Pacific men in violent times

A Question of Conscience
August 21, 1998

It is not clear from the preface what led Felicity Goodall to put this interesting book together. It is not, she writes, a history of conscientious objection. It is basically a number of statements by conscientious objectors, in the first and second world wars, some of whom are still living. They describe the varied experiences they had with tribunals, appeals, working on the land, in hospitals, bombed-out communities, down the mines, in prison, some becoming non-combatants in the forces, even joining bomb disposal units. There were divisions of attitude - between the absolutists and those willing to accept designated work or service, and between those, like Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious sects, and the majority who based their objection on social or political grounds and from their own accounts spent a great deal of time and energy arguing about these between themselves. The Quakers were in a category of their own because their faith in non-violence had already been widely accepted, but Friends House in London was a place where all COs could get help and advice. One chapter has an interesting account of serving in the Mediterranean with the Friends Ambulance Unit and becoming a German prisoner of war.

After the passing of the Conscription Act in 1916, everyone conscripted came under military jurisdiction. The testimonies of those who objected record harsh and humiliating treatment, with long prison sentences in solitary confinement.

In the second world war COs were under civil jurisdiction, except where they accepted non-combatant duties in the forces. The whole system was more civilised and reflected a national change of attitude due to the courage and determination shown by these original objectors.

Even so, many objectors of the second world war tell of the deep resentments and outright hostility they had to face, which broke up families, marriages, friendships and working partnerships. What comes through from these accounts is the hostility, or the reverse, that came from unexpected quarters. Anglican clergymen are singled out as the most aggressive offenders; in the first world war the bishop of Exeter would not even allow the group of COs lodging in Dartmoor Prison to use the chapel.

In contrast, several cases are recorded of kindness and respect being shown to COs by members of the armed forces and even by parents whose sons had been killed in battle. One of the statements records something that I as a CO was constantly aware of - one was never sure what sort of reception one was going to get when meeting new people. There was also that sense of loneliness, again mentioned in one of the statements, in not being able to partake in the full life of one's own generation.

The last section, "Hindsight", is for me the most interesting part of the book - it relates to the decisions that COs had to take during the war and the mental turmoil caused by Dunkirk and other disasters, and for communists after the invasion of Russia - had one any right to stand by one's original belief? Many did stand firm and did some of the nastiest and most menial of jobs in trying to alleviate other people's personal distress. Some changed their mind, just as some in the armed forces decided after some harrowing experience to object and quit. And after the war, and even now 50 years later, some question themselves - was one right to make a stand? One contributor wonders whether he and others would have changed their mind if they had known at the time about the Holocaust.

Goodall offers no personal opinion on what she has set before us; the reader is left to arrive at his or her own conclusions.

Peter Cox was founder principal, Dartington College of Arts.

A Question of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in the Two World Wars

Author - Felicity Goodall
ISBN - 0 7509 0740 1
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £18.99
Pages - 209

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