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The forgotten struggle

Symon Hill

In the marking of the WW1 centenary, many will pay tribute to those who fought and died in combat. Symon Hill believes it's also time to honour the bravery of the pacifists punished for refusing to take up arms in the first place.


It was 28th July 1914. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. The world waited for Germany, Russia, France and Britain to join in.

Jean Jaures, leader of the French Socialist Party, stood at a rally in Brussels with his arm around Hugo Haase, co-chair of the German Social Democrats. They pledged that they would not go to war. Whatever the ruling classes might do, they said, the working class must refuse to fight. The British socialist leader Keir Hardie called for an international general strike against war.

Three days later, Jean Jaures was dead. He was shot by a pro-war French student in a Paris restaurant. Hugo Haase lost a vote within the German Social Democrats, and the party's members backed funding for the war. In Britain, the majority of Labour MPs supported the war. Keir Hardie died the next year, supposedly from a broken heart.



The war had mass support, at least at the beginning. But resistance continued. In Britain, over 6,000 people were imprisoned for opposing the war. Most were conscientious objectors to conscription, but a number were locked up for illegal campaigning.

Joan Beauchamp was sent to jail for her role as editor of the underground anti-war newspaper, The Tribunal. Violet Tillard was imprisoned for refusing to tell the authorities where The Tribunal was printed. William Holliday was given three months hard labour after insisting that the real enemies of British workers were not German workers but the ruling class. He died before his release. Edith Ellis served two months for publishing a pamphlet without submitting it to the censor1.

As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of war, it is right that we remember the millions of soldiers killed, on all sides. But it's vital that we do not forget the stories of those who said no.



Many of these stories are remarkable. Take Harold Bing. Aged 16 at the outbreak of war, he walked eleven miles to join an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square - and 11 miles home again2.

Two years later, conscription was introduced for men aged 18-40. Conscientious objectors (COs) had to appear before a tribunal. Bing, who had just turned 18, was told by the tribunal chairman that he was too young to have a conscience. Many hearings were similarly biased. A sculptor was accused of being insincere because he might one day make a war memorial. An atheist CO was told that atheists don't have consciences3.

The atheist was unusual; most COs cited religious motivation. There were many Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses and Plymouth Brethren, alongside plenty from mainstream churches. Many imprisoned pacifists sang both Christian hymns and socialist songs. They insisted that being human was more important than being British. Most church leaders and socialist politicians backed war, but they had not carried all their members with them.

John Brocklesby, a Wesleyan Methodist preacher from South Yorkshire, watched people signing up with dismay. He insisted, 'Whatever any other man felt he must do, God had not put me on the earth to go destroying his own children'4.



Other religious objectors had to fight with their own fear. Jack Foister, a socialist and Primitive Methodist, struggled to keep calm as he awaited arrest. 'I would have counted it shame if I had not experienced misery at the thought of separation from all friends and all kin,' he wrote. 'I swallowed my grief... I had made a firm decision that come what may nothing would make me become a soldier, nor an indirect supporter of the war.'5

Tribunals that recognised an objector's sincerity could order him to join the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC), an army unit that did not carry weapons but did background work to help the war effort. While thousands joined it (particularly Plymouth Brethren), others believed that helping the prosecution of the war was morally equivalent to fighting. Many objected to obeying military orders and swearing allegiance to the king.

Once a tribunal had ordered someone to join the army, he technically belonged to it and was deemed to be disobeying orders if he did not co-operate. Thousands of COs went through a cat-and-mouse game of arrest, release and re-arrest. They would be forcibly taken to an army barracks, ordered to parade or put on uniform, refuse to do so, be given a number of days in the cells and then the whole thing would begin again.



Some went further than others: Harry Stanton, a working class Quaker from Luton, refused even to participate in the medical exam and had to be physically held still as the medics measured him (they gave up when it came to the eye test)6.

Such events were particularly frequent in the early days of conscription, when the government underestimated the level of resistance. The army did not know how to deal with these people. 'We tame lions here!' yelled a sergeant at Frank Beaumont, a CO imprisoned in Pontefract barracks. 'Can you make lambs fierce?' asked Beaumont7.

Sometimes, the authorities asked clergy to change the prisoners' minds. Two priests were sent to persuade Alfred Evans, a Catholic CO, to give in. Evans stood firm, telling them, 'No minister of religion is greater than his master'8.

A chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs told John Hoare, an Anglican, that if he joined up he could have an influence for Christ in the army. 'I pointed out,' wrote Hoare in his diary, 'that it would not be much use extending the sphere of my influence... if I could only do it by a deliberate sacrifice of principle that would make my influence completely non-existent'9.



In spring 1916, the army decided to take things further. The punishment for disobedience in Britain was imprisonment. But disobedience on 'active service'was punishable by death. Dozens of COs were shipped to France, where the army was determined that they would either give in, or be shot.

Once again, the army had underestimated the pacifists. 'For my part, they can take me where they will,' said John Brocklesby to his fellow COs, 'even into the front line trenches, but they will never get me to raise my hand against my fellow man.'10

There were 35 COs imprisoned near Boulogne when the army decided to hold a court-martial for the four alleged ringleaders. They were then led on to a parade ground in front of thousands of troops. Howard Marten, a Quaker from London, was the first to be called out. An officer declared that he had been found guilty and said, 'The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot'.

