in Britain during the First World War


World War One conscientious objectors


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

World War Two - Britain



Though he was against the war, Horace Eaton wanted to help the wounded and suffering. He took a training course with the St John's Ambulance corps and tried to join the RAMC. He was turned down because he hadn't yet taken any examinations, and at that point conscription was introduced. 'It was the greatest crisis in my life, and only those called on to face a similar issue or problem can realise the terrible weight of responsibility one felt, and above all the anxiety to do what was right.' He looked for support from the church, but 'so many in the Christian church supported the war and in fact some ministers and members were very good recruiting agents'.

Horace finally decided that he would do anything he could as long as it did not involve killing or helping to kill. He agreed to join the army's Non-Combatant Corps. It meant that he also had to agree to wear soldier's uniform, but that didn't stop him admiring the uncompromising stand of the 'absolutists' he met who refused to wear uniform despite attempts to force them, and their determined resistance to military bullying.

The daily work of the NCC at Richmond Castle, where Horace was based, was to support combatant troops. 'We had various duties to perform - sometimes assisting to build stables and other times cleaning out various places in the town (Darlington) for soldiers' billets.' Problems arose when their work brought the CO non-combatants too close to military matters: 'Part of our company was sent to the railway station to unload a van for another company of soldiers. They moved almost everything except some rifles and ammunition and these they refused to handle.' This difficulty occurred frequently, perhaps not surprisingly considering that the NCC was army-run.

The men in the NCC had relative freedom, as did the 4,000 or so who'd gained partial exemption on condition that they did civilian work. These were to be found all over the country, driving ambulances, on forestry projects, working as hospital orderlies, and helping on the land. Since most of them were not manual labourers in peacetime, like the hard-labourers in prison they found the work tough. As COs and pacifists, they also often met hostility and contempt from their employers. However, there was one advantage of freedom which they were keen to exploit. 'On our railway journeys we always had ample opportunity for explaining our stand as COs. Thus we were enlightening others - and were usually given a fair hearing.' (Not always: one young preacher got into earnest conversation with a young woman, asked for her address and sent her a leaflet. In a chilly reply she said it was 'real' soldiers she admired, and 'if heaven was inhabited by conscientious objectors she had no wish to go there'.)

'Wherever we go,' said Horace Eaton, 'at first we're looked upon as some special, suspicious kind of beings, but when people get to know us we're generally respected. We are certainly bearing testimony to our beliefs, and hope others will be determined to stand for peace and against bloodshed and war.'

These brave, committed men and their experiences were to make an essential contribution to the advance of penal reform, the growth of the peace movement, and the establishment of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors - of whom, next time around, there were 60,000 more.






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