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The Courage to Be a Conscientious Objector
Mar 1, 2008 – By Nigel Jones, The London Telegraph
Nigel Jones reviews We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors by Will Ellsworth-Jones
The critic Lytton Strachey had his smartarse answer ready when he appeared before the tribunal hearing his plea not to be drafted into the forces in the First World War. Appearing with his supportive sister carrying a rubber cushion for him (Lytton was a martyr to piles), he was asked what he would do if a German soldier was raping her.
The 'bearded stick-insect' wittily replied: 'I would try to interpose my own body between them.' He was duly pronounced unfit for military service.
Not all the 16,000 'conchies' who refused conscription in that war had Strachey's chutzpah, nor his influential friends. (Despite scorning the Establishment, the Bloomsberries pulled high-placed strings to save their own skins.) In this moving and grippingly readable debut book, Will Ellsworth-Jones concentrates on less well-connected conchies - mostly from the Nonconformist dissenting tradition, but with a strong smattering of secular Socialists - and particularly on the tiny minority of a minority of 1,200 'absolutists' - those whose total opposition to the war made them reject all work even remotely connected to the conflict.
Ellsworth-Jones has uncovered the extraordinary story of the four Brocklesbury brothers, siblings from the small south Yorkshire town of Conisbrough. Local worthies - their father was a councillor and JP - the brothers all received a strongly Methodist upbringing, but when war came in 1914 they reacted very differently.
The eldest brother, George, was medically unfit but joined his father John as a recruiting sergeant - enrolling 1,000 men for the Army. The second son, Bert, a strong, not to say stubborn, character, after some soul-searching (he tossed a coin to see what God wanted him to do) refused all military duties.
The youngest brothers, Phil and Harold, joined the Army, were commissioned as junior officers, went through the hell of the Somme, yet survived.
Bert's decision cost him dear. Refusing to join the Non-Combatant Corps set up to accommodate those whose consciences forbade them from bearing arms, he and his fellow absolutists were held in medieval dungeons beneath Richmond Castle as the Army vainly tried to break their wills.
When this failed, Bert and 34 others were shipped to France, court-martialled and sentenced to death, although the sentences were instantly commuted to 10 years' penal servitude.
As part of his admirable research - I cannot imagine many historians tying themselves to a fence for two hours in a crucifixion posture just to experience the Field Punishment meted out to the conchies - Ellsworth-Jones has discovered that they owed their reprieve to the personal intervention of the Prime Minister, Asquith.
Frustrated, the Army spent the rest of the war making the men's incarceration in prison and stone-breaking work camps as uncomfortable as possible - though none of it, of course, was comparable to the suffering of the troops - Bert's brothers among them - in the trenches.
Today, our attitudes to the conchies' have undergone a complete reversal: Strachey's pacifist heirs now dominate the intellectual agenda, and it is the military who are a marginalised minority.
Those refusing to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan would be more likely to receive an official apology and generous financial compensation rather than white feathers and the derision and hostility of their peers.
Ellsworth-Jones, a former Daily Telegraph journalist, shares the prevailing view of the First World War as a meaningless massacre rather than a defence of small nations against murderous militarism.
However, he is honest enough to tell both sides of the story, and it is Phil, the soldier who went through the Somme, who emerges as the hero rather than the smugly self-righteous Bert, who refused to sew sacks in jail lest they be used to carry coal for the Navy.
Ellsworth-Jones also admits that when war came again, Hitler posed a question that could not be answered by pacifism. Even Bertrand Russell, patron saint of First World War conchies, called for everyone to fight the Nazis; although predictably Bert opposed even that war.
Every society needs dissidents who hold out against the majority, and there is no denying the moral courage of the absolutists who were ready to die rather than kill.
But there are worse things than war. As the French resistance writer Jean
Dutourd put it: 'War is less costly than servitude. In the end, the choice is
always between Verdun and Dachau.'
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