Opposing War: Conscientious Objectors’ Memorial Design Launch

On 15 May the Opposing War Memorial design will be unveiled at a launch event following the fourth annual International Conscientious Objectors Day Vigil in Edinburgh.

Following the offer of a site in Princes St Gardens, a World Heritage site that is visited by millions of people, a consortium of civil society groups and peace campaigns held a competition and invited four artists to submit designs for a memorial to conscientious objectors and all who oppose war. The artists engaged with descendants of COs, academics and adult learners who have been investigating conscientious objectors of the First World War. Edinburgh based artist Kate Ive’s design has been selected and a maquette will be unveiled at the launch event.

Kate Ive’s winning design will pay tribute to First World War COs whose resistance laid the groundwork for a wider peace movement that continues to this day and will continue into the future. Organisers hope the finished sculpture will be installed by April next year, the centenary of the end of the First World War for COs who were imprisoned until April 1918.

Committee member Brian Larkin, Coordinator of the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre, said: “With the centenary of the First World War many of us involved in promoting peace in Scotland felt that those who refused to fight and who opposed that unfortunate war should be remembered. But we also wanted to address the glaring imbalance in public space where there is a preponderance of memorials to wars, wars which were not glorious, but actually horrific. Edinburgh has 37 war memorials. Eight of them are concentrated in Princes St Gardens. It’s a perfect setting for a memorial that questions the prevailing view that war is necessary and even good, a view that, arguably leads us to resort, at times unnecessarily, to war. We hope this memorial will start conversations about the possibility of peacebuilding and conflict transformation.”

Photo Credit : http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/

Kate Ive’s engaging, inclusive and interesting design will commemorate the resistance of conscientious objectors and all who oppose wars, past, present and future. This unique “Opposing War Memorial” will create a space for reflection on the role of individual conscience and be a counterpoint whose time has come to the many war memorials across Scotland and the UK.

At the event Historian Lesley Orr will talk about opposition to the First World War in Scotland, and Kate Ive will talk about her process in creating the design, and explain how people can be involved in creating a beautiful, intriguing and enduring monument to war resisters in Scotland’s capital city. The event will launch a campaign to raise funds for the next phase of the project – including completion of technical drawings. These will be submitted for approval by City committees, before the sculpture can be installed.

The launch event will take place at Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House, 7 Victoria Terrace,  EH1 2JL  Edinburgh 6:30 – 8pm. Doors open 6:10pm for a cup of tea.  

The launch will follow the Conscientious Objectors Day public vigil from 5- 6pm by the National Gallery where there will be speakers including descendants of WW1 conscientious objectors, singing by the local Protest in Harmony choir, silence, reading of names of COs and collecting of signatures on post cards calling for over 300 South Korean COs who are currently in prison to be allowed to do alternative service.

People planning to attend the Opposing War Memorial Design Launch are encouraged to register though this is not required. Donations to the Memorial will be requested. For details of how to donate to the project visit:  http://peaceandjustice.org.uk/peace-organisations/conscientious-memorial-project/

Register at: https://opposing-war-design-launch.eventbrite.com

These events are part of a week of events on conscientious objection organised by Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre, Workers Education Association Scotland, Great War Dundee and Abertay Historical Society.

Opposing War Memorial Partners

DRB Womens History Group

Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop

Edinburgh Stop the War

Iona Community

Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh

Pax Christi UK

Religious Society of Friends Scotland

Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Scottish WILPF

St Thomas Aquins Secondary School

Tynecastle Secondary School

University of Edinburgh: School of Art

University of Edinburgh: School of Social and Political Science

Workers Education Association Scotland

The Opposing War Memorial Project is supported by:

War Resisters International, Peace Pledge Union, Peace News, Edinburgh MP Tommy Sheppard and Alison Johnstone MSP, First World War historian Trevor Royle, and Cyril Pearce, creator of the Pearce Database of First World War conscientious objectors.

