World War Two - Britain
- 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
World War One - Britain
At the beginning of the war, and especially after heavy losses or an air raid, COs came in for accusations of being, among other things, cowards, selfish, irresponsible, pro-Nazi and dangerous to society. George Orwell called them 'fascists' and 'ignorant'.
Len Richardson was nervous when he set out for his alternative service work in a market garden: 'I'd heard tales of what had happened to COs on the land: some, a friend of mine was one of them, had been beaten up, and others had been thrown in the village pond.'
Thinking it was for the cause, Cecil Davies let himself be photographed for the Daily Express. He received a deluge of post, most of it abusive. 'Somebody had cut out the photograph, wiped their bottom on it and sent it off in an envelope. Not very pleasant.' A friend of Cecil's, Maurice Frost, was a printer who did a lot of work for the Freemasons. Cecil recalled: 'When Maurice registered as a CO the Masons ruined his business; his church, the Methodists, told him he could no longer teach in the Sunday School'. Another man was publicly prayed for in his church because he refused to fight. (Some churches, however, were very supportive.)
Rosalind and Ewart Rusbridge were teachers in Swansea, where the Council was persuaded by local opinion to suspend or sack any employees who were COs. Teachers had to sign a statement saying 'I hereby solemnly and sincerely declare that I am not a conscientious objector or a member of the Peace Pledge Union....I wholeheartedly support the vigorous prosecution of the war'. Rosalind and Ewart refused to sign and had to find other work. In all, 19 County Councils sacked their COs. Some teachers were granted exemption by their tribunals on condition that they remained in their jobs, only to find themselves sacked the next day by their local Council employers.
Ernest Beavor, a Jehovah's Witness CO, went from house to house pointing out that the Bible expressly forbids killing. 'The supreme command is to love your neighbour, but how can you love him if you kill him?' He faced some aggression. 'Many people would say to us, "My son's fighting for the likes of you", and we'd say, "No indeed he's not". They'd say, "If everyone was like you, Hitler would be here", and we'd say, "If everybody was like us, Hitler wouldn't have an earthly chance".'
As the war progressed, however, some of the abuse declined. COs who were in prison were forgotten. Those who weren't showed their willingness to help wherever their consciences would allow it, from bomb disposal and fire-fighting to medical, social and rescue work. Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin remarked: 'There are thousands of cases in which COs, although they have refused to take up arms, have shown as much courage as anyone else in Civil Defence.' Some of that courage was also shown in the way they faced the consequences of living by their principles. continue...