in Britain in World War Two

Dennis Waters' story
'I came from a very normal background. I was the oddball. I was a member of the Church of England but I'd always had this strong feeling about the rights of the individual conscience. I joined the PPU and went to some of their meetings, and met people who thought the same as me - including my wife: she was a pacifist before I was. I've always held the view that the state doesn't have the right to force an individual into doing something his innermost conscience tells him is wrong. The example Christ set was nonviolence: war is wrong.'

Dennis's tribunal registered him to join the army as a non-combatant. The police had to arrest him to get him there. 'The army has no time for round pegs in square holes, and we were exactly that. We didn't drill properly, we didn't do anything properly, we didn't carry weapons, we were a damned nuisance.' They refused to obey army officers' orders, too. Dennis was court-martialled and sent to prison.

'But before that there was this business of being beaten up. Four of us wouldn't agree to do non-combatant duties. There was this sergeant, an ex-wrestler from the London docks, and he exercised every kind of pressure, including physical violence, to make us change our minds. One morning he beat four of us up. My instinctive reaction was one of rage: here was this man brutalising us and getting away with it. But I knew that if I lifted a finger against him, he'd have it his way. So I didn't do anything. I accepted his blows. Then he went stomping off, and I heard him doing the same thing in the next room.'

Dennis was able to tell their story to a sympathetic officer. 'He'd joined up quite recently because of the war, a decent, kindly man. He had us examined by a doctor.' Some of their guards were COs from the NCC, who were also sympathetic. 'They used to post letters for us, that was the way we got the news out.' One letter went to the Central Board for COs in London, and the matter was raised in the House of Commons. The sergeant was court-martialled for ill-treating COs, but was acquitted, since no other officers were prepared to give witness statements. 'I remember thinking, well, if this is army justice they can stuff it. But in fact because of the questions in Parliament they took him off duty over us - they didn't want any more trouble. Whenever we saw him in the town afterwards he was always bawling and shouting.'

The four men who had been beaten up were also court-martialled, for disobeying orders. They were not acquitted. 'They used to find the dirtiest and most humiliating jobs for us to do. I spent a lot of time on my knees scrubbing floors. On two occasions all they could find for us to do was scrub drops of whitewash off lumps of coal.'

After three spells of military detention, Dennis was sent to Wandsworth, a civilian prison, and allowed to go before an Appeal Tribunal. He was at last given conditional exemption to do agricultural work.

'One likes to feel that one belongs to one's peer group, and if you aren't it's most uncomfortable and you've got to come to terms with it. The long-term effect of being despised by one's contemporaries can be very depressing. I wouldn't like to have to do it again. But there are times when you know for sure that there's something you can't and won't do. I had that certainty then, and I hope I'll always be able to have it.' | continue


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