For more information email: coordinator@peaceandjustice.org.uk or tel. 0131-629-1058.


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First World War Resisters Celebrated in P&J Exhibition at Scottish Storytelling Centre


An exhibition of graphic posters telling stories of people and movements that opposed the First World War opens Thursday 25 February with a participatory, storytelling launch event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Alice Wheeldon is a Prophet by Emily Johns

Alice Wheeldon is a Prophet by Emily Johns

The original, colourful posters in The World is My Country exhibtion echo some of the graphic styles of the First World War era and feature disobedient soldiers, feminist peace activists, a Maori princess, a famous Cambridge philosopher, and the striking graphic art of Emily Johns.

A co-editor of the national Peace News the highly political Johns’ previous exhibitions include Conscious Oil: myth and mind in the age of petroleum, Remember Saro-Wiwa, and Drawing Paradise on the ‘Axis of Evil’, a show dealing with Britain’s relationship with Iran. She is teaming up with writer and researcher, Gabriel Carlyle for a participatory and celebratory launch event that includes a short performance of original songs about conscientious objectors by the local choir Protest in Harmony.

TheWorldOrganised by the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre, the exhibition coincides with the centenary of the Military Service Act which instituted conscription in the First World War. A dozen design sketches for a memorial to conscientious objectors by pupils from a St Thomas Aquins Secondary School History are included in the exhibition.  We hope the the Conscientious Objectors Memorial will be installed in Princes St Gardens, in Edinburgh by November 2018.  Find out more about the Memorial project here.

The World Is My Country Exhibition runs from Thurs 25 February through Saturday 12 March at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High St

The World Is My Country Exhibition Launch Event  Thursday 25 Feb 6 – 8pm. Includes wine and food. Free. All Welcome. 

The World is My Country exhibtion is travelling around the UK. This is the only opportunity to see the exhibition in Scotland. The posters that comprise the exhibition can be viewed on The World is My Country exhibtion website here.

The exhibition concludes with Songs of the Unsung Heroes, a singing workshop, celebrating the movements and people who opposed the First World War, led by Jane Lewis and Penny Stone from Protest in Harmony choir on Saturday 12 March from 2 – 4:30pm at the Storytelling Centre. Cost for the workshop is £12 / £10.


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100 years conscientious objection

On Thursday, 28 January 2016, Patrick Harvie, member of the Scottish Parliament, Quakers in Scotland and the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre, hosted a reception to mark the centenary of the Military Service Act at the Scottish Parliament.

St Thomas Aquins students spoke about Conscientious Objectors at Scottish Parliament event.

St Thomas Aquins students spoke about Conscientious Objectors at Scottish Parliament event.

The evening included speeches from Trevor Royle (author of ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ the definitive) and Edinburgh University historian Lesley Orr, along with presentations from conscientious objectors and descendants of First World War conscientious objectors, Elisabeth Allen . In addition, three students from St Thomas Aquin’s High School in Edinburgh, Kristy, Rose and India, presented their work on conscientious objectors.

Elizabeth Allen talked about her grandfather John Searson who was an active member of the Independent Labour Party, who eventually was dismissed from his librarian job and sent to Dalmarnock power station to shovel coal.

Another Conscientious Objector was David Turner, aged 15 when the Second World War started. He ran away to the Highlands from his home in Glasgow to escape being conscripted. Sheltered by a friend in a flat in Glen Nevis for two months, he eventually returned to Glasgow and worked for another objector doing decorating work until the war was finally over.

Elizabeth AllenJoyce Taylor-Richards remembers two generations of conscientious objectors within her family. Her grandfather John Taylor was an engineer, trade unionist and councillor for the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow.  He died of an infection at the age of 31 while his application for an exemption was still being processed, after the years of hardship he was facing for his stance against military service and his refusal to work in a munitions factoryat the outbreak of fighting.

