Silas Stedman: Willing to Serve, Not to Kill

“I am willing to serve in any of the non-combatant branches.”

Silas Stedman was born on 21 October 1894,[1] the second youngest of six children. His father died when he was young and his mother went out to work as a washerwoman to support the family. Silas also helped feed the family by growing vegetables. The family lived in rented homes on Bass Street and Edmonds Street in Woolston, opposite the Edmonds baking powder factory.[2]

Silas attended Woolston School, and was a bright student. The headmaster, Mr. Archibald Binnie, wanted Silas to attend high school, but he was determined to go to work to help his mother.

He left school at the age of 14 and worked for about two years at P&D Duncan Ltd, an engineering works and foundry, before joining New Zealand Railways in 1910.  Starting as a cleaner, he worked his way up to become a fireman on trains across Canterbury. Silas had been raised in the Anglican Church, and attended St John’s in Woolston. However, by 1913 he had joined the Brethren Church on Armagh Street in Christchurch Central. Silas’ son David recalls that he had started attending the Brethren Church at the suggestion of a railway workmate.[3]

Silas Stedman’s name was included in the Second Draft Ballot published on 15 December 1916. Initially, New Zealand Rail sought exemption from service for Silas, arguing that his presence was necessary for the operation of the New Zealand railway system. This appeal for exemption was first heard at Canterbury, before being transferred to Wellington where it was granted.[4] However, upon learning that Silas was in fact a conscientious objector for religious reasons, New Zealand Railways attempted to have the appeal for exemption waived. This led to accusations of inconsistency from the Board Chairman W H S Moorhouse, who was reported to have remarked ‘we should imagine that a man was just as much essential whether he was a conscientious objector or not,’[5] and went on to ask: ‘How can you spare the man now any more than you could spare him before?’[6]  In concluding his statement, the Chairman declared that ‘the exemption continues unless you give him the sack.’[7]

 

Silas Stedman in uniform

Silas Stedman

It is unclear what transpired in the following month, but in April 1917 Silas appeared before the Second Canterbury Military Board to appeal as a conscientious objector against his conscription. His son David believes that Silas’s religious beliefs played the main role in his decision to declare himself a conscientious objector. He didn’t want to kill, and was guided in this by the Ten Commandments.[8] His case was heard on 21 April 1917 by the Canterbury Military Service Board.[9] Silas was asked by the Board chairman what denomination he was, and he replied ‘just a Christian, sir,’ stating that he did not belong to any particular Church. This statement most likely reflects the Open Brethren doctrine of ‘fellowship, not membership,’ and their rejection of the concept of anyone formally ‘joining’ the church, rather seeing themselves as a gathering of believers. Following this declaration, the Chairman then advised Silas that he was unable to claim exemption ‘under the Act.’ This was in reference to the Military Service Act, and the fact that, only members of certain religious groups could successfully appeal on religious grounds.[10] Silas responded that he understood this, and declared that he ‘was willing to serve in any of the non-combatant branches.’[11] He was instructed by the Board that he would have to take this matter up with the Commandant, who ‘may give you military duties compatible with your religious scruples.’[12] David Stedman states that Silas was not anti-war, but rather was against participating in any killing and this was the basis of his conscientious objection.[13]

Enlistment was completed on 30 May 1917, and Private Silas Stedman was assigned to non-combat medical duties. He received basic training at Burnham Camp from 25 June 1917, before attending both Awapuni and Featherston for further medical training. On the 22nd of November 1917, Silas travelled to the UK on the Willochra troop ship, embarking in Wellington and arriving in Liverpool on 7 January 1918. Silas travelled by train to Sling Camp, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force camp on the Salisbury Plain. From there, he travelled to Ewshot which was the main New Zealand Medical Corps training camp in England. Three months later, Silas was deployed to Europe, arriving in Étaples, the primary British base camp in France, on 10 April 1918. By 24 April, Silas had joined the No. 1 New Zealand Field Ambulance and been posted to active field duty in France as a stretcher-bearer.[14]  In this role, Silas worked in a team responsible for retrieving wounded soldiers from the battlefield and returning them to field dressing stations and hospitals for medical treatment.[15]

Silas’ son David recounts one story his father told of his experiences in the Medical Corps:

As a stretcher bearer and in the medical tent, he also serviced German prisoners of war who were injured. Dad had learned a bit of German on the way across, and an officer, who was a doctor was trying to find out what was going wrong [with a German prisoner of war patient]. ‘Do you spit blood?’ he asked the man. Dad tried to say it to him in German, and this German fellow looked nonplussed, then the German man spoke up in English, ‘Do you mean, do I spit blood?’ ‘You speak English very well’ Silas said. It was quite a happy relationship.[16] 

Not all of Silas’ stories were along these lines. He told David that he had ‘terrible memories of people who are your friends being killed in front of you. And you’ve been missed and you survive’. In one instance, he recalled ‘a man who was stretching out his arm, and all of a sudden “I’ve been hit.” And it was a shell fragment . . .  and he bled to death in about two minutes. They couldn’t do anything with it, right into an artery.’[17]

Silas Stedman with his wife Eleanor and their six sons. Back row from left: Bernard (Jack), Harold, Roger, Silas and Arthur. In front Geoffrey, David and Eleanor.

