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Their enemy was war itself

31 October 2014

Although the Churches largely supported the First World War, many individual Christians did not. Tim Wyatt tells the story of some conscientious objectors


A conscientious objector, a former Sunday-school superintendent, uses his spade as a protest banner in 1917

A conscientious objector, a former Sunday-school superintendent, uses his spade as a protest banner in 1917

"YOUR country needs you," the famous First World War recruitment posters said, a stern, moustachioed Lord Kitchener pointing at every British man walking past who had not enlisted. As with the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, England expected every man to fight, and perhaps die, for King and country. But what if your primary duty was to God?

Bert Brocklesby, a schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher, was 25 years old when the Great War broke out. A staunch pacifist, from Conisborough, in South Yorkshire, he immediately began campaigning against the war.

Although two of his brothers had joined up, he decried the conflict from the pulpit and to anyone who would listen: "However many might volunteer, yet I would not," he said. "God had not put me on earth to go destroying his own children."

But, in 1916, as volunteering fervour subsided and the attritional war entered its third year, the Government was forced to introduce conscription. Brocklesby sought exemption as one of the conscientious objectors, or "conchies" as they were known. The chairman of his local Military Service Tribunal found his faith puzzling.

"If I hit you, would you not hit me back?" he asked.

"No," Brocklesby replied.

"Then suppose the Germans got here, and those dear to you were in danger, would you stand by and see them ripped to pieces, and not raise a sword in opposition?"

"I would certainly not strike them down. No man is justified in taking life."

Denying his appeal for a full exemption, the tribunal told Brocklesby to join the Non-Combatant Corps, an army unit set up for conscientious objectors to work on non-military projects. He refused.

Even the act of sewing coal sacks for the Navy or peeling potatoes for soldiers furthered the war effort, he believed. Instead, he was imprisoned in Richmond Castle, with 15 other objectors.

Fed on a diet of bread and water, and kept in solitary confinement, Brocklesby kept his spirits up by placing a picture of his girlfriend, Annie, on the cell wall, and by etching biblical texts. When several months of this harsh regime failed to alter the conscientious objectors' stance, the Army decided on a different method.

IN JUNE 1916, a group of 36 conscientious objectors, including Brocklesby, were shipped to France. There, on the battlefield, they were technically on active service; so their refusal to fight meant that they could be court-martialled. Brocklesby's brother Philip, then a Second Lieutenant in the army, slipped away from his camp in France, and eventually found that his brother was being tried in Boulogne.

He arrived just in time to hear the verdict read out. "Tried by court martial and found guilty . . . ," the judgment began. There was a pause. "Sentenced to death by shooting. . ." Another pause. "This sentence has been confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief, but afterwards commuted by him to one of penal servitude for ten years."

Bert was taken back to prison in Britain, while Philip went on to fight in the Battle of the Somme. Shortly afterwards, Philip wrote home to his parents: "Love war? Not I, after these experiences. Long horrible wars like this one are one of the strongest arguments for conscientious objectors."

While Philip Brocklesby may have felt a growing sympathy for Bert and his pacifism, British society did not. The conscientious objectors' arrival back in Winchester coincided with the departure of a train filled with troops for the Front. Brocklesby recalled how the crowd turned on the group, shouting insults and hissing at them. Brocklesby merely sang hymns to himself.

Serving in civilian prisons, he still refused any work that was connected to the military. A prison chaplain told him he was a "disgrace to humanity". He served out the rest of the war in prison, and was released in 1919.

Dramatic though it may be, Bert Brocklesby's story is just one of many. Up to 16,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors, and a significant number of these were motivated by their faith. Many were Quakers, but there were also Methodists, Congregationalists, and Anglicans, among others. Most of the conscientious objectors clung to the finality of the Sixth Commandment - "Thou shalt not kill" - as the only justification they needed.

BRITAIN may have considered itself a Christian country, but much of the nation did not recognise a Christianity that precluded warfare. The Military Service Tribunals that adjudicated the claims of conscientious objectors were notoriously harsh, and often concluded that men were cowards, or shirkers.

Of the 16,000 men recorded as conscientious objectors, 4500 were sent to do non-military work of national importance, such as farming. A further 7000 were given non-combatant duties; but 6000 were forced into the Army, and, if they refused orders, were sent to prison.

In August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather, which sought to shame men who had not volunteered. Women were encouraged to give unenlisted men a single white feather - a token of their presumed cowardice. Many were sent such a feather in the post; often the only evidence required was that they were in civilian dress.

The scheme was notoriously haphazard. Hundreds of feathers were given by mistake to soldiers who were on leave, to the point where the Army was forced to issue to soldiers on leave, and workers in state industries, lapel badges that read "King and Country", meaning that they were not cowards. None the less, white feathers heaped further pain on the heads of conscientious objectors.

