Remembering those who fought for conscience

The events surrounding Remembrance Day this year have taken on a particular sense of poignancy given that a century has passed since the start of the First World War. Given all the attention paid towards all those who served (and sadly, perished) at the front via memorials and programmes on the BBC, I felt it would be an opportune time to pay respects to a less celebrated (and oft reviled) group who fought, and in some cases died, for what they believed in: the conscientious objectors.

Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

The phrase ‘conscientious objector’ is a particularly divisive one: its mere mention in public often brings replies of, ‘cowards’, ‘shirkers’, or far worse. This public perception was especially true during the First World War. While the concept of conscientious objection was not entirely new (there was a movement against forced vaccinations some years prior), the idea of refusing to be conscripted was (and still is) particularly difficult for the British public to handle. Why should so many be sent to fight, yet such a small group of ‘religious zealots from bizarre sects and left-wing cranks’ be allowed to remain at home and benefit from the sacrifices of others? Surely they must be scared; after all most of the fighting men were Christians as well and they didn’t object based on ‘conscience.’

The reality was, however, that the majority of objectors were members of sects with long standing opposition to either conscription or warfare, or both. A vast proportion of objectors were Quakers, whose pacifist views were known by the military as far back as the 17th century. Others were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who often rejected any arrangements with the state, believing they only belonged to one kingdom: that of God. The peculiarity of these beliefs and the lack of understanding of them amongst the general public made them difficult to take seriously and as a result, hostility was inevitable.

The treatment of objectors was particularly harsh, both within the military and society as a whole. Those who appeared before tribunals and steadfastly refused any service were harangued by military officers and forcibly enlisted. When they refused, they were court marshalled and jailed.

One particularly notorious case involved a group of objectors who were forcibly transported to France and when they refused orders were sentenced to death by firing squad. Having been blindfolded and lined up, they were then told they would receive 10 years sentences instead. Prison for objectors was particularly harsh: often they were often subject to abuse by guards and other inmates and were kept in substandard conditions which left many seriously ill. Roughly 80 objectors would lose their lives in prison during the war.

The Sunday Herald report. Photo: Sunday Herald

The Sunday Herald report. Photo: Sunday Herald

Those objectors who managed to avoid military service often found themselves reviled by the public. Often they would lose their jobs, would be aliened by their friends and family and often presented a white feather when in public: a symbol of their perceived cowardice. Objectors also found themselves disenfranchised (for a period of five years after the war).

While the public image of the conscientious objector tends to reflect solely on those who would rather accept prison than give into the military machine (the absolutists), the vast majority of objectors, while refusing to bear arms, they generally accepted other duties, most notably as stretcher bearers at the front. While this work was not martial, it was fraught with danger, and through their efforts they saved many lives and earned the respect of those soldiers around them.

The conscientious objectors of the First World War are easy to be written off when we remember the sacrifices of all those men 100 years ago: they did not take up arms like those brave millions who gave the Kaiser a good thrashing. However they did fight for an extremely important cause, one that is pivotal to what makes Britain great: they fought for freedom – not from a foreign foe, but freedom of thought, freedom of choice and freedom to refuse to be involved with something they could not consciously accept. A battle from which some did not return.