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The BBC’s plan for commemorating the centenary of the First World War contains some ambitious programming aimed at bringing to light some of the forgotten issues raised by the conflict. Unfortunately, their sole programme looking into the history of Conscientious Objection falls far short of balance, objectivity or factual accuracy.

The condescending attitude displayed by Jeremy Paxman on “Britain’s Great War” is a terrible treatment of the thousands of men and women who refused to accept the need for war and conscription. At the PPU, our “Objecting to War” project aims to dispel the myths surrounding Conscientious Objectors as “cranks” and show them as they were: ordinary men making a brave and conscious choice to resist war and militarism.

Ben our London Objecting to War Project Officer takes a closer look.

To do this, we’re going to borrow another one of the BBC’s ideas, used by them to promote the image of the First World War as justified, positive and even pleasant! So, thank you to the BBC and here are our


They were “Cranks”
COs came from all sections of British society and were opposed to war for many different reasons. Some COs were university educated men who had studied philosophy and ethics, making their decision based on long years of study into the legitimacy of war and the morality of using violence. Others were political, holding the view that the First World War was an imperialist, capitalist war that they would have no part of. Many others were religious - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist - individuals who understood their creeds as being fundamentally opposed to taking life.

Calling COs “cranks” is to insult many hundreds of thousands of individuals in Britain today, both those that share their view that war is wrong in all of its forms and individuals with strong religious, moral and political beliefs.

They were “Cowards”
The most common myth about Conscientious Objectors was that they were cowardly, preferring to stay at home while other men were going off to fight. This could not be further from the truth. Just to register your opposition to war as a CO in 1916 was to go against the prevailing opinion, leaving a CO and their family a target of physical assault and abuse. This experience unites all COs of the First World War, who had the tremendous courage needed to say “I will not fight”.

Thousands of COs took up medical positions with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Friend’s Ambulance Unit, risking their lives not to take, but to save another’s. They would serve, and often die, simply to see another person live.

And what of the COs who did not serve? Absolutist COs were imprisoned, tortured and threatened with death, some remaining in prison until mid 1919, often undergoing force feeding, solitary confinement and the “rule of silence”. At any time they could have given in, but they remained. Is that not courage?

They were “Faking
Jeremy Paxman’s deliberately incredulous questions on the legitimacy of Conscientious Objection show one of the typical myths of the First World War is alive and well - that COs were men who “made up” their convictions in order to avoid war.

Of course, Paxman doesn’t acknowledge the fact that many COs had long standing commitments to peace and anti-war movements. Whether and established member of a denomination such as the Quakers, with their long history of peace advocacy or coming from political parties, trade unions and families that had opposed both the increasing arms race and Boer War of the pre-1914 period, many COs had been fervently committed to peace work for many years before the war started.

“They weren’t exactly popular”
At the start of this project, I also believed the myth that Conscientious Objectors had no supporters, but as we’ve continued our research I have increasingly realised that COs had both a phenomenal support network and a surprisingly wide base of support in wartime Britain.

The more biographies of COs we assemble, the more we find that by 1918 many soldiers and members of the public had turned towards sympathy, even admiration for the determination and resolve of Conscientious Objectors to their cause. The letters and memoirs of COs are often full of acts of kindness received from soldiers - cups of tea, food or just a kind word - that indicated their support for what they were doing, if not always understanding.

The organisations arrayed around Conscientious Objectors range from Parliament to Prisons, with organisations such as the No-Conscription Fellowship, Society of Friends and Fellowship of Reconciliation having huge support bases as they published newsletters and leaflets, organised prison visits and kept up an astonishing campaign of political pressure.

While COs were certainly villified (and continue to be!) by some during the war, the widespread “unpopularity” increasingly seems to be an invention of a hostile media that deliberately underreported the numbers of supporters, sympathisers and well-wishers that were associated with the CO cause.

They were Unusual
The stereotypical image of a man on anti-Conscientious Objector propaganda produced by the government during the war shows a wealthy man relaxing with his cigarrettes and brandy by a roaring fire. The image is deliberately effeminate and often smugly self-congratulatory. This ridiculous image of a CO has persisted to this day - an awkward and unusual man making a strange and bizarre choice.

In reality COs came from every single part of Edwardian London, from the richest to the poorest areas. From Hillingdon to Havering and Enfield to Croydon, COs lived normal lives in normal places. They worked in factories, on the docks, in schools and printworks, universities and shops. Conscientious Objectors were middle, upper and working class men who had families, friends and neighbours just like anyone living in London today. They were, quite simply, ordinary people making a difficult choice to stand by their morals and oppose war.

The decision to become a Conscientious Objector wasn’t one made by extraordinary people living extraordinary lives, but by people like you and I. The decision to oppose militarism isn’t one that was made by these mythical cranks, cowards or shirkers, or one made as some incredible example of moral strength, but an ordinary decision, one that can and should be made by people committed to peace in the modern day.

The story of WW1 conscientious objectors




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