Ardent Christian supporters of the war were given support by church leaders such as the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram. In one famous sermon, Winnington-Ingram said: "Everyone that loves freedom and honour . . . are banded in a great crusade . . . to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends."

The ferocity of his call to arms was unusual, but the Church generally supported the war, and mostly found conscientious objection hard to understand.


BUT the picture was not a straightforward one of a uniformly militarist Church against staunchly pacifist Nonconformists. As there was division among Anglicans, so the Christian pacifist movement was divided at the start of the First World War. Some, like Bert Brocklesby, were so-called absolutists - so opposed to conflict that they would refuse to do any work that could be construed as aiding the war effort.

Others, however, were prepared to do some kind of alternative service. One such avenue for this was the Friends' Ambulance Unit (FAU), which was set up in 1914 by a Quaker and later Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Philip Baker.

These volunteers worked on the front line in France, ferrying wounded soldiers back to hospitals. In its first year alone, the FAU carried 15,000 injured troops in its ambulances, besides caring for 1600 in-patients at its four hospitals.

Other Quakers established the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, which did humanitarian work - sometimes across the battle lines - in Europe.

Still others, although they were devout Quakers, joined up to fight. A mark of the division within the Christian pacifist movement was the statement released by the Society of Friends three days after war had been declared: "While, as a Society, we stand firmly to the belief that the method of force is no solution of any question, we hold that the present moment is not one for criticism, but for devoted service to our nation."

The prevarication reflected the concerns within Quakerism about how to respond to the conflict, and what to do about the several hundred Quakers who had already volunteered for the armed forces.

Sometimes - as they had with the Brocklesby brothers - these divisions cut across individual families. Thomas Attlee, an architect and socialist activist in east London, was an Anglican who felt obliged not to fight. He was arrested, and imprisoned from 1917 to 1919. Yet his younger brother Clement, who would later go on to lead the Labour Party and serve as Prime Minister, joined up and fought throughout the war.

Correspondence between the two shows a remarkable lack of strain on their relationship, despite their opposing views on the war. Cath Attlee, Thomas's granddaughter, believes that it was his faith that drove him towards being an objector, while Clement was a more nominal believer. Nevertheless, their parents supported each son in his convictions.


THERE was a similar story in the Cadbury family. The chocolate empire had been founded by Quakers, but, in 1914, one son, Egbert, joined the Royal Flying Corps. Another, Laurence, could not go against his conscience, and instead signed up to the FAU.

Letters between the two reveal a kinship and deep respect for each other, Ruth Cadbury, one of their descendants, said. "Neither men were 100 per cent sure that they had done the right thing."

The Military Service Act of 1916, which led to so much trouble for conscientious objectors, was, in fact, the beginning of a movement towards acceptance of pacifists in times of war. It was the first time that a process had been laid out in law whereby conscripts could object on grounds of their conscience (although Quakers had been excluded from military service in the 18th century).

By 1939, when conscription was reintroduced in the war against Nazi Germany, the tribunals were led by judges, not military men, and it was relatively straightforward to be granted an exemption if your faith prohibited military service. Today, even volunteer soldiers have the right to change their minds, become conscientious objectors, and be discharged.

The heated rhetoric and divided families of 100 years ago have disappeared. Contemporary relatives of objectors speak of their pride at their ancestors' sacrifices. Ruth Cadbury said that she was glad to share the Quaker faith of her great-uncle, Laurence Cadbury, a conscientious objector: "I do feel proud - I'm also a Quaker, and what they did was a demonstration of the faith I share. I would have done something similar to them - if there wasn't the equivalent of an FAU, I would have probably sought to start one."


CATH ATTLEE always wears two poppies on Remembrance Day - a red one for her mother's father, who died in France during the war, and a white one for her paternal grandfather, Thomas, who was imprisoned for refusing to fight. For herself, she is torn.

"I can see the faith argument which says there is no situation in which taking up arms is the right thing; but then, when you get into real life, it's quite difficult; if [people] are being oppressed and justice is being damaged - is there another way of doing it? We need people to stand up against war, but it is a very brave decision, and may not always be the right one."

Both women were speaking at an annual service held on 15 May, International Conscientious Objectors Day, in Tavistock Square, central London, to commemorate those who said no to Lord Kitchener's call. This year's event, 100 years after the outbreak of conflict, had the largest attendance for many years.

In a quiet, moving ceremony, relatives of dozens of conscientious objectors from the First World War read aloud their ancestors' names before laying a single white flower down in the square. Afterwards, the crowd sang a simple song:

Yes, it takes courage to march into battle,
Go where authority tells you to go,
Whether as butchers or lambs to the slaughter:
Courage no less had the ones who said No,
Courage no less had the ones who said No.


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