Trevor Allen: Author of Flowers of the Forest

Trevor Allen: Author of Flowers of the Forest

Trevor Royle stressed how crucial it is to understand, that war is more than just about killing. It also involves how society and the average civilian views a particular war. Taking the Conscientious Objection Movement in Britain as an example, opposition to war has existed since the very beginning- even before 1915. In fact, one of the most remarkable opposition movements during WWI was the No Conscription Fellowship. It started promoting the value of humanitarianism already in Autumn of 1914 all across the UK, and began organizing itself in local branches. The No Conscription Fellowship worked against the enthusiasm which had been prevalent at the time of the war’s breakout in 1914- the “great year to volunteer”, in which state publicity and encouragement to join the armed forces, came to fruition.

Many Quakers served in the Friends Ambulance Units and refused to fight. Graphic: Rebecca Lanyon

Many Quakers served in the Friends Ambulance Units and refused to fight. Graphic: Rebecca Lanyon

Already one year later though, the big battles started to take place, killing thousands of men, which made many people finally realize that the army was not all fun, but in fact a killing machine which turned civilians into murders and required the individual to die for the bigger goal. As a result, the public mood started to change and by the end of 1915, the Derby Scheme revealed that more than 1,5 million men considered eligible to fight, in fact had not sign up for war. Based upon this evidence the government was able to bring in conscription through passage of the Military Service Act in January of 1916.



To Britain’s credit, the Act included a provision for exemption from service for those who could show that they had a genuine conscientious objection to participating in war.  However, not every individual who did not want to fight in war, was in fact given exemption: Many had to face hardship and social agitation for their decision. People denounced them as weaklings who were escaping their “duty”. The individuals of the Conscientious Objection Movement had been exactly the reverse though; determined and hard- minded individuals who took an active decision against war and who did not mind bearing the consequences- more than 6,000 objectors were imprisoned for several years.

Many Conscientious Objectors were subjected to Field Punishment No. 1

Many Conscientious Objectors were subjected to Field Punishment No. 1

In fact, Patrick Harvie stressed, Quakers worked indefatigably to ensure the recognition of the right to refuse to kill, which was finally instituted through the Conscientious Clause, providing a significant shift toward (individual) freedom. In the midst of World War I, this clause  enabled many people to choose whether or not they would participate in war. Accordingly, Britain was the first country to give legal recognition to individual conscience, which is now recognised as a Human Right, marking one of the most important freedoms we have today; the freedom of conscience. Sadly, even in our contemporary world, numerous countries still practice conscription, refusing the right to conscientiously object, forcing men and women into combat.

As a consequence, the heroes of the Conscientious Objection Movement  can still inspire us to work for a more peaceful world today. As David Turner, a Quaker emphasized; a fight for peace and a more just world is not one which ends with the settlement of a dispute or conflict, but it is a commitment to nonviolence which lasts for life. Indeed, the answer to what we can learn from the conscientious objectors, seems simple, but it carries a fundamental truth: The only way to avoid war is to refuse to participate. Political problems have political solutions and will hardly get solved by people killing one another.

For anyone interested in discovering more, starting on 29 February, the Quakers’ online project, The white feather diaries, serialises the real letters and diaries of five conscientious objectors, alive during World War I.

By Yalda Salfavian


Photo credits: Brian Larkin


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Sign the Petition Edinburgh for Conscientious Objectors Memorial

A petition calling on Edinburgh Council to establish a memorial in Edinburgh to Conscientious Objectors and Opponents of War is now open for signature on the City of Edinburgh Council website. Please show your support for all those, past and present, who have refused to participate in or opposed wars by signing the petition here.

The Petition states:

With respect to the life and death choices of all those who have taken part in or supported wars we the undersigned therefore call upon the City of Edinburgh Council to grant the use of a permanent public space within the precincts of Princes St Gardens and to provide material and financial support for a memorial to Conscientious Objectors and those who oppose wars.  We ask that this be facilitated by February 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the passage of the Military Service Act which led to conscription in 1916.

