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Conscientious Objectors In Their Own Words

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By Margaret Brooks | Imperial War Museum

Before the First World War there had never been compulsory military service in Britain. The first Military Service Bill was passed into law in January 1916 following the failure of recruitment schemes to gain sufficient volunteers in 1914 and 1915. From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependents, medically unfit, or ‘those who could show a conscientious objection’. This later clause was a significant British response that defused opposition to conscription. Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions and raised the age limit to 50.

There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as conscientious objectors (COs) to armed service during the First World War. This figure does not include men who may have had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations, or had joined the forces anyway. The number of COs may appear small compared with the six million men who served, but the impact of these men on public opinion and on future governments was to be profound.

Download the transcript of the interviews.

  • Who were Conscientious Objectors?

    Broadly speaking there were four reasons why men objected to armed service during the First World War. The most common ground was a religious one. Pacifism was a time-honoured tenet of the Society of Friends (Quakers), although some Quaker men did enlist. Other individuals, including Christian fundamentalists, took the Bible at its word: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The next largest group of COs were political activists of the left who saw the First World War as an imperialist war and as an example of the ruling classes making a war that the workers had to fight. The left was split over support for the war and those who opposed it on the radical left were not necessarily pacifists – they reserved the right to fight for a cause in which they believed. Thirdly, there were those who might be termed ‘humanists’, who felt it wrong to kill but not on religious grounds. A former naval rating, for example, had worked as a butcher and became a conscientious objector because, as he said, ‘l know what it is to kill a pig – I won’t kill a man’ (IWM SR 784). The fourth group were those who generally objected to government intervention in their lives; some thought the war had nothing to do with them personally but might have fought if they felt the United Kingdom was directly threatened.

    Image – Printed leaflet issued by the No-Conscription Fellowship entitled ‘Why We Object’, from the Private Papers of W Harrison (Documents.163)

    Audio – Walter Griffin interview © IWM (IWM SR 9790)

  • The Tribunals

    The usual procedure for a CO was to apply to his local tribunal for exemption from military service. Here, Walter Griffin describes a particular line of questioning used at the tribunals. Made up of local prominent figures, the tribunals had been set up earlier to decide on exemptions under the unsuccessful Derby Scheme. They were therefore available after conscription was introduced to assess a CO’s conviction and sincerity. The tribunals’ members were poorly briefed and in many cases merely used the hearings to state their own views. One of IWM’s interviewees was asked his age and, on hearing that he was eighteen, the tribunal chairman said: ‘Oh in that case you’re not old enough to have a conscience. Case dismissed’. The CO was sent to prison. At the tribunal’s discretion exemption could be absolute, from combatant service only, or conditional on undertaking work of national importance; but COs were frequently rejected by the local tribunal or offered an unacceptable position. They could then go before an appeals tribunal and if they were refused again they could appeal to the Central Tribunal in London. Once a CO was refused exemption, he was considered to have enlisted into military service.

    Image – Military Service Act 1916, poster (Art.IWM PST 5161)

    Audio –  Walter Griffin interview © IWM (IWM SR 9790)

  • Alternativist and Absolutist Conscientious Objectors

    A problem for the CO was determining where to draw the line in his stance and whether there was a difference in principle between combatant and non-combatant service. Some COs would take on alternative civilian work or enter the military in non-combatant roles in the Royal Army Medical Corps or Non-Combatant Corps, for example. COs in prison were offered so-called ‘work of national importance’ in a scheme put forward by the Home Office. This was generally agriculture, forestry or unskilled manual labour. Other conscientious objectors – known as ‘absolutists’ – refused to do any war-related work or obey military orders.

    Image – Munitions workers painting shells at the National Shell Filling Factory No.6 in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, 1917 (Q 30016)

    Audio – Philip Radley interview © IWM (IWM SR 642)

  • Military and Civil Punishments

    In practice, having been rejected on appeal a CO was a soldier absent without leave and as such was subject to arrest. COs who entered military service were also arrested for refusing to obey military orders. Over one-third of the 16,000 COs went to prison at least once, including the majority of absolutists who were imprisoned virtually for the duration. At first, COs were sent to military prisons because they were considered to be soldiers. It was a minor triumph for the anti-conscription movement when a mid-1916 Army order ruled that COs who had been court martialled were to be sent to civil prisons. The initial standard sentence was 112 days third division hard labour – the most severe level of prison sentence under English law at that time. This began with one month in solitary confinement on bread and water, performing arduous and boring manual jobs like breaking stone, hand-sewing mailbags and picking oakum. With good conduct remission, most COs served about three months. However, after being released a CO could be immediately arrested again as a deserter, court-martialled and returned to prison. This ‘Cat and Mouse’ treatment had been previously used on the Suffragettes, and as the war went on sentences handed down to COs increased. Over the course of the war, some conscientious objectors were actually taken with their regiments to France, where one could be shot for refusing to obey a military order. Thirty-four were sentenced to death after being court martialled but had their sentences commuted to penal servitude. Here, Howard Marten talks about military field punishments and the outcome of his court martial in France.

