The Courage of Cowards – Conscientious Objectors in the First World War

9472Today I am lucky to be hosting a guest blog by writer Karyn Burnham whose book The Courage of Cowards was published by Pen & Sword Books earlier this year. I read it and learnt so much about the much vilified ‘conchie’ of the Great War, who faced bullying, ostracism and imprisonment for his beliefs. Here Karyn tells us more…

‘Your Country Needs You!’ was the message being shouted from the walls of most public buildings during the Autumn of 1914. ‘Boys! Come Along, You’re Wanted’. How could any patriotic young man resist such an enthusiastic call to arms? By the end of August, 300,000 men had willingly volunteered to take part in the great adventure. Let’s teach the Hun a lesson he won’t forget! Give him a bloody nose and be home for Christmas.

Cartoon mocking the masculinity of a COLord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, knew the war would not be over by Christmas and that the British Army was in desperate need of a lot more men if Britain were to stand any chance of winning. The recruitment campaign was stepped up, the pressure on men to enlist was increased. Words such as ‘cowards’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘slackers’ took pride of place in the British vocabulary as posters reflected the damage wreaked on civilian homes in Scarborough by the German Navy; women were told to be selfless and send their menfolk off to war with pride. White feathers were issued with anonymous malice to unsuspecting young men who were caught out on the street in civilian clothes while in the personal column of The Times appeared the missive: ‘Jack F.G. If you are not in Khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead. Ethel M’.

Throughout the whole of 1915 this sledgehammer form of patriotism continued, but still there were not enough men enlisting to replace those being killed or wounded. For many, the decision not to enlist was a practical one; with a wife and family to support, a man would be reluctant to swap his secure, well paid job for a meagre army wage. For others though, the decision was more complex. There were those who believed that war was fundamentally wrong, for reasons both religious and political. Despite the ever growing pressure to join up, these men remained free to act according to their consciences without repercussions from the State.

This changed in January 1916 with the introduction of the Military Service Act which stated, quite baldly, that every unmarried man between the ages of 19 and 41 was ‘deemed to have enlisted for the period of the war’, though the scope was soon widened to include married men. The decision to introduce conscription had been difficult and unprecedented because, unlike other European countries, Germany included, Britain had never enforced military service on her people. However, the government accepted that for some, taking up arms and going to war was against their deepest principles and included a controversial clause for exemption to military service on grounds of a conscientious objection to war.
When called up, a man would register his claim of conscientious objection and appear before a local tribunal to justify himself. Between January and June 1916, the tribunal system creaked under the weight of around 750,000 claims for exemption (many would have been on grounds of ill health, financial hardship of dependents etc,) and the tribunals were ill disposed towards ‘conchies’. While there was some sympathy and understanding for religious objections, there was absolutely none for political objections. Of the 16,000 conscientious objectors registered by the end of the war, only 350 had been granted absolute exemption.

Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry

Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry

So what happened to the rest? Many would have accepted some form of alternative service such as the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Royal Army Medical Corps or even the army’s Non Combatant Corps. For some though, supporting a war they disagreed with was out of the question. Known as the ‘absolutists’, these men would not accept alternative service if it aided the military and were automatically conscripted into the army where they refused to co-operate from the outset. Refusing to put on a uniform, to follow basic orders or even accept army pay, the men would be court martialled and imprisoned. Upon release, the process would repeat.

The army would often resort to bullying, or worse, to pressure the COs into giving up as in the case of George Beardsworth, a political objector and absolutist from Lancashire. Beardsworth was dragged around an army training ground in full view of the public in Birkenhead Park; he was kicked, punched, stamped on, thrown over railings and pushed head first into water in an ordeal that lasted most of the day. The army’s treatment of Beardsworth, and others like him, contributed to a change in how absolutists were dealt with and hard labour in a civilian prison became the norm along with Home Office Work Schemes which aimed to provide the COs with work of ‘national importance’ which did not contribute to the war. This seemed a reasonable compromise to most COs, although it was hard to see the national importance of sewing mailbags or breaking rocks for 10 hours a day.

