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It’s a rare surprise that you open the paper and see an article about your new job. I’d say it’s rarer still to find page after page of letters and comments attacking it. As the PPU’s new Objecting to War project officer, I’ll be focusing on the story of London-based Conscientious Objectors during the First World War and, from the coverage provided in most of the newspaper articles, I’ll clearly have my work cut out trying to tell that story to people who’ve already decided not to listen. The papers screamed – one hundred years on! - that COs were “cowards” or “shirkers” who stayed at home, living life to the full, while other 'braver' men fought and died in France, Belgium and Turkey.

The soldiers they encountered would have written very different letters than those from the assorted Colonels and other august military men received by the Times and Telegraph. 'I wish I had your bloody guts' is a common refrain in the diaries of soldiers and statesmen who encountered COs as men, rather than as statistics. What has been forgotten by the public about their story to make them “shirkers”?

Simply put, just about everything has been forgotten, and this needs to be rectified. One of the purposes of this project is to do just that – to tell the story of men (and women) who were committed to peace, to explain that the men who stood up and said “I will not kill” were not cowards, or lazy, or frightened. They were imprisoned and had their civil rights stripped away, they were beaten and tortured, force fed and in some cases sentenced to death. Some were, indirectly and directly, murdered. Even their friends, families and supporters were harassed and prosecuted, infiltrated by agent provocateurs and spied upon. In the face of the military and the government using every single means at their disposal to force, trick or coerce them into taking up arms, they refused, again and again. Even those faced with death stayed committed to their decision and their morality, even as their (commuted) sentence was announced.

It’s not only a story about resistance to violence, it’s a story about young men – some younger than I am today – who stood supported by a volatile mix of poets and philosophers, Quakers and atheists, suffragists and politicians, with an unshakable faith in the morality of their cause. It’s a story about bravery and commitment, enacted by local, everyday men who decided to stand up for what they believed in. In our world of wire taps and coercion where bureaucratic obstruction, racism, classism and espionage are used by the British Government to promote a foreign policy fuelled by war, it’s not just a historical story, but one of ever-increasing relevance to today.

How could anyone involved in all that be called a coward?

To make the most of this project, we at the PPU will need your help. We want to reach out to groups and individuals all around London who want to know more about conscientious objectors and who want to help spreading this story. We want to talk to local history groups and to schools and want to track down the evidence of the lives and memories of COs from the Greater London area. We want to spread knowledge and awareness of COs through exhibitions, lectures and walking tours of prominent sites. We want to remind people that the COs from London were people just like any other – they had lives and families, would have seen the same sights and walked down the same roads as anyone living in London today. We want to connect people to COs from their local area and reach out to everyone we can – even those determined not to listen.

Ben Copsey
October 2013.

To participate and find ourt more
Contact Ben at londoncos@ppu.org.uk

From a series of postcards produced by and in support of WW1 COs.

Refusing to Kill follows the story of conscientious objectors through the First WorldWar. From the moment they received call-up papers to the day they were released from prisons, army units and work camps they faced personal dilemmas, violence, humiliation and hardship. But they were admired by many.

Original letters, court-martial statements, diaries, documents and poetry bring their dramatic story of resistance to life. Also Ideal material for History, Citizenship and English at Key Stages 3 and 4.

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