become more widely accepted and understood.