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ISSUE 72 WINTER 2015/6 Full pdf where are we now?

Peace Matters Index

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- signs and symbols
- what war whose memory?
- where are we now?
- over the top
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Some of the conscientious objectors and the women who suported them.

The Objecting to War Project came to the end of it’s second year - unbelievably - two years of research and outreach, coordinating volunteers, designing exhibitions and talking to as many people as possible about the courageous and principled Conscientious Objectors of the First World War.

Looking back on the project, it’s easy to tally up the talks and lectures (38), the education sessions (13), the public workshops (8) and the exhibitions (2), and see that in terms of talking to the public, we’ve worked hard and had a great deal of success. More people know more about the key questions of Conscientious Objection - the who, what, where, when and, crucially, why - than did when I wrote my first article for Peace Matters back in September 2013.

It’s harder to think about what we’ve learned on the project. Not just in how to work with partner organisations to produce great material on COs around London, but also what we know about the Objectors themselves. One of the great tasks of Objecting to War is research - finding the men and understanding their experiences so we can tell those stories to anyone who will listen. So what have we found, and what have we added to the CO story?

A major aim of Objecting to War was simply finding the COs themselves. Though separated by only 100 years from their decision to pit themselves against war and militarism, records are sketchy and incomplete at best and all too often missing entirely. The project has delved into archives and library collections around London and beyond, digging up the slightest hints to reveal new caches of information, new names and new experiences. We’ve added hundreds of new names to the list of Britain’s Conscientious Objectors, gathering information from sources as varied as previously inaccessible archives in major collections, local libraries, newspaper archives and even wikipedia. These new names come with new stories and new information, but often new challenges and inconsistencies, leading our Archivist, Bill and I to ferret out details like full names, dates of Tribunal hearings and length of prison sentences. This research work will never be finished, but we can be proud of the amazing work we’ve done, and our volunteers have done, finding these forgotten histories.

The sad corollary of these investigations is to reveal an ever growing list of Conscientious Objectors who died during the war. Whether finding men who died abroad while serving in non-combatant roles in the army, or in far flung parts of the world, finding these men is always tragic, but our research ensures they will not be forgotten.

Aside from the men themselves, the system of Conscientious Objection has been given more of the attention it deserves. Pieced together from individual biographies and official sources, some of the byzantine politics, economics and daily operation of the Government’s policies towards COs have been revealed. Of particular interest has been the Home Office Scheme - work camps set up for COs in 1916 - which has long been treated as a uniform system of punishment. Slowly, we’ve pieced together a more complex story where men had, at times, a surprising degree of freedom, held concerts and put on plays and were, in cases, treated not with hostility and suspicion, but open friendliness by the people of towns and villages around them.


We’ve revealed more about the process of becoming an objector and the complex decisions that led to men refusing, or indeed accepting, conscription. Even the CO organisations have not escaped scrutiny, and reviews like our monthly look at the No-Conscription Fellowship newspaper The Tribunal have revealed that the NCF was as factionalised and concerned with consensus politics as any organisation!
All of our research has led to an inescapable conclusion - the CO story isn’t as straightforward as we thought it was. Far from being unassailable paragons of pacifist virtue, who arrived at their conclusions swiftly and easily, held their heads high through all that the military and civil authorities could throw at them, their motivations and experiences were as complex as the situation they found themselves in. While a lot of our research has revealed the same stories - the Absolutist, the Alternativist, the Medical worker - they’ve been stories of men who arrived at similar conclusions in different ways, and vice versa. There wasn’t a single ‘CO story’ and there wasn’t a single party line. Even within close-knit communities of COs, or organisations, or among men that shared both experiences and motivations, there were complex difficulties and webs of loyalties and obligations that led men down different paths. Every story might seem the same, but the more that we find, the more we realise that every one is different.
The stories we’ve unearthed and the results of our research can be found on our website Remembering the Men Who Said No. It’s an endlessly expanding resource looking at COs in every way we can manage, telling stories, providing analysis and sharing the information we’ve found on the project. It will grow for a long while yet - research is never over. Watch this space!

Ben Copsey

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