Photo Credit : http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/

Photo Credit : http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/

With the Centenary of the First World War there is a feeling that there should be a memorial in Scotland’s capital city to conscientious objectors and opponents of wars which would henceforth provide a public focus for those who wish to gather  to remember all those, past or present, refusing to participate in or opposing wars.   

Taking this stance meant considerable hardship for those who refused to participate in or support the First World War and their families, that over 300 British “Deserters” were shot, and Conscientious Objectors were subjected to harsh treatment by the military, in prison, and in their communities and 73 First World War conscientious objectors died in or following imprisonment; their courageous stance cleared the way for improved recognition of the right to oppose war and to refuse to take part in wars and helped lay the foundations for the promotion of peaceful means for the resolution of conflicts and for achieving a just peace.  

Please sign the petition here.  And please Share it. We only need 200 signatures, but let’s get 2000!

The campaign for a memorial was initiated by the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre and Fellowship of Reconciliation Scotland and is backed by Iona Community,  Edinburgh Stop the War, Edinburgh CND, Scottish WILPF, Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Central Friends Meeting, Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, St Mary’s Cathedral Pax Christi, St Mary’s Cathedral Justice and Peace Group and the Religious Society of Friends Scotland.

There will be a fundraising concert at the Pleasance Cafe on the 20th of June. This evening is being organised by local peace and justice singer songwriter Penny Stone and should be a great evening. Please save the date!

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First World War’s Divergent Voices 1st November and 2nd November

Photo credit: www.gwpda.org/photos

Photo credit: www.gwpda.org/photos

This Saturday and Sunday 1st & 2nd November. 

Gerda Stevenson

Gerda Stevenson

2:30pm. National Library of Scotland

This Saturday and Sunday the Scottish International Storytelling Festival makes space for the voices of those who questioned and opposed the First World war in a live performance at the National Library of Scotland based on first hand testimonies of soldiers, nurses, home front workers, women peace campaigners and conscientious objectors.

 The Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre multimedia production, features award winning actor, director, poet and playwright Gerda Stevenson, Gaelic poet Aonghas Macneacail, and BBC Radio 4’s Crawford Logan.

Crawford Logan

Crawford Logan

The piece, scripted by Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre Coordinator Brian Larkin sets excerpts from letters, journals, memoirs and poems of those who questioned and opposed the war against a backdrop of patriotic propaganda. It includes selections from newspapers written by soldiers at the front and by conscientious objectors in prison.

Tickets £7.50. Book Tickets online here.

Featuring Gerda Stevenson, Aonghas Macneacail, Crawford Logan, and Jamie Reid Baxter, with music by Michel Byrne. If you missed the highly successful performance of Divergent Voices that took place at the Storytelling Centre in July don’t miss this. Script by Brian Larkin, Coordinator of the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre.

Aonghas Macneacail

Aonghas Macneacail

This event is part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. It complements the exhibition ‘Behind the Lines: Personal stories of the First World War’ at the National Library of Scotland.

Tickets £7.50. Book Tickets online here or in person from the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Royal Mile, Edinburgh,
by phone on +44 (0)131 556 9579.

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Conscientious Objection in the First World War

Photo Credit : http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/

Photo Credit : http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/

Peace and Justice Centre Coordinator Brian Larkin & Lesley Orr  of Fellowship of Reconciliation Scotland spoke on Conscientious Objectors & Women’s Responses to the First World War in a Just Festival Conversation. Following is a transcript of Brian’s  talk.

There was enthusiastic support fort the war when it broke out In August 1914. Thirty thousand men per day rushed to enlist, one million in the first 6 months. But opposition to the war was also strong. Prior to the outbreak of the war there were large demonstrations opposing war across Europe, including in London’s Trafalgar Square. Northern Friends Peace Board was founded in 1913 in response to the deteriorating international situation and the increasing militarization of society. Quakers argued that the arms race was likely to lead to war. Just 3 days after the declaration of war a group of Young Friends set up the Friends Ambulance Unit which would eventually operate hundreds of ambulances, dozens of hospitals, four ambulance trains, which moved half a million wounded, and two hospital ships. Over 1.700 men and a hundred women served in the unit.

