Pro-peace people punished during World War I


This video from the USA says about itself:

National Holiday that Began as a War Protest

14 May 2013

The commonly held holiday in the United States, Mother’s Day, began as an anti-war protest in World War 1. A large group of mothers marched to demand that their sons be brought home. This act of courage lead to what we know today as Mother’s Day. Ron Placone and Greg Welsch of Radio Free Nashville decided to mention this often overlooked fact. This clip was part of MediaBytes: The Madness in the Message Radio Hour with Ron Placone.

By Paul Donovan in Britain:

Anti-war activism: Blessed be the peacemakers

Wednesday 14th May 2014

PAUL DONOVAN tells the too-often forgotten story of the early conscientious objectors who helped shape today’s peace movement

The first world war was a terrible and bloody conflict, yet in many ways it also played a huge role in shaping the peace movement of the next 100 years.

It is this legacy that will be marked tomorrow, when the families of 50 of those who made a stand as conscientious objectors (COs) and refused to fight come together at a memorial in Tavistock Square, London.

The idea of conscientious objection was an unknown concept prior to WWI, but the Military Service Act passed in 1916 formally established that right, as well as bringing in conscription.

There were around 10,000 COs during WWI, a figure which then grew to 66,000 by the time of the outbreak of the second world war in 1939.

During this period the treatment of those who refused to fight became less harsh, with prison sentences less prevalent and for shorter periods.

Among those gathering tomorrow to commemorate the role of conscientious objectors will be Cathy Attlee and Mary Dobbing.

Cathy’s grandfather, Thomas Attlee, went to prison for his beliefs.

Thomas was the older brother of Clement, who later became prime minister in the postwar Labour government.

The two brothers were close, both going to Oxford University, then on to 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 steadfastly supported his brother throughout, despite their differences of opinion on war.

“My grandfather trained as an architect and did other works. Clement wanted to fight,” says Cathy.

“My grandfather 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 recalls 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,” Cathy recalls.

Thomas served two years in a number of prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth, from 1917. His 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,” recalls Cathy.

On release from prison, Thomas was never able to practise 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 adviser on architecture for the Church of England.

He also worked with the Educational Association, helping to provide education for 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 recalls how, when conscription came in, Herbert was taken to the Durham Life Infantry barracks and court-martialled.

He then served a few months in prison before being rearrested on release and charged with desertion.

This tactic of release and then rearrest became known as the “cat-and-mouse process.”

Herbert then spent the next two-and-a-half 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,” says 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.

Herbert devoted the rest of his life to building bridges between people through education.

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 WWII, Herbert welcomed refugee Jewish children to the Quaker school in Yorkshire. Postwar, he became head teacher of a school in Lebanon and devoted much of the rest of his life to educating people about the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

The CO pioneers of World War I 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 10 years’ penal servitude. It meant being sent back to England.

Mary believes that events like that taking place tomorrow are very important to remind people that there is another side to war.

“We shouldn’t glorify war. The stance