Silas Stedman with his wife Eleanor and their six sons. Back row from left: Bernard (Jack), Harold, Roger, Silas and Arthur. In front Geoffrey, David and Eleanor.

Silas was on active duty as a stretcher bearer during the Second Battle of Baupame, which began on the 21st of August 1918, a part of the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive. During the battle, an artillery shell landed in the trench which Silas and his fellow Medical Corps soldiers had been digging for the wounded. The shell exploded, killing three of the four stretcher bearers.[18] It struck Silas in the back, both legs and in his left hand. He was evacuated to the nearest casualty clearing station, and then on to a series of field hospitals for treatment in France, before being sent back to the No. 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Walton on Thames in England. By 21 October he was able to be transferred to a convalescents’ hospital at Hornchurch, where he stayed through the November 11 Armistice, before being transferred between other New Zealand Expeditionary Force Hospitals including Codford and Brockenhurst. Silas embarked on SS Geissen in Plymouth on 23 June 1919, to return to New Zealand. On arriving in Wellington, he was discharged from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force ‘in consequence of being no longer physically fit for War Service, on account of wounds received in action.’[19]

Silas received both rehabilitation and a Government housing loan, which enabled him to build a house in Wildberry Street, Woolston. He met his wife, Eleanor Lewthwaite, through the Brethren Church. Silas would walk her home to St Albans following Church services, and then make the long walk back across town to Woolston.  They were married in 1923, and eventually had 6 children – all boys. Silas’s involvement with the Brethren Church continued, and he was advertised as a speaker at church events from 1924 through to 1931.[20] He also continued working for NZ Rail, eventually becoming a foreman[21] and then manager of the Linwood Train Depot.[22] Silas’ son David recalls that his father did not talk often about his war experiences, saying: ’I think that’s true of most people who’ve been in war, they don’t want to say much about it. Awful skeletons in the closet there, and terrible memories of people who are your friends being killed in front of you.’[23] Silas was able to retire early from his railway career on a Government pension. He passed away on 24 October 1982, aged 89.[24] 

Dan Richardson

[1] STEDMAN, Silas Ingle - WW1 58615 – Army, Archives New Zealand/ Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, Wellington office [Archives Reference: R7820865]. http://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE13522030

[2]David Stedman, interviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith and Daniel Bartlett, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 March 2017. 

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Military Service Boards, Canterbury No. 2. Christchurch Sittings’, The Press, 3 February 1917, p. 11.

[5] ‘Inconsistency. Railway Department and Appeals’, Lyttelton Times, 19 March 1917, p. 8; David Stedman interview.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Stedman, interviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith and Daniel Bartlett, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 March 2017.

[9] ‘Military Service. To-day’s Appeals,’ the Star, 21 April 1917, p. 4.

[10] P. S. O’Connor, ‘The Awkward Ones – Dealing with Conscience 1916 – 1918’, New Zealand Journal of History 8 no. 2 (1974): 118-136.

[11] ‘Military Service. Reservists Appeal,’ the Sun, 23 April 1917, p. 4.

[12] The Star, 21 April 1917, page 4.

[13] David Stedman, interviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith and Daniel Bartlett, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 March 2017.

[14] STEDMAN, Silas Ingle - WW1 58615 – Army, Archives New Zealand.

[15]‘Stretcher-bearers on the Western Front', Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2017. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/interactive/stretcher-bearers.

[16] David Stedman, interviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith and Daniel Bartlett, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 March 2017.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rachel Stedman, ‘Silas the Stretcher-bearer,’ New Zealand School Journal Level 3 (February 2012). 

[19] STEDMAN, Silas Ingle - WW1 58615 – Army, Archives New Zealand.

[20] ‘Church Services’, Ashburton Guardian, 3 May 1924, p. 1; ‘Religious Announcements’, the Press, 27 July 1929, p. 21; ‘Sunday Services’, the Press, 31 October 1931, p. 23.

[21] ‘Railway Crossing Accident’, The Press, 22 December 1944, p. 6.

[22] David Stedman, interviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith and Daniel Bartlett, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 March 2017.

[23] Ibid.

[24] STEDMAN, Silas Ingle - WW1 58615 – Army, Archives New Zealand

Silas Stedman: Willing to Serve, Not to Kill