in Britain during the SecondWorld War


World War Two march against conscription


World War Two - Britain

- introduction
- conscription
- registration
- tribunals
- facing hostility
- Dennis Waters' story
- Joyce Allen's story
- Tom Carlile's story
- Bernard Hicken's story
- Walter Wright's story
- Leonard Bird's story
- Bernard Nicholls' story
- COs abroad
- afterwards

World War One - Britain



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.


It didn't take long for COs and their supporters to identify the character of each tribunal. Some were ready to grant full exemption, others seldom did. Some thought only religious reasons could be genuinely associated with a 'conscience', others were prepared to listen to a well-expressed intellectual argument. Some were noticeably more lenient in the afternoons, after a good lunch. All liked applicants to bring a reputable witness with them, or letters of support from people such as a lawyer, a union representative, a priest; one CO brought an army colonel (who happened to be her father). They also liked COs to have impressive CVs, with experience or careers in social work, humanitarian activities, church projects, medicine; this was tough on young people not old enough to have established a career, or whose jobs were manual or mechanical and left little time for community-minded activities. In particular, the attitude of each tribunal chairman was crucial. It wasn't surprising that the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors set up mock tribunals to give some of the applicants a chance to practise answering difficult questions.

And it wasn't surprising that the tribunals often based their decisions almost entirely on personal reactions to the people who stood on trial - which is what it seemed like - before them. As one CO said, 'How can you prove you've got a conscience?' Student Cecil Davies' statement to his tribunal was, he said, 'very intellectual, though it was meant to be passionate, saying that the individual human being was the only holder of values such as beauty, truth, goodness, and to destroy human beings was to destroy those ultimate values too'. One of the tribunal members suggested alternative service. 'No,' said the chairman, 'If we give him that he'll refuse' - and gave Cecil unconditional exemption. A London man, Ken Shaw, told his tribunal that 'war was so obviously wrong and foolish and self-destructive that no sensible person could support it': his case was thrown out. Ken Shaw's view was that 'it should have been the people who were fighting the war who were explaining their attitude to me', not the other way round. 'But once war starts rationality and rational behaviour go out of the window.'

Some of the COs must have genuinely baffled their tribunals. More than one man, discovering that being a Quaker often meant full exemption, told tribunals they didn't want to be judged by their religious views. Their listeners couldn't grasp that this was a way of expressing solidarity with people of other religions, or none, who weren't being exempted. Another CO asked to be assigned to the Friends Ambulance Unit, and was indignant when he was ordered to continue his comfortable scientific work: 'I can't do that. While I'm there my friends are dying.' Others like him actually gave up their 'reserved' jobs to continue the struggle for full exemption, whatever punishment they faced, in support of the CO cause.

Equally, some of the tribunals left applicants speechless. An architect CO was asked 'Do you think building a bridge is more important than mending a man's arm?' One tribunal member demanded that each applicant must name all twelve of Jesus' followers, the apostles, and questioned the sincerity of the case if he couldn't do it. Another exclaimed, 'Even God isn't a pacifist - he kills us all in the end.' Just as in the First World War applicants were caught by the repeated question 'What would you do if an enemy soldier tried to rape your sister?', so this time around the catch question was: 'Is your objection to the taking of a human life?' (The sincerity of this basic objection was tested by such questions as 'If you object to taking life, why aren't you vegetarian?') If, explained one CO who faced this dilemma, 'they could pin you down to that, they could bring you into the military machine for non-combatant duties: you didn't take lives there. But I objected to being part of the whole process that led to killing. It was as though you were shown to be objecting to the unpleasant part of war and opting for the easier parts. I failed to get the tribunal to understand what my real point of view was.'  continue...








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