    Image – Copy negative made from a photomontage and cartoon postcard “A Souvenir of C.O. Settlements 1918” (Q 103096)

    Audio – Howard Marten interview © IWM (IWM SR 383)

  • Prison conditions

 

  • When Harold Bing was in Winchester Prison, there was one wing for male criminal prisoners, one for women and two for conscientious objectors. The conditions for COs were exactly the same as those for criminal prisoners, but COs did succeed in getting prisons to offer a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism was common among COs, as it had an obvious affinity, particularly with humanitarian pacifism. CO prisoners were allowed a very limited number of censored letters, though one of the COs interviewed by IWM said ‘filling the notepaper was quite an art’ because there was nothing to say after months or years in prison. They had no calendars, no newspapers, and few visits – those visits they did receive were through a grille. They were limited to a few books from the prison library at infrequent intervals, but after a while COs were allowed to have books sent in under the condition that they donate them to the prison library once finished with them. Later CO prisoners were impressed to find prison libraries stocked with titles by William Morris, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other writers of the left. Here, Bing recalls the constrained and degrading conditions of prison life.

    Image – Copy negative made from a postcard of a conscientious objector prison, original caption reads ‘On the stool’ (Q 103094)

    Audio – Harold Bing interview © IWM (IWM SR 358)

  • How did conscientious objectors cope in prison?

  • Severe physical brutality towards all COs seems to be a First World War myth. Certainly several of IWM’s interviewees experienced or witnessed very harsh treatment and 73 COs died as a result of physical abuse. The primary punishment – in many cases the most severe – was psychological rather than physical. The most fortunate COs were those who could devise ways to cope with loneliness, doubt, depression and loss of ability to concentrate. Some COs took an active role in challenging the situation in which they found themselves. Some participated in covert activity, described here by Harold Bing. Others coped through mental exercise. One of the COs interviewed by IWM, a musician, played an imaginary piano on his knees and even did some composition. Some COs learned Esperanto, many recited poetry from memory, and several went on long, imaginary, remembered walks. One man held races on the floor between bits of cobbler’s wax and another gained comfort from talking to the spiders on the cell wall and the bolts on its door.

    Image – Copy negative made from a conscientious objector postcard depicting the interior of a cell (Q 103669)

    Audio – Harold Bing interview © IWM (IWM SR 358)

  • Resistance

  • Some COs openly resisted the system, as described here by Fenner Brockway. Work and hunger strikes were held by COs including Clifford Allen (later Lord Allen of Hurtwood), chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, and Sir Francis Meynell. For many COs, the pressures and hardships strengthened their resolve.

    Image – Copy negative made from a conscientious objector postcard, original caption reads ‘Ger – inside an’ close yer door!’ (Q 103666)

    Audio – Fenner Brockway interview © IWM (IWM SR 476)

  • How were conscientious objectors treated?

 

  • Whether in prison or not, COs and their families did have a common experience in many respects, especially from the pressures they felt from society. Britain’s public support for the war was almost unanimous and society tended to view men who would not fight – and the men and women who supported them – with suspicion and loathing. To become a conscientious objector in 1916 was a difficult decision, which apparently involved rejecting the whole of conventional British society and everything it stood for. Wartime domestic propaganda made it all too plain that a person was either with the national effort or against it; and if against it, he was by implication either not concerned with the sacrifices of others or was undermining their willingness to serve. The conscientious objector was trapped psychologically: he felt guilty if he shared the soldiers’ ordeal and guilty if he did not. COs were not released until about six months after the end of the war, in order to give most soldiers a head-start when looking for jobs. They were also stripped of the right to vote until 1926. With time most did find a way to fit back into society – some very successfully. None of the COs interviewed by IWM appeared to feel any bitterness about their treatment, but they seem to remain, through their First World War experiences, permanently set apart.

    Image – First World War-era cartoon by Frank Holland titled ‘An “Object” Lesson: This Little Pig Stayed at Home’ (Q 103334)

    Audio – Clips from interviews with Percy Leonard © IWM (IWM SR 382), Lewis Maclachlan © IWM (IWM SR 565), Dorothy Bing © IWM (IWM SR 555)

This is an abridged version of a longer article, written by Margaret Brooks (former Keeper of the IWM Sound Archive), which appeared in the Imperial War Museum Review, No. 3 (1988).

December 20, 2015 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Militarism, Subjugation - Torture, Timeless or most popular | , , , | Leave a comment

WHAT WE TRULY LEARNED FROM THE GREAT WAR AND THE ABSURDITY OF REMEMBRANCE DAY

By John Chuckman | Aletho News | November 13, 2014

No matter what high-blown claims the politicians make each year on Remembrance Day, The Great War was essentially a fight between two branches of a single royal family over the balance of power on the continent of Europe, British foreign policy holding to a longstanding principle that no one nation should ever be permitted to dominate the continent.

