Refusing to wave the flag of war

May 16, 2009

We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors

By Will Ellsworth-Jones

Aurum Press, 2008

296 pp, $49.95 (hb)

John Hubert (Bert) Brocklesby, was a teacher in the Yorkshire mining village of Conisbrough and chapel organist and lay preacher in the Methodist church. He took the sixth commandment (thou shalt not kill) seriously, and became one of the first Conscientious Objectors (COs) in 1916, refusing to serve in the British army in the World War I.

For this defiant act of peace, Bert, with four dozen other British COs, was sent to the killing fields of France to face possible execution for disobedience, writes Will Ellsworth-Jones in We Will Not Fight.

With parliament, press and pulpit as war cheerleaders, 2.5 million British men had volunteered for the war before the pace slowed as the deaths mounted. Nineteen thousand British soldiers were killed on first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, in a binge-killing that ultimately consumed 744,000 British soldiers and 9.5 million on all sides.

To keep up the supply of human fodder, a Liberal/Conservative/Labour coalition government introduced conscription in 1916.

Although conscientious objection to combatant service was allowed, the local government tribunals that assessed CO claims were perfunctory and beholden to the military's wish to show that conscientious objection was not an easy option.

If it was difficult but not impossible to get an exemption on religious grounds, it was almost impossible on political grounds. In Middlesex, the tribunal chair told an applicant that since he was a socialist he could have no conscience. Atheists, too, were deemed unconscionable and press-ganged into service.

Like many other religious COs, Brocklesby was granted exemption from combat service but was directed to do non-combatant service in the army.

Unlike many COs, however, Bert was an "absolutist" who refused to be conscripted to undertake any work that may have supported the war. Of 16,300 COs, there were 1,300 absolutists (of whom only 200 absolutists were granted absolute exemption).

The COs who served in the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) were expected to submit to army discipline but every order was "examined, dissected and fought over" to ensure it was not aiding the military.

In an army accustomed to unquestioning obedience, the response to these COs was bullying, incitement of mob violence, assault and harassment. Refusal of war-related orders (such as loading munitions) resulted in hard labour and bread and water rations in punishment cells.

The absolutists, who rejected the entire military authority structure including non-combat service, created big headaches for the army, which was determined to break their resistance through exemplary punishment. Any infringement, such as not saluting or wearing uniform, saw the COs packed off to dungeons in medieval castles.

When that proved ineffective, they were sent to France where even non-combatants would be on active service and thus liable to death as the penalty for disobedience. In total, 49 COs were sent to France in 1916.

When they inevitably refused orders in France, these absolutist COs were sent to tough British army prisons run by the military police where the specialty torture was the harsh and degrading Field Punishment No. 1 (being tied to a post for two hours a day; the army's new substitute for flogging).

The ordinary soldiers and guards whom the COs mixed with were initially hostile but many became sympathetic once they heard the CO's reasons for refusing to fight.

It was a sympathy fostered by war weariness, especially amongst those injured in the trenches — "many of them have suffered a good deal", wrote one CO, "and on the whole they don't want others to".

These COs now posed a danger of pacifist contagion. The British army, fresh from a reminder of its power in Ireland where it dealt with the nationalist Easter Uprising by executing 15 leaders of the rebellion after summary secret trials, prepared to play its murderous ace.

"Sentenced to death by shooting" was its verdict for all 49 COs. But the firing squad was stayed and the sentence commuted to "penal servitude for ten years".

This was because of the efforts of No Conscription Fellowship, formed by the Independent Labour Party (a left-wing breakaway from the Labour Party), and Christian pacifists.

Pragmatic army commanders also realised that shooting anti-war conscripts would be counterproductive in a war increasingly unpopular in both civil society and the military.

Official hostility towards the COs remained intact, however. The "Frenchmen" COs were put in with "Third Division" hardened criminals under the harshest conditions in civilian prisons in Britain.

The test of wills continued — CO prisoners would agree to sew civilian mail sacks but not coal sacks for the navy. Bread and water, and solitary confinement, was again the familiar price they paid for disobedience.

Subsequent COs were also given the option of "work of national importance" but it was deemed they must suffer as much as soldiers at the front. So the COs breaking stones in a quarry near Aberdeen had to live in tents and mud. One died from pneumonia as a result.

All COs were finally released five months after the war. Their casualty list including 73 dead as a direct result of civilian or military imprisonment and 31 suffering mental health trauma.

The warmongers would not forgive and forget, however. Post-war harassment, ostracism and discrimination continued for many COs. Many jobs ads were headed "No CO need apply".

By 1939, however, when conscription was reintroduced for WWII, even the Tory Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, bowed to the victory of the WWI COs, accepting conscientious objection as legitimate.

"It was both useless and an exasperating waste of time and effort", he said "to attempt to force [absolutists] to act in a manner which was contrary to their principles". Serving soldiers also now have a conscientious objection option despite this right being little publicised.

The WWI COs were a diverse lot. Most were from non-conformist religions, but many were socialists. Ellsworth-Jones could have further explored the theoretical and sometimes incompatible bases of conscientious objection (for example, absolute pacifism compared to political opposition to aggressive class and imperialist wars).

Ellsworth-Jones' focus is, however, on religious and pacifist conscientious objection, particularly as told through the story of Brocklesby. He continued his opposition to war into the 1950s (refusing to play hymns that glorified war and sacrifice on the piano at school assemblies in Scunthorpe where he taught) until the year of his death in 1962.

At age 73, Brocklesby could still be found entertaining Aldermaston anti-nuclear marchers with his accordion. Like the other COs who faced execution in France, says Ellsworth-Jones, he can claim proud credit for the achievements of the anti-war movements and for those who declare they will not fight or wave the flag of war.

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