Despite the fact that Britain was a vast Empire the Liberal politics of the time meant that Britain was the only Great Power without universal military service. Nonetheless even prior to the war mere was substantial pressure for conscription, ‘me National Service League nad more than 315,000 members and supporters’. Five consecutive conscription bills were tabled in Parliament before 1914. But the Liberal Party & large sections of Labour Party and some Conservatives, opposed the idea. In August of 1914 Cabinet unanimously dismissed Winston Churchill’s proposal for ’compulsory military service.

Recognizing the likelihood that conscription would come at the suggestion of his wife Lillla, Fenner Brockway, the editor of the Labour Leader published a letter in November 1914  which led to the formation of the No Conscription Fellowship. With 300 initial members its Statement of Faith declared it an organisation of men ‘who will refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms, because they consider human life to be sacred and cannot therefore assume the responsibility of inflicting death’.

Within a month of the outbreak of hostilities the Prime Minister had set up a Propaganda Bureau to drum up support for the war, enlisting the services of numerous leading authors. Among them was HG Wells who famously claimed that this was “a war that would end all wars.” Fanned by propaganda patriotic feeling ran high and peer pressure helped keep the level of recruits high in the first months of the war, but with 180,000 killed by Christmas and the numbers of volunteers dropping from 30,000 per day to 70,000 per month pressure for conscription grew, after formation of the coalition government underAsquith in May 1915, the Conservative Party and Liberal Minister of munitions  David Lloyd George mounted a media campaign in favour of universal military service. Conscription was considered by the ‘Independent Labour Party (ILP) and others as an infringement of civil liberties.

The No Conscription Fellowship soon had 10,000 members. Initially they were all men.

But later women would play a vital role in the organisational work as men went to prison. NCF members were Socialists, pacifists and Christians. Socialists believed in internationalism and that the ruling classes created wars which the working class fought & died in. Pacifists believed that killing was wrong and that it was better to avoid war,, that disputes should be settled by negotiation and that preparation for war increases the chance of war. They were against the whole military system. Most Christians at the time were patriotic and supported the war most religious COs in UK were Christians. The largest group of Christians were Quakers but there were Anabaptists. Catholics and other denominations. (Often individuals’ beliefs crossed over these somewhat artificial boundaries so there were Christian Pacifists and Christian Socialists and so on.1 Anyone who refuses to take cart in war or prepare for war is a CO.

The NCF Manifesto published in the Spring of 1915 stated

We have been brought to this standpoint by many ways. Some of us have reached it  through the Christian faith… Others have found it by association with international movements; we believe in the solidarity of the human race, and we cannot betray the ties of brotherhood which bind us to one another through the nations of the world. All of us. …believe in the value and sacredness of human personality, and are prepared to sacrifice as much in the cause of the world’s peace as our fellows are sacrificing in the cause of the nation’s war.”

The NCF worked closely with the Friends Service Committee and the National Council Against Conscription and published a weekly paper called “The Tribunal” from March 1916. Despite police harassment and the restrictions of  thd Defence of the Realm Act, which prohibited speaking against conscription the ILP and the NCF distributed leaflets and held meetings that condemned tne idea of a British conscript army, They faced angry opposition and near riots as police looked on.                                                                                                ^

In July 1915 the National Registration Act was passed. It required all men and women

between the ages of 15 and 65 to register. Military recruiters made door to door visits to men 18-40 and pressured them to sign up. In August 1915: Fred Sellar sec of ILP was prosecuted under the DORA and imprisoned for distributing a leaflet that argued Registration was a step to conscription.

