in Britain in World War Two

Before they even got to a tribunal, COs had to register (at their local job centre, then called the Employment Exchange), just as men had to register for military service. 'It took a lot of courage,' said teacher and writer Edward Blishen. Edward came from a long line of soldier ancestors. His father had served in the trenches in the First World War, from which he returned wounded, suffering from shell shock, and silent about his experiences. 'He wasn't sympathetic to pacifists. He felt that if he had fought a war, then I ought to fight a war as well.' But Edward read some of the now-famous books revealing the horrors of the First World War, and realised 'I can't be somebody who does that to someone else'. He became a CO. Registration was an uncomfortable experience. 'Everybody was declaring themselves at one counter, and there was this other forlorn counter for you to declare you weren't going to join in. It felt as though you were separating yourself from the rest of the world.'

Insurance agent Len Richardson was a staunch member of a Christian brotherhood. He believed that modern Christians, like the earliest, should refuse to fight. He registered as a CO, and despite the strength of his belief, he still 'hardly dared glance round for fear of seeing any of my old friends from school and the Rugby field'. His work, which he carried on while waiting for his tribunal, took him to many households, and he found it hard having to explain why he wasn't going to war 'to people whose sons and husbands had already gone'. 'The sense of being an outcast, disliked and ridiculed, is one of the greatest crosses a CO has to endure.'

Walter Wright was a civil servant who had problems with his conscience. 'So many of my friends were being called up: was I letting them down? Was I letting my country down?' he wondered. So he registered for military service - and soon decided that 'I'd given in to weakness'. He re-registered as a CO.
Tom Carlile was fiercely opposed to Nazism and fascism. His objection was to conscription: he didn't think the state should have the right to tell him whom or where he should kill on its behalf. He refused to register altogether. He wrote to the authority to tell them so, and why. He was provisionally registered as a CO (and later turned down by his tribunal, which he didn't attend).

There were other men whose occupations were 'reserved': jobs which were useful and important enough to exempt them from being called up. Strong-minded objectors weren't happy with this: though exempt, they registered as COs and prepared to take the consequences. One, a chemical laboratory worker, said 'In view of my firm opposition to the war and the war machine, not having to register seemed like a cop-out.' Yet others, who like Tom Carlile were opponents of conscription, refused to register but made sure the authorities knew about it. | continue


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