The centenary of the First World War is helping focus hearts and minds on the sacrifices made in the pursuit of peace. The National Memorial Arboretum will be at the heart of many events centred on remembrance and, in the lead-up to the anniversary, the Burton Mail will focus on different aspects of war reflected by the Alrewas centre. For the third feature in the series, NIGEL POWLSON looks at conscientious objectors and the sacrifices of the Quakers.
The Great War was the first conflict where whole nations were pitted against each other, with the mass mobilisation of conscripts and millions of men deployed.
This total warfare made it far more difficult for those who through moral or religious beliefs refused to take up arms against their fellow man.
Not all conscientious objectors were Quakers but this religious group’s beliefs meant they were faced with some of the biggest dilemmas.
Many faced prison and persecution, even though they were prepared to risk their lives performing tasks such as evacuating the injured from no man’s land under intense fire.
Today, at the National Memorial Arboretum, their sacrifices are now duly noted and remembered at the Quaker Services Memorial.
Anthony Wilson, one of the trustees of the memorial, believes that it helps focus thoughts on the selfless acts performed by Quakers.
He says: “Two years before conscription came in there had been Quaker volunteers serving in France in the St John Ambulance on the front lines doing first aid work and, with the Friends War Relief Committee, with civilians who were suffering the consequences of war.
“When conscription came, the law had a very clear conscientious objection clause inserted at the behest of two Quaker Members of Parliament. It made it clear that a tribunal’s job was not to agree or disagree with a stance made by a conscientious objector (CO) but to look at the sincerity in which the belief was held. But local tribunals interpreted this in quite widely different ways.
“Some of them did take active notice of the wording of the act and were prepared to grant exemptions on the basis of belief, others were not. Some told COs they had to join up or face prison terms, which could be very harsh. One group of COs were taken from prison to France and told they were under military law and, when they still refused to fight, were threatened with the firing squad – and were only reprieved at the last minute.”
One of the problems was that many of the people going before tribunals were not COs at all.
“They might just be arguing that the family business couldn’t survive any more people being called up,” says Anthony. “The farm can’t complete the harvest, three of the four sons have joined up and been killed already, things like that.”
“It’s also true to say there was a remarkable difference in attitudes between the civilian population in this country and the military in the field in France. The military could see these people weren’t shirking and were willing to set out under fire just as other people were.”
Antony says there was much debate in Quaker circles as to the right stance to take.
“We didn’t want to have a uniform policy as Quakers are for too sensitive of individual concerns for that,” he says. “Some Quakers in the Second World War were prepared to join the forces, a few even on the combat side but not very many. There was also the non-combatant side of the forces and the Friends Ambulance Unit was prepared to work with the military – it had to really to be any use evacuating casualties - but remained an independent body.
“There were also people who said the state had no right to conscript people and they refused to serve in any of these ways and were known as absolutists. They expected to go to prison and did.
“It was a confused picture with individuals making agonising decisions.”
Anthony believes that by the Second World War attitudes had softened.
He says: “That was simply because of the sheer suffering of the COs in the First World War and the feeling of ‘what has the conflict been for anyway?’ It wasn’t the ‘war to end all wars’ as we all wished it had been. So COs were given a much more sympathetic understanding in the public mind in The Second World War. That’s despite the issues being more challenging for COs. Nazism was very different to imperial Germany. So it brought more questions to everybody.
“Nobody wanted to fight the First World War again and experience such misery in such a doubtful cause. The First World War was total war at an emotional level. Only 20 years later, the Second World War was a more reluctant acceptance that we had to do it again, heaven help us.”
Today, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has recognised conscientious objection as a human right and many countries with conscription do have relevant clauses.
However, in some countries, COs still face long-term imprisonment.
Anthony says: “It’s the case in Israel, Turkey and Greece. Germany post-war had a very large number of COs which was an interesting development after the Nazi period. So the state had to organise a very large civilian service for 18-19 year old men who weren’t prepared to go into the army. They had the highest proportion of COs of any Western European country.”