In February of 1916, the Military Service Acts were passed by Parliament. All unmarried men between ages of 19 & 41 were “deemed to have enlisted.” A few months later married men were included. Exemptions were allowed for those whose work was essential to the war effort, those with elderly dependents or children, those deemed medically unfit for service and those who could show a ‘conscientious objection’ to active participation in the war. It should be said that Britain was unusual in ww1 in giving CO status at all. The inclusion of the “Consceince Clause” was the result of vigorous opposition by Quaker and ILP MPs, 36 of whom out of 630 MPs, voted against the bill. Nonetheless it would prove difficult for COs to gain exemption. Not until 1987 did the UN recognize the right to refuse to kill and many countries today including South Korea, Turkey, Sudan and Israel still require compulsory military service.

The NCF published a “Repeal the Act” leaflet which stated “Conscription …involves the subordination of civil liberties to military dictation; it imperils the freedom of individual conscience and establishes in our midst… militarism. …We cannot assist in warfare. War, … will only be made impossible when men who so believe remain steadfast to their convictions. Consceince …has been placed at the mercy of tribunals… we cannot accept any exemption that would compel those who hate war to kill by proxy or set them to tasks which would help in the furtherance of war.’’’

Eight of the ten authors of the leaffet were charged and convicted under the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA)  with having made statements likely to prejuaice the recruiting and discipline of HM Armed Forces” and sentenced to 61 one days in prison

Probably all COS questioned the authority of the state at some level.  In 196 Sydney Turner stated “I deny the right of the state to compel me to undertake any military service to which I have a conscientious objection. My life is my own and I will dispose of it as I will particularly as the State has had no part in my introduction to this part of the earth, nor has it assumed any responsibility for my life in the past.”

Tribunals were set up all across the country. They heard claims for everyone seeking exemptions including CO.s. There were 3 types of COs:

  • Noncombatant COs accepted being in the military and agreed to take part in units specially set up to do work other than fighting.
  • Alternativist COs did not oppose work on behalf of the government to help civilians but refused to be in the military.
  • Absolutist COs opposed the system of compulsory service as well as killing.

Although the Military Service Act allowed for three types of exemptions for COs, absolute, Conditional (allowing men to do Alternative civilian Service) and Exempt from combat whereby they could join the Non Combatant Corps (NCC)) the act was unclear and poorly understood and many men were forced into the military against their will.

Tribunals were supposed to be impartial but were clearly biased. There was a military representative on the Tribunal and the Military Council urged Tribunals to take all possible steps to get men for the Army. They were made up mostly of local councillors who were highly patriotic and had little sympathy or understanding for COs. They showed COs little respect. . Young COs were told they were too young to have a conscience. Men who claimed absolute exemption were required to join the army or alternative or Noncombatant service.

Some 400 men out of the 16,000 COs were granted absolute exemption. 6,500 were given conditional exemption and told to perform alternative service by finding “Work of national importance”. 5,000 were granted non-combatant status and enlisted in the NCC. And about 2,500 applicants were turned down and forcibly enlisted. 1,200 men refused to apply to a Tribunal and about 6,000 of those who did apply refused to accept the Tribunals decisions and spent much of the war in prison. 1,500 Absolutists were imprisoned for duration of war.

EJ Ford was an absolutist who did not respond to call up papers. At his Tribunal he stated: “I stand here as a protest against the awful crime of the old men of Europe, sacrificing the young to slaughter.”

Statements of CO’s at Tribunals

Clifford Allen, Secretary of the NCF at his Tribunal said:

“They will never heed our condemnation of their foreign policy if they can always depend upon our support in time of war. There is one interference with individual judgment that no state in the world has any sanction to enforce – that is, to tamper with the unfettered free right of everyman to decide for himself the issue of life and death.”

“To me war is murder” He explained his “unalterable determination to refuse non- combatant or any conditional services, since all of these must contribute, directly or indirectly, to the prosecution or organisation of war…”.

