in Britain in World War Two

The war ended in 1945, but it wasn't until 1947 that the last servicemen and COs were gradually released from their duties (or their prisons).

Some COs stayed, if only for a while, in the work they'd been doing; many of those who'd been doing social work went on to make it their career. Some went back to their pre-war occupations, where there was nothing like the hostility that had dogged COs after the First World War. What had become clear in the Second World War was that civilians, as well as soldiers, had, as never before, become involved in the conflict, whatever their feelings about it. Indeed, some soldiers had become COs themselves in the course of the war, and a few COs had become combatants.

In Britain conscription continued as 'National Service', requiring men of 18 to spend two years full time in one of the armed forces, followed by three and a half years in the reserves with recall once a year for refresher courses. It was also possible to opt for learning Russian (thought useful for intelligence work). Some men were sent to new wars in Malaya, Korea and Suez, adding more names to the death roll of war.

Meanwhile the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors continued its work on behalf of the 10,000 further COs who registered (some of them also went to prison) before conscription was finally abolished in 1960. The last conscripts were discharged in 1963.

The CBCO also worked on behalf of men kept on the reserve list after the Second World War and recalled to fight in Korea and Suez. Many of these men, having seen war at first hand, felt they could no longer take part in it. To this day the Peace Pledge Union is recognised by the Ministry of Defence as the CBCO's successor, helping men and women of the armed forces who, though they joined up by choice, come to think differently about war and seek the status of CO and legal discharge for that reason.

In other European countries, where conscription on the National Service model had existed since it was introduced in France at the time of the Revolution, conscientious objection only began to be recognised in the 1970s, and in too many outside Europe is still not recognised at all. Abolishing conscription only began (in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example) in the 1990s.

Where conscription is gradually being phased out around the world it's a sign that warfare has not so much withered as merely changed. War is now an ever more technological procedure, needing fewer fighters but vaster expenditure on sophisticated so-called 'precision' weapons, and a continued threat to civilians everywhere.

The role and importance of the conscientious objector, therefore, hasn't disappeared. People refuse to pay taxes for new war machinery. They protest against military sites. They refuse to take jobs in research and development of weapons. In 1987 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights recognised 'the right of everyone to have conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right of freedom, thought, and religion'. Similar resolutions have been adopted by the Council of Europe, and also by the European Parliament which in 1983 stated: 'No court or commission can penetrate the conscience of an individual, and a declaration setting out each individual's motives must therefore suffice in a majority of cases to secure the status of a conscientious objector'.

In 1940 a policeman came to arrest a 20-year old student who'd registered as a CO. The policeman watched the young man sort out his possessions, lock them away in his college room, and write a note to a friend saying what had happened. Then they walked to the nearest bus-stop together, deep in conversation. 'I can't understand you blokes,' said the policeman. 'You all seem to know exactly what you're doing. Who tells you what to say and do?' 'We make up our own minds,' the student told him.

A retired librarian, looking back on his wartime experience as a young CO working with the Friends Relief Service, said: 'I'm never certain that one changes anything but oneself. But I felt then and I feel now that any change in oneself must have, somewhere, some effect on other people.'

Fenner Brockway, a leading CO during the First World War, said at the end of the Second: 'I think far-seeing people would say that the life of the community has been enriched by its COs. The conscientious objector has stood for eternally desirable values when they were threatened with suppression, and the world is a less evil place because they have done so.'

But he also added: 'The conscientious objector has no right to reject war in the present unless he spends his life in helping to make a future without war.' Many men and women are doing just that, and welcome anyone of any age who wants to join them.


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