Conscientious objectors during the First World War were popularly regarded as cowards, but it is hard to attach such a label to men who were prepared to face ostracism, beatings, imprisonment and hard labour rather than compromise their beliefs. The easy thing, the cowardly thing, would have been to give in and go to war.

karynKaryn Burnham: Karyn lives in North Yorkshire and has written The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors, (April 2014) and York In The Great War, (November 2014) both published by Pen and Sword Books. She has also written for Family History Monthly, Discover Your History and BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine as well as contributing to various history websites.

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No need for endings yet: a poem for late summer by Jennifer Grotz

daisyI have been looking back over old blog posts recently. My latest posts have focused on the First World War and issues I address in Shell Shocked Britain and readers of this blog know how much I love to discover new poems and poets; a wander around the Poetry Archive website being my favourite form of procrastination. This despite rumours that Bejewelled Blitz is my distraction of choice…

It is cool in Somerset today; nothing very new in that, but it really has felt as if ‘warm days will never cease’ in recent days. Autumn is a season I enjoy as a rule, only slumping into a depression after the new year, when I find the evenings truly dark, and the mornings little better. But it still feels a little early for To Autumn by John Keats (as much as I love it) so I thought I would post a poem I have only recently discovered. I think it neatly sums up the late summer feeling that persists despite increasing evidence that autumn is truly upon us. It is by American poet and translator Jennifer Grotz.

Late Summer
Jennifer Grotz

Before the moths have even appeared
to orbit around them, the streetlamps come on,
a long row of them glowing uselessly

along the ring of garden that circles the city center,
where your steps count down the dulling of daylight.
At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding.

Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.
And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear
the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle

mutter in disbelief: Everything in the world is being thrown away!
Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things
redden and ripen and burst and come down. It’s when

city workers cut down trees, demolishing
one limb at a time, spilling the crumbs
of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street.

Sunglasses! the man softly exclaims
while beside him blooms a large gray rose of pigeons
huddled around a dropped piece of bread.

Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz

The penultimate stanza, with its line ‘spilling the crumbs of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street’ (though I am not sure why it isn’t  ‘the street’, and am not sure I like it – any thoughts?) conjures up the tiny remnants of dead wood that refuse to find their way into the rubbish bag however hard one sweeps, and seem a metaphor for those last days out in late summer.  Those romantic and organised enough to have proper picnics will have made their sandwiches and pies, eaten them under the branches of sleepy trees  and have spilled the crumbs into the folds of the screwed up gingham cloth (or, more likely an old rug) which, when opened in the spring of the next year, will find the same crumbs clinging, desiccated, to the fibres. And ‘sunglasses!’ – how nice it is to find we still need them on into autumn as the sun burns early mist away and casts a gentle light over the afternoon.

Is it about ending? I am not so sure. How can we call it that, with a quarter of the year yet to come?

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‘I opened up the window and in flew Enza..: How Spanish ‘flu added to Great War heartache

1007_flu-3090440_166x138In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I examine a number of different causes of the trauma experienced by British society as a whole during and after the conflict. I also acknowledge that we should not attribute 21st century responses to those who lived 100 years ago. However, there are some that are, surely, timeless and there are moments in history that shake the very foundations of everything we believe in. Without getting too cliché ridden, there is only so much an individual can take, and in Shell Shocked Britain I consider extending this to the nation as a whole.

So take yourself back to September 2001 and the shocking attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. After the horrors of that day, and the aftermath, do you remember how worried everyone was that an anthrax attack was imminent? That the postal service could become the means by which death was spread across the US, and Britain (I was refused some strong antibiotics for  cellulitis on the basis that they must be stockpiled for just such an eventuality)?  The fear of the ‘other’ became overwhelming, leading nations into war and beginning a chain of events we have yet to recover from. Would we, some wondered, ever feel safe again?

Imagine that after 9/11 an epidemic strikes, affecting the world in the winter of 2001; it is a disease so virulent that hundreds of thousands are dead within weeks, including many who survived the horrors in New York. It is the stuff of disaster movies. But when considering the aftermath of the Great War what is often overlooked is a similar, real, event; another equally devastating but natural disaster that was about to scythe down those that had survived the worst years of the fighting. Influenza.

