World War One - Britain
   - conscription
   - unwilling soldiers
   - alternatives and dilemmas
   - prison
   - Harold Bing's story
   - the story of the Harwich
   - Mark Hayler's story
   - Dartmoor
   - Horace Eaton's story

Refusing to kill, available from the PPU.
                                          | more >

in Britain in World War One

Dartmoor prison was originally built for French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. At the end of 1916 it was reopened to house over 1,000 British COs and renamed 'Princetown Work Centre'. There was a mixture of 'religious groups of all kinds,' said Mark Hayler, 'from Plymouth Brethren down to anything from Salvation Army, Christian Scientists, and of course Methodists and Congregationalists. Not so many Church of England, because that was the establishment....The Bishop of Exeter refused us the use of the church in the prison. But if we'd been murderers we'd have had a free hand, and we could have sung God Save The King!'

200 of the COs were put to work inside the ex-prison's walls. The rest were sent out to the moors, either to farm (crushing grain) or to work in the quarry (carting granite) for 9 hours a day. In the midst of the moor the COs cleared a rectangular patch and built round it a 7-foot-high drystone wall. It had no use or purpose, and decades later was still known as 'Conchies Field'.

One of Dartmoor's thousand was Eric Dott, a young Scot from Edinburgh who would later become a GP. After solitary confinement in Wormwood Scrubs, Eric found Dartmoor refreshing. His cell ('which we prefer to call a room') wasn't locked; there was sufficient food, a library, a games room, a gymnasium. Concerts were arranged, conversation and debate were continual. 'I had to substitute self discipline for prison discipline!' said Eric. What he didn't enjoy was stone-breaking ('I was cold and desperately fed up') but doctors decreed that men wearing glasses shouldn't do such work: Eric went back to sewing mailbags in his 'room'. He admitted, 'You had to be fit to stand it. There were many older men and men with worries at home for whom it was very difficult. Those who weren't strong suffered - you slept on boards with only a thin mattress. And there was almost no medical treatment.'

By 1917 the comparative comfort of Dartmoor was arousing anger in the press, enraged that 'The Coddled Conscience Men' were 'Princetown's Pampered Pets'. An MP suggested they should be exchanged for wounded prisoners-of-war captive in Germany. In the House of Lords a Princetown visitor reported on the 'intellectual anarchy' he had found there. 'Why not send the conchies somewhere where they could be put in touch with enemy bombers? The dropping of a bomb might bring about a sudden conversion, or at least a truer view of the political situation.' Sometimes the prisoners were assaulted by resentful civilians.

The NCF's campaign against giving hard and futile manual work to clerks, doctors, painters, teachers, without adequate nourishment or clothing, was now stepped up. In November 1917 permission was won for men who had not broken any rules for 18 months to look for work with private employers.
| continue


Peace Pledge Union, 1 Peace Passage, London N7 0BT. Tel +44 (0)20 7424 9444   contact     |   where to find us