Page 1: Biography
Journalist, soldier, convicted mutineer
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996, and updated in May, 2002.
John (Jack) Braithwaite was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, one of at least 16 children of bookseller Joseph Braithwaite, a mayor of Dunedin, and his wife, Mary Ann Bellett. He was probably registered as Cecil James and born on 3 January 1885. He attended Arthur Street School and later worked with his father until about 1911. He then became what he would subsequently call a 'Bohemian Journalist', possibly living for a time in Sydney.
When he volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in May 1915, Braithwaite was 5 feet 7½ inches tall, of slight to average build, with brown hair and grey eyes. In volunteering he was almost certainly influenced by news that his younger brother Horace had been badly wounded during the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Two other younger brothers were also serving with the NZEF. As a single man – though engaged to be married – Jack would have found the mood of patriotic euphoria that enveloped Dunedin at this time difficult to resist. He left for Trentham Military Camp on 29 May 1915. By the following February he was in Egypt, where he joined 2nd Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment, and was promoted to the rank of lance corporal. He proceeded with his unit to France in April.
Braithwaite did not conduct himself well at the front. An absence without leave on 3 May 1916 cost him his stripes, following which he admitted he 'let duty and soldiering go to hell'. After serving in the trenches from 14 to 22 May – his only such service – he again left his unit without permission and was sentenced to 60 days' field punishment. His situation worsened still further on 7 July when he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour for escaping from confinement. The punishment was repeated after Braithwaite had tried to escape while being transferred to the British Army's Blargies North military prison, near Abancourt, where he was incarcerated on 31 July.
On 28 August 1916 Braithwaite was involved in an incident involving an Australian prisoner, who swore at and later resisted arrest by a military policeman. An unruly crowd of some 30 Australian and New Zealand inmates intervened, and Braithwaite, who was mess orderly, tried to give the prisoner his lunch. As the fracas developed, Braithwaite made the fatal mistake of leading the prisoner away to his tent, in order, he claimed, to pacify the situation. This conspicuous action led to his being singled out by the prison authorities for punishment as one of the principal offenders.
On 11 October 1916 Braithwaite found himself facing his fourth court martial, charged along with three Australians with the heinous military crime of mutiny. Although he put forward a plausible defence, which was corroborated by the evidence of defence witnesses, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. In applying the law firmly the court almost certainly sought to send a message to the colonial prisoners, the treatment of whom had already been the cause of dissension within the prison. The mutual antipathy between the Australasian prisoners and the British military policemen – the hated 'red caps' – lay at the heart of the affair.
Although the Australians received the same sentence, they were never in danger of being shot because of their government's prohibition on executions without reference to Australia. No such reservation had been insisted upon by the New Zealand government, and Braithwaite's sentence was duly confirmed on 25 October 1916 by the commander in chief, General Sir Douglas Haig. The disciplinary problems within the prison and Braithwaite's poor service record removed any inclination towards clemency at general headquarters. There was no requirement, under the terms of service applying to New Zealanders, for the case to be reviewed by any New Zealand officer. Nor did Braithwaite have any practicable avenue of appeal against his conviction and sentence, which he learned of on 28 October, probably at a promulgation parade. The Australians, in stark contrast, had had their sentences commuted to two years' hard labour.
At 6.05 a.m. on 29 October 1916 Braithwaite was shot by a firing squad at Rouen. He was one of five New Zealanders executed for military offences during the First World War, and the only one not put to death by the New Zealanders themselves. Aware of the sensitive nature of the case, the military authorities in New Zealand ensured that it received no publicity at the time. Although briefly raised in Parliament in 1919, when a garbled account of the mutiny was given by the New Zealand Labour Party leader, Harry Holland, the execution did not arouse any public feeling. Not until the 1980s did it become a subject of considerable discussion. In September 2000 a bill granting pardon to Braithwaite and four other New Zealand soldiers executed during the First World War was passed by Parliament.
Braithwaite was foolhardy, even stupid, in his failure to take military discipline seriously, and was treated firmly by the New Zealand divisional authorities. But in his final, fatal, brush with military law, he was more unlucky than criminally intent. He found himself cast in the role of sacrificial victim and paid the supreme penalty.