Prepared to die for pacifism?
As we have seen, both Bert and Howard knew that they could end up being given the death sentence for refusing to fight. Some in the army were determined that conscientious objectors should be sent to France so that they could be deemed to be on “active service” and shot for disobeying orders.
Ever since the beginning of the war, some in the peace movement had expected that it might come to this. Jack Foister was a 22-year-old socialist and Primitive Methodist. As a conscientious objector, he struggled with mixed feelings and fears. He later described his emotions as he travelled by train to the arrest that he knew awaited him.
I would have counted it shame if I had not experienced misery at the thought of separation from all friends and all kin, a separation perhaps for ever.
In order to reduce distress at my home-leaving, I had made a half-promise that if taken to France I might reconsider my position. I had not thought it likely but Father did. I thought this over and before Ipswich was reached I had made a firm decision that come what may nothing would make me become a soldier, nor an indirect supporter of the war. Was there something of vanity in these thoughts? Anyway, I felt the decision revived my spirits.
In April 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship – consisting largely of men of conscription age – passed this resolution:
We appreciate the spirit of sacrifice which actuates those who are suffering on the battlefield, and in that spirit we renew our determination, whatever the penalties awaiting us, to undertake no service which for us is wrong. We are confident that thus we are advancing the cause of peace and so rendering such service to our fellow men in all nations as will contribute to the healing of the wounds inflicted by war.
Perhaps one of the most succinct comments on the issue was expressed by a conscientious objector whose name has been lost to history:
Better to die for a principle than for the lack of one.
Sources: Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War by David Boulton (Dales Historical Monographs, 2014) and We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors by Will Ellsworth-Jones (Aurum, 2008).
Bert was sent to Richmond Castle where a unit of the Non-Combatant Corps was based. Within a few days he was on his way to France.
ForcesWatch is a research and campaigning organisation which challenges military recruitment practices in the UK that are not in the best interests of young people. They are currently working on raising the age of recruitment to 18 and challenging the growing presence of the military in the education system. Emma Sangster from ForcesWatch discusses their work.