Tuesday, 13 May 2014

How First World War conscientious objectors blazed the path of peace

The First World War was a terrible and bloody conflict yet it also in many ways played a huge role in shaping the peace movement of the next 100 years.
It is this legacy that will be marked on 15 May, when the families of 50 of those who made a stand as Conscientious Objectors (CO s) and refused to fight come together to celebrate at the memorial in Tavistock Square, London.
The commemoration event is being organised by the First World War Peace Forum - a coalition made up of Pax Christi, Conscience, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Network for Peace, Peace News, Peace Pledge Union, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, the Right to Refuse to Kill group and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
The idea of having a conscientious objection to fighting in the war was an unknown concept prior to the First World War but the Military Service Act passed in 1916 formally established that right ( as  well as bringing in conscription).
Since that time the right to conscientiously object has become  a component part of the anti-war movement. During the First World War there were around 10,000 CO s, this then grew to 66,000 by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The harshness of treatment of those who refused to fight was not as severe by this time also, with prison sentences less prevalent and for shorter periods.
Today, that right first established back in 1916, now has international recognition, with a number of young Israel soldiers being the latest successors to exercise the right not to fight with regards to Palestine.
The impetus to conscientiously object was largely driven by those from different faith communities, with organisations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), born out of an ecumenical conference in 1914, looking at ways to prevent the outbreak of war.
The FOR offered practical and emotional support to conscientious objectors throughout the war, growing to a membership of 7,000 by 1917. There was also the Quakers Friends Services Committee. Christians though also played a major role in organisations like the 10,000 strong No conscription fellowship.
Among those gathering on 15 May to commemorate the role of conscientious objectors will be Cathy Attlee and Mary Dobbing.
A member of the FOR, Cathy’s grandfather, Thomas Attlee, went to prison for his beliefs.
Thomas Attlee was the older brother of Clement, who later became Prime minister in the post war Labour government. The two brothers were close, both going to Oxford University, then onto work in the East end of London. Clement and Thomas were very involved in community organisations and the early formation of the Independent Labour Party.
It was at the coming of war, that the two men’s paths diverged, though Clement remained a steadfast support to his brother throughout, despite the differences of opinion on war. “My grandfather trained as an architect and did other works. Clement wanted to fight,” said Cathy Attlee. “My father felt he couldn’t go off to fight. His Christian beliefs would not allow him to fight.  He would not do non-combatant community service.”
Cathy recalled how going before the appeals tribunal, Thomas quoted the bible on the need to go beyond loving thy neighbour to loving thy enemy. “Jesus refused to fight against the Romans, that was not his way,” recalled Cathy.
Thomas served two years in a number of prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth, from 1917. Thomas wife struggled on during this period, bringing up the family in Devon.
Thomas though did receive the support of friends, family, religious and political groups. He had a steady correspondence throughout with Clement, about socialism, the Labour Party and the merits of fighting or not fighting. “Their mother said she did not know who she was proudest of, ”recalled Cathy.
On release from prison, Thomas was never able to practice as an architect or return to his work in the community in east end . He was isolated to a degree, living in Devon with his family. But he was able to work as an advisor on architecture for the Church of England. He also worked with the Educational Association, helping provide education for the workers. “It was hardest on my grandmother. If the war had not come they would have stayed in the East end. She was involved there, active as a councillor. But she had to drop out of that and life took another turn.”
Mary Dobbing’s grandfather Herbert suffered prison then isolation in the community after the war.
Mary recalled, how when conscription came in Herbert was taken to the Durham Life Infantry barracks and court marshalled. He then served a few months in prison, before being rearrested on release and charged with desertion. This approach to CO s of release and then re-arrest became known as the “cat and mouse process.”
Herbert then spent the next 2.5 years in prison, being held in solitary confinement for some of that time. “He used to stoke in the boiler room and told how the Irish prisoners, who had been brought over from Ireland after the Easter Rising, left out food for him,” said Mary.
Initially, he was denied books, though he later received letters in books brought in by his later to be wife Gwen Cattell, who was a prison visitor.
Herbert had been a teacher at the start of the war, so later when he was allowed to mix with other prisoners he helped teach some to read and write. A Congregationalist in the early days, he became a Quaker after the war.
Driven by his faith and war experiences Herbert devoted the rest of his life to building bridges between peoples with education usually his tool of choice. Between the wars he helped with the internationalist camps in France that brought British and German  children together to share their common humanity.
Then during the Second World War, Herbert helped welcome refugee jewish children to the Quaker school in Yorkshire. Post war, he became a headteacher of a school in Lebanon and devoted much of the rest of his life to educating people regarding the plight of the Palestinian refugees.
The pioneers in the First World War were treated very badly, imprisoned for much of the war and ostracised afterwards.
In one incident in May 1916 about 50 COs being held at Harwich, Seaford and Richmond Castle were sent to France, and threatened with the death penalty.  On the ‘Front Line’ they could be court-martialled and executed for disobeying orders.
They were transported in secret by night to Southampton, but one of them managed to drop a note from the train as they crossed London.  This was picked up and somehow the information reached the No-Conscription Fellowship (and their families) that they were on their way to France.  Once there they remained defiant, despite the intimidation and  brutal treatment - including in some cases field punishment such as being ‘crucified’ for several hours on a wooden frame or barbed wire.  In June 1916 they were court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, though this was immediately commuted to ten years penal servitude.  It meant being sent back to England.
Mary believes that activities like the celebration on 15 May are very important to remind people that there is another side to war. “We shouldn’t glorify war. The stance taken by the CO s was making a statement, about a refusal to fight. If everyone took that stance, war couldn’t happen,” said Mary.”The CO s took a decision, which sowed the seed in all of our consciences.”
Mary shares the pacifist stance of her grandfather, believing that war runs contrary to the teachings of Jesus. “The faith message of Jesus is one of a non-violent way of life. It is about embracing the stranger and difference, resolving conflict by turning the other cheek – war is the opposite to that.”
The CO s were also almost counter cultural with regards to the established churches of the time that were mainly pro-war.  “The European Churches saw their interests in supporting the governments of the day rather than being in line with their faith. It is baffling how some in the Church can be so enthral to the establishment,” said Mary, who also believes it is important for pacifists today not to lose humanity in the way they view soldiers and the military.
Mary and Cathy believe the legacy of the CO s is that it is now much more difficult for governments to contemplate going to war. “It is difficult to imagine conscription again. In order to have a war you need the support of the people,” said Mary, who does though concede that as weaponry has become more sophisticated, with developments like nuclear weapons and drone technology, it is more possible to have a major conflict without involving large numbers of combatants as in the world wars.
Another legacy has been the growth of the anti-war movement. Mary believes the actions of the CO s and the development of that tradition has made more acceptable direct peaceful actions like those undertaken over recent years by the Ploughshares activists, Father Martin Newell, Pat Gaffney and Chris Cole. There is a support for that tradition of conscience and action.
She remembers that post the First World War there was no such tolerance. The individual would find it difficult to find work, with CO s families ostracised in the society for years afterwards.
“I’ll always remember my grandfather and other CO s with pride. Events like the remembrance on 15 May are important because that stand made was the right one and we need to continue to put over the anti-war message,” said Cathy.        
The story of the CO s is certainly an important one in the context of the centenary remembrance events around the First World War, proving that peace in its many different forms can come from war.

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