Two strange things happened in quick succession. Firstly, Marten had a spiritual experience. 'On that parade ground... I was part of something much bigger outside myself,' he explained. 'I was part of something that I couldn't explain. There was something mystical about it. It was very strange.'11

Secondly, after a long pause, the officer added that the sentence had been 'commuted to penal servitude for ten years'.

Unknown to the COs, word had reached Britain of what was going on, and the government had been lobbied to intervene. Howard Marten died in 1981. He was 96.



Late in 1916, the government tried to deal with the large number of COs by setting up 'work centres' where COs could carry out work of 'national importance' as an alternative to fighting.

The scheme was mocked by both 'absolutist' pacifists and the political right. The Daily Mail described COs in the Dartmoor work centre as 'Dartmoor Do-Nothings'. The local vicar refused the COs entry to his church12.

Many 'alternativist' COs soon gave up on the scheme. 'It was ridiculous to call it work of national importance,' said Percy Leonard, a Congregationalist CO at Wakefield Work Centre. 'In fact it was work of no importance at all.'13. Many became so frustrated that they voluntarily returned to prison.

Some pacifists had already found their own alternative work. In 1914, a pacifist group travelled to France to work with refugees under the auspices of the Friends' War Victims Relief Committee. More controversially, the Friends' Ambulance Unit (FAU) worked with wounded soldiers. The FAU brought healing to thousands. At the same time, it was accused of freeing up other men to go and fight and thus helping the war. The controversy caused bitter division within the peace movement in general and Quakers in particular. It's a reminder that pacifists struggle with moral dilemmas as much as anyone else.



Ten COs died in jail while at least 60 died shortly afterwards from the conditions they experienced there14. The number is small compared to the unimaginable millions killed in the war that pacifists tried to stop. It's important to remember that stopping the war was their aim. Pacifism is not a passive refusal to help others. It is, as Joan Beauchamp put it, 'an active protest against what we consider the greatest evil in the world, and our method of protesting is to refuse to acquiesce by a single act or deed.'15

Beauchamp makes a good point. Now, as then, the first step to stopping something is to refuse to participate in it.

War resistance was not confined to Britain. Over a thousand German women protested outside the Reichstag in 1915. A metal workers' strike in Berlin the following year was triggered by the imprisonment of anti-war campaigner Karl Liebknecht. Anti-war sentiment played a key role in the uprisings that ousted the royal rulers of Russia, Germany and Austria. The French government only narrowly survived a string of mutinies in 1917. The US socialist Eugene Debs was still in jail for his anti-war campaigning when he received a million votes in the presidential election of 1920 16.


How can we remember World War One without even mentioning these events? How can we speak of the role of religion in the war without acknowledging those whose faith led them to resist it?

We remember the past because it affects the present and the future. Conscientious objectors are still imprisoned around the world, from South Korea to Israel. In the UK, a significant percentage of our tax goes to fund spending on war and preparations for war. Engineers who conscientiously object to working in the arms industry find their career prospects reduced. A national primary school roadshow, supposedly to promote science, is run by the Royal Air Force and the arms company BAE Systems17. Children are presented with a military mindset before they are old enough to choose.

Our bodies are no longer conscripted in the UK. Our minds and money are conscripted instead.

Resisting this is difficult and messy. Let's learn from those in the First World War who chose to turn the other cheek - and to show their defiance as it was hit.

Harry Stanton, having undergone imprisonment, torture and a death sentence - all before his 22nd birthday - described his feelings when the sentence was commuted. He was, he said, proud and joyful to be 'one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world had not yet grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance'18.

We will remember them.



1 For more details of people imprisoned for anti-war campaigning, see Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars (Macmillan 2011)

2 Harold Bing, quoted in Voices Against War, edited by Lyn Smith (Mainstream, 2010)

3 These examples, and many others, are quoted by Will Ellsworth- Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

4 John Brocklesby, Escape From Paganism (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Friends House Library, London)

5 Quoted by Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

6 Harry Stanton, Will You March Too? (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Leeds University Library)

7 Quoted by John Brocklesby, Escape From Paganism (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Friends House Library, London)

8 Quoted by Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

9 John Hoare, A Pacifist's Progress: Papers from the first world war, edited by Richard J Hoare (Sessions, 1998)

10 John Brocklesby, Escape From Paganism (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Friends House Library, London)

11 Howard Marten, White Feather: The experiences of a pacifist in France and elsewhere (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Leeds University Library)

12 According to John Hoare, A Pacifist's Progress: Papers from the first world war, edited by Richard J Hoare (Sessions, 1998)

13 Quoted by Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

14 Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

15 Quoted by Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold story of world war one's conscientious objectors (Aurum, 2008)

16 For more on international opposition to the war, see Not Our War: Writings against the first world war, edited by A.W. Zurbrugg (Merlin, 2014)

17 William McLennan, 'Christian school's headteacher defends visit from firm that makes weapons as Marylebone author hits out at those "who use science for warfare"', West End Extra, 6 March 2014

18 Harry Stanton, Will You March Too? (Unpublished memoirs, stored at Leeds University Library)