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

When the virus was first noted the symptoms were benign, no worse than the common cold. Soldiers in the trenches complained of sore throats, headaches and lack of appetite. Highly infectious in the cramped, insanitary conditions, no-one seemed to suffer the symptoms beyond three or four days and military doctors were relatively unconcerned. Similar outbreaks had occurred in 1916 and 1917, when illness spread amongst gas-weakened troops and may have been caused by contact with wild and domesticated birds. However, the virus quickly mutated and, mistakenly reported as having originated in Spain, ‘Spanish’ influenza became a killer. By the end of 1919, between 50 million and 100 million deaths could be attributed to the virus worldwide.

The pattern of spread in Britain can be traced from May 1918 with the first cases in Glasgow, moving south to London by June. In July, 700 were reported dead from the virus in one week. Schools all over the country closed and church attendances fell drastically as people tried to avoid infection. Over the summer, the number of deaths declined, but by the autumn the disease had returned, this time causing the deaths of 17,000 in London alone. Cinemas, theatres and any public buildings where large numbers might congregate were closed down.

100 years ago, the public were ignorant of the ways in which infection was spread and even as the war drew to a close were inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists who blamed the Germans.

Spanish fluThere was no cure; like the common cold it simply had to run its course. Hospitals became overcrowded and unable to deal with the number patients admitted. In Aldershot those most desperate cases were left under shelter in the open air to ensure there was room on the wards for those more likely to recover. Many families stocked up on the suggested home remedies, such as quinine, and crowd control was necessary at dispensaries. The  population was advised to wear small surgical masks, ensure good hygiene and sleep in well-ventilated rooms, all sensible advice.

Whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain I came across other supposed ‘cures’ that caused practical problems for those resorting to them. In August 1918, Joseph Jackson, a 31-year-old soldier who had fought at Mons and returned home later with shell shock, had been recommended to drink beer for the influenza he had contracted. This resulted in a six-month prison sentence for kicking a policeman when he was arrested for drunkenness.

Contrary to the rather ‘romantic’ scenes depicted in Downton Abbey, when the lovely Lavinia succumbed, watching someone suffer could be shocking, especially if they were one of the 20 per cent of patients who developed septicaemia or pneumonia, for which there were no modern antibiotic treatments. Some developed a lavender tinge to their skin, the sign of ‘heliotrope cyanosis’. Its onset was alarmingly fast and signalled lack of oxygen and imminent death. A fit, young person could be well first thing in the morning and dead by tea-time. Whole families were affected, children orphaned and left in the care of grandparents as mothers and fathers died.

The families watched as the lungs and major organs of loved ones became filled with a thick jelly, which caused suffocation; bleeding from the ears and haemorrhage from the mucous membranes made it a terrible death. A feeling of intense depression came over those infected and, even patients who recovered were left with a lasting feeling of dejection and hopelessness. In the book I detail some of the reports I uncovered of suicides successful and unsuccessful – by those affected.

Communities large and small could be free of the infection one day and prostrate the next. Troop movements and conditions on the Front contributed to the spread, with the autumn outbreak coinciding with the Armistice Day celebrations. The circumstances required to spread infection were maximised as strangers kissed and hugged in the crowded streets. This time wealth and status was no protection and the age group hardest hit were those who were actively engaged in war work: 20 to 30-year-olds. It is still not clearly understood why this otherwise fit age group was most affected. It might have been because they benefited neither from exposure and possible immunity from previous ‘flu outbreaks or from the improved nutrition available to school children through free school meals. Whatever the reason, it increased the pressure on already fragile temperaments and the Hackney Gazette did little to assuage fears, printing an article in January 1919 stating that ‘this adds a new danger to life. One is never safe in this world.’

Famous names were lost to the virus. Sir Hubert Parry, composer and musician; economist Max Weber; William Leefe-Robinson VC, the first man in Britain to shoot down a Zeppelin airship. But Kaiser Wilhelm contracted flu and survived.

By early 1919 the numbers infected by the virus were gradually falling and the worst was over, although reported cases continued well into the summer of that year. Experts still dispute how many died from this strain of influenza across the world, but estimates range between 40 million to 100 million and around 230,000 of the victims were British. Other countries were hit even more cruelly; 4 per cent of India’s population died, and in some parts of the United States bodies were piled high in the streets until mass graves could be dug, as nearly 675,000 people lost their lives and 25 per cent of the population contracted the virus. It was tragedy on a monumental scale.

Surely, when assessing the impact of the trauma of the 1914-18 conflict, one has to imagine how we would respond now to such a nightmare, bearing in mind at the hint of ‘bird’ or ‘swine’ flu we are on major alert. It is remarkable to think that the consequences of an illness with a higher body count than the Black Death, remains a footnote to the Great War.

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One Perfect Thursday Love Poem, with Dorothy Parker

keatsbabe:

I have been so busy lately; Shell Shocked Britain has, of course taken over my life as I come up to publication in October, but it has meant that I have paid less attention to my favourite poetry bloggers. Top of the list is David J. Beauman who has featured on my blog a few times and who kindly read my own poem ‘Life Force’ in his wonderful warm tones.

He has posted this poem for his Thursday Love Poem slot (he is from the States so I only get to see it on a Friday…) and it is by one of my favourites – Dorothy Parker. I love the way she subverts the genre, fooling the reader in two classically romantic stanzas only to re-focus the whole theme in the last, with her inimitable caustic wit.

Just had to share it with you!

Originally posted on The Dad Poet:

quotes-oh-life-is-a-glorious_5971-0We’re due for another Thursday Love poem feature, and so in the spirit of “Thursday,” a sort-of love poem by one of my poetic heroines, Edna St. Vincent Millay, I give you a piece from another New York mistress of words and wit, Dorothy Parker.

If you’re not familiar with the Thursday Love Poem feature, just go ahead and enjoy the poem below first, but then go back and click on that Thursday link in the first line of this post in order to get the original poem that inspired this irreverent tribute to love.

Like Vincent (as Millay liked to be called), Parker was both a poet and a social activist in the 1920’s New York literary scene. They were quite progressive ladies, though their poetry did not go the way of the Modernists, into ideas and abstractions, in the mid 30’s.

The Dorothy Parker…

View original 137 more words

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A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

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Teaching the First World War – engaging imaginations with historic newspapers

qnscabijelvfu9dudepk_thumb‘Will Dismal Jimmy Look More Cheerful Today?’

So reads the headline above the Daily Sketch title on Monday September 27th 1915.

I have no idea what that means but it certainly draws me straight in! I have been lucky enough to be sent an example of one of the free First World War packs offered by Historic Newspapers,  the UK’s largest private archive of historical newspapers to educational institutions as the centenary commemorations begin in earnest.

The First World War newspaper book, called 1914-1919 As Reported At The Time, aims to engage with young people in a way that makes the history real, rather than an abstract idea which they feel they have no links with. Reports in the media that kids are already being ‘turned off’ by the Great War are surely greatly exaggerated. Many of the projects being run in local areas are incredibly creative and have no problem involving ages from the proverbial 8 to 80+, but schools sometimes experience greater problems. The curriculum doesn’t always allow for similar expressions of the many feelings the First World War can bring out in the young. Curiosity, fear, anger, laughter (yes there is a place for humour – the troops found courage in it) all these things can make the conflict come that little bit closer – safely of course.

So this booklet begins on September 27 1915 at the Battle of Loos with first reports of British and French soldiers “on the road to victory” and finishes with the end of the war on Monday November 11 1918. Much happens in between, with reports on Gallipoli, and on Edith Cavell. But I love the way this offers a peek into the wider social history of the time. The wonderful adverts for Maypole margarine; how Violette starring Edris Coombs was on twice nightly in Drury Lane and what could be found in the Christmas Parcels offered by Selfridges.  Herrings in tomato anyone?

Thomas Walker, of Historic Newspapers, has said:

“The book can be used to discuss the changing nature of conflict, the cooperation between countries, the shift of alliances and the lasting impact of the war on national, ethnic, cultural and religious issues.”

I think he is right, and it is FREE. If anyone asks me to review something on my blog they have to expect me to be honest, and the only complaint I could have about this book is that it leaves me – an adult writer about the war and its aftermath, wanting more. It is just enough for those who just need to be inspired to find out more.

Hard copies of the teaching packs are currently available to schools, universities, libraries and accredited education establishments, and individual PDF files can be ordered if digital format is preferred. Enquiries should be sent to Thomas Walker from Historic Newspapers at: Thomas.Walker@historic-newspapers.co.uk.

 

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The Writer’s Blog Tour – coming out of the attic to party….

blogI can be a real party pooper sometimes. I get asked to join in memes and round robin thingies and although I enjoy reading the blogs written by others I like to do it in my own time, and find out something I didn’t know already.  So although I was really pleased to be nominated for a large-scale writer’s blog tour by the inspirational Angela Buckley, (author of the fabulous ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes previously featured on my blog and master of Victorian detection over at victoriansupersleuth.com/) I was also worried about taking it on. Time, ideas etc are all very precious at the moment so I nearly said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

But then I saw that I would be part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland invited us to take part (see www.cfindlay.blogspot.com) The Writers’ Blog Tour is a great way to sample the work of new writers. It had already been round some writers I admire, and I was nominated alongside the lovely Rachel Hale over at The History Magpie and although I was tempted to stay in the kitchen with my head in a metaphorical box of cheap Chardonnay I decided to get out and mingle a bit.

So here I am – clutching a plate of nibbles somewhat nervously and clasping a tumbler in a shaky hand. Be nice to me and I promise I am not really a kill joy.

What am I working on?

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAt the moment I am in that nervous period just before publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The legacy of the First World War for Britain’s mental health‘, when proofs are read and indices compiled and the marketing really starts to build. As well as Shell Shocked I am also commissioned by Pen & Sword History to write two more social histories – Death, Disease & Dissection; The life of a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century and another on the artists of the Great War. Both should be out in 2016/17.

At the same time I dabble in fiction – ghost stories and cosy crime..

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm, a tough one this. As someone who has experienced mental ill-health, I do try to look with a fresh perspective on periods of history that would, if they happened today, cause widespread and lasting trauma. In Shell Shocked, the Great War is seen as an extraordinary and terrible period that left emotional scars on Britain as a whole, as well as causing thousands of individual tragedies. In Death etc I will look at how the horrors of 19th century medicine co-existed alongside a great Romantic movement and great advances in science. In Artists etc I will examine the work of great painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to see how it has affected our memories of the conflict. We are all different, and we respond to events in various ways. I always try to tell a story that encourages us to look back into our histories with compassion and greater understanding.

I suspect many of us would say the same, however.

Why do I write what I do?

See above. Some people’s stories just need to be heard and I am passionate about being their voice. I do such a lot of research that suggests that despite a mass of evidence provided by historical events, society as a whole simply does not learn.

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space...

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space…

How does my writing process work?

It frequently doesn’t! I can research forever, in primary and secondary sources, and enjoy it but actually writing? The demon procrastination is my nemesis. Sudden urges to wash up/water the garden/exercise (OK, not the last one…) frequently overwhelm me. I need to be somewhere well away from home and all its distractions. Writing Shell Shocked I dumped myself on in-laws and friends and took myself away to Cumbria (my spiritual home, I like to think) where I can just write and write…

Finally, I want to thank you for stopping here on the tour and introduce you to two other writers who I admire and encourage you to seek out their blogs and websites and learn a little more about their work.

Michelle J Holman

Based in London, Michelle is a researcher and freelance writer specialising in 18th century entertainment. She is the author of the Abraham Adcock blog at www.abrahamadcock.com, a short story, The Guinea Ghost, and a collection of poetry and prose focusing on living with mental illness entitled The Sea of Conscience. She is currently working on her first novel.

Beth Webb

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She has published books for young children (Junkyard Dragon) and older children (The Dragons of Kilve and The Fleabag Stories), earning great reviews worldwide. She also teaches budding young writers and you can find out more about how she works on her website www.bethwebb.co.uk

 

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