His Application was disallowed. And he went to prison.

Among those who accepted Work of National Importance were many in the Friends Ambulance Unit. But with conscription many Quakers who had been in the Friends Ambulance Unit found themselves in the position of being ordered to do the work they were already doing. Corder Catchpool had been with the FAU in France from October 1914 felt that the FAU was working too closely with the army and was indirectly supporting the war effort rather than simply relieving the suffering of the wounded. The army had come to rely on them so much that it no longer accepted new applicants to army medical units because it knew the FAU would fill the gap. Catchpool wrote “Men displaced by the services taken over by the FAU were often drafted to the front line and complained bitterly that I and my colleagues had sent them there.” When conscription came most FAU members applied for exemption and were granted conditional exemption and told to do ‘alternative service’ by continuing to work in the FAU. Some, though, like Catchpool were happy to be volunteers but refused to be ordered to do work which they now believed was helping the war effort. Catchpool spent a long time in prison.

Prison & Punishments

field punishment no 1Many COs who were required to join the Non Combatant Corps when faced with for example being ordered to move munitions refused to do so. They were frequently treated roughly. When he refusesed military orders Horace Twilley was sentenced to 28 days Field Punishment. “Corporal told me he hoped to be one of the shooting party when my time came.” He was “hauled around for an hour, by one soldier after another,…scores of soldiers laughing at he fun” and “put in irons” for two hours every day.

JB Saunders: Field Punishment No. 1

Saunders was arrested as a deserter for failing to answer his call-up papers. He was imprisoned 3 months at Portobello and Barlinnie. Court martialled again in France and again in Egypt where he was sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Shortly after he was released, he wrote to his wife:

14 September 1917

I will not submit to conscription…! will never give in. …

…I have been in chains and handcuffs, crucified to a tree full in this broiling sun nearly every morning and evening, for five months bread and water and solitary confinement…. Seven times I went down with dysentery, and seven times I managed to get on my feet and face the music. …

This tropical sun and chaining up nearly drove me mad. …I …was doing seven days Field Punishment No.1 chained up in the sun. Many times I thought I should hang in the sun and die. I pleaded with the sentry to shoot me… I’ll die fifty times rather than endorse the wicked thing….

They can have my body, my mind I will destroy rather than allow the military cult to take it.”

About 35 Absolutists from RichmondCastle, Harwich Redoubt and Seaford were sent to France where disobeying orders meant court martial. CO Howard Marten was among them. .

“We were forever being threatened with the death sentence. Over and over again we’d be marched up and read out a notice: some man being sentenced to death through disobedience at the Front…. It was all done with the idea of intimidating us. But we wouldn’t have taken that line unless we were prepared to face that situation….

Finally we had the second court martial…. Eventually we were taken out to the parade ground. There was a big concourse of men lined up in an immense square. Under escort we were taken out, one by one, to the middle of the square. I was the first of them…. Then the officer in charge …read out the various crimes – refusing to obey a lawful command …and so on. Then: ‘The sentence of the court is to suffer by being shot.’

There was a suitable pause, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ Then he said, ‘Confirmed by the Commander in Chief,’ Field Marshall Haig, which double-sealed it. There was another long pause – ‘But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for ten years.’ And that was that. …”

COs continued their resistance in prison in a variety of ingenuous ways. Many were permanently damaged by the treatment they received.  Disobeying the Rule of SILENCE: After several months under the rule of silence Fenner Brockway recalled: “A point came when many of us felt that it was undignified and humiliating …and decided openly to resist, For ten glorious days sixty of us ran our own hall, speaking openly on the exercise ground, took arms, played games, singing in cells, but other inmates could hear so five leaders were isolated and transferred to other prisons.” Brockway got 8 months solitary, 3 months’ bread & water.

The food in prison was Inadequate. Breakfast was a pint or porriage made w water; Lunch: potatoes, 6 oz bread, 10oz beans w bacon fat; Dinner was a pint of porridge.

There were numerous hunger strikes by COs & force feeding followed.  In Newcastle Prison 11 COs strike to protest poor and abusive treatment by the doctor: All were Force fed with the  same tube though one man had a disease of the nose. Though force feeding caused terrible thirst the doctor reduced water available to them and insured washing water had soap in it, all bled profusely from the nose and throat.

John Maclean who was tried under the DORA for making speeches “likely to prejudice recruitment to HM Armed Forces” and sentenced to 10 years in prison maintained he was being poisoned and was Force Fed. His health was broken and he died only a few years after being released at the end of the war.

When WE Burns went on hunger strike in Manchester he was force fed. The tube was  too short and cocoa poured into his lungs and he died.

CO’s devised a method of communicating on the pipes using cell no’s as telephone numbers & an adapted Morse Code.  And In many prisons COs secretly produced tiny ‘newspapers’. Written on toilet paper they included short articles, cartoons, jokes, poetry and mock advertisements. Titles included the Walton Leader and the Canterbury Clinker. They smuggled in pencil leads w/ sticking plasters and used hollowed candles as ink wells. This article appeared in the Winchester Whisperer:

‘News from the back of the Front’

Our special correspondent at the back of the front reports that in the early hours of Sunday last the British captured a cowshed. Our losses were only 10,000. The enemy losses must be at least 100,000.

It is hoped that this splendid victory will stop the cry for peace, which seems to have taken hold of a large section of the British people. (Later) in the early hours of Monday the enemy made a strong counterattack and recaptured the above cowshed. Their losses are estimated at 250,000, our casualties were practically nil. The cowshed is of no military value’.

The Walton Leader included articles on Russian Revolution and Passchendale, referring to men sent over the top as canon fodder. Regular papers were not allowed to carry such reports so they were truly revolutionary.

Refusing to Cooperate: When Clifford Allen refused to co-operate with prison authorities he was placed in solitary confinement and put on a diet of bread and water. Suffering from tuberculosis and close to death, he was released in December 1917.

In an attempt to break them many COs were subjected to a kind of cat & mouse treatment whereby they were court martialled, imprisoned for 112 days, then released back to their regiments and, when they again refused to obey orders, court martialled again.  5,973 COs were court martialled. Of these 655 were court martialled twice, 521 three times, 319 four times, 50 five times, and 3 were court martialled six times.

And many were subjected to torture. Jack Grey was released from prison back to regiment: “frog marched, put in a sack and thrown into a pond into which drainage and other foul matter ran 8 times, and, “stripped naked, dragged across a field”  73 Cos died in prison or as a result of imprisonment .  319 men were shot at the front for desertion.

Despite all of the rough treatment though it seems that the steadfastness of COs influenced those they came in contact with. The following article appeared in the NCF paper The Tribunal, 8 Nov, 1917.

“Notes from a CO”

“I think of my first confinement – the surly, contemptuous corporal in the picket room, the boycotting in conversation by the pvts, the cursing by the guards, the constant rudeness, and bullying by the sergeant of the guard, the general attitude of hostility among the men. ..how moved we were when two soldiers whispered ‘good luck’ to us as we passed them

And now! Instead of hostility there is every where sympathy and support. The men go out of their way to be cordial. Almost every soldier ..in the barracks smiles and nods his head in recognition….this atmosphere of friendship not only reflects the respect won by the CO s who have preceded us it reflects positive appreciation of our attitude and admiration for .. .our ‘pluck in stickin tuitl’

In conclusion I’d like to remind us of HG Wells and the idea of the war to end all wars. Conscientious objectors saw through that. At his third court martial CO Frederick Walker said “I am certain warlike efforts will never end wars.”

 Brian Larkin

This article drew heavily upon “Refusing to Kill” a publication of the Peace Pledge Union.



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