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: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors 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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