It was also a war between the world’s greatest existing imperial power, Britain, and another state, Germany, which aspired to become a greater imperial power than it was.

To a considerable extent, it was a war resulting from large standing armies and great arms races, a telling indictment of those who preach the false gospel of ever-greater military strength to defend freedom. As with any huge, shiny new investment, great armies will always be used, and the results are almost invariably great misery.

The First World War was not a war to end all wars, as a slogan of the time claimed. If anything, it was a precursor for a great many wars to follow, and, most importantly, it was a powerful and important cause of World War II.

It also was not a war about democracy since none of the participants, including Britain, would qualify as democracies by any reasonable reckoning with their heavily limited voting franchise and government structures stacked in the interests of old and privileged orders, quite apart from their holding empires whose populations enjoyed no franchise at all.

The war was also one of history’s great instances of mass hysteria, particularly among the young men of several countries. In Britain, there have been many laments over the loss of some fine and promising young men who rushed to join up. In Germany, it was no different, and we note one young man, then of no importance, by the name of Adolph Hitler rushing to join up, much as his British contemporaries, to share in the “glory.”

Today, we pretend shock that young men sometimes go abroad to fight for a cause, religious or otherwise, but compared to the mass insanity of World War I, what we see today is truly petty. The authorities everywhere then made great efforts to push young men, using songs, marching bands, slogans, shame and social pressure in many forms, and countless lies. The nonsense about the Kaiser’s troops bayonetting babies was one example, a lie served up again decades later with a slight twist by George Bush the Elder’s government as it desperately wanted support to invade Iraq, the babies the second time around supposedly being ripped from respirators.

World War I made absolutely no sense. It achieved nothing worth achieving, and it did so at immense cost. Apart from killing about 20,000,000 people, the war left countless crippled and disabled and created a great swathe of destruction across Europe.

If Germany had been allowed to dominate Europe for a time, it would have made comparatively little difference to the lives of most people. Indeed, today, that is the situation we find in the European Union.

It is important to realize that large wars are always revolutionary in nature, and no one at the outset can possibly predict the outcomes of such chaotic storms in terms of social, economic, and political change. World War I very much set the stage, with huge losses of men and the incompetence demonstrated by Imperial commanders, for the Communists to take power in Russia, a development which led ultimately to the Cold War.

The War’s immense costs and the realization by millions of soldiers from abroad that they fought for a nation which gave them no rights provided the great first blow towards ending the British Empire. The approaching World War II would finish the work of imperial rot and collapse.

The First World War set the stage for the rise of Hitler less than two decades later and made inevitable the catastrophe of World War II, which would inflict at least two and a half times as many deaths again and would see such horrors as the Holocaust and the use of atomic bombs.

So why, about a century later, do we still treat The Great War with reverence and sentimental remembrance?

The act of remembrance actually contradicts the sound human tendency to forget terrible experiences. Of course, we hear repeated countless times the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” one of those glib and catchy sayings which seem at first hearing to carry some deep truth. Just the consideration that in real life no two events ever can be identical makes the saying a pleasantly-phrased nonsense, resembling the aphorisms on far lighter subjects from Oscar Wilde.

Those repeating the glib phrase as received wisdom from an unimpeachable prophet always neglect to remind us of the importance of scrupulously defining what it is that you are remembering. If we remember World War One for exactly what it was, and not for what we wish it had been, we see a vast, pointless slaughter that succeeded in setting conditions for still more slaughter. Never repeating it would be a blessing indeed.

But if we see it as moving and inspirational, if we associate its name with thoughts of ending war or protecting democracy or of great camaraderie and shared hardship, if we are emotionally moved by troops in uniforms and flags flying and bugles and drumbeats, then we most assuredly will repeat it, as we have already done more than once, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the arrogant politicians and jingoes want us ready to do.

Remembrance Day surely is not about the loss of life, as we pretend it is, because the only way to hold those or any lives sacred is not to send them off to war in the first place. The ugly truth is that governments, run by men with great egos – likely more often than not, actual narcissists – who are supported by privileged wealth wanting to keep or expand its privilege, make the decision for wars largely on the basis of fairly primitive instincts, instincts about being first or not letting a competitor gain an advantage, or just vague and meaningless stuff about being manly or resolute – standing your ground, keeping a stiff upper lip, putting up with no nonsense, showing your manhood, and so on and so forth.

One American politician, in a play on an infamous quote by George Wallace, said no one would ever “out-commie” him again in an election. Such was the thinking of Lyndon Johnson in making the fatal decision to start a major war in Southeast Asia. On just such hormone-laden considerations hung a decade’s brutal fighting and the deaths of 3 million Vietnamese.

The real reason for the ceremonies and parades and speeches is to keep young men keen to go and kill and die, there being no group of humans more subject to cheap emotional appeals about glory and heroism than young men, as we see, ad nauseam, generation after generation.

As I’ve written before, humans are little more than chimpanzees with larger brains, those larger brains enabling us to magnify immensely the power of our murderous instincts, a fact we seem determined proudly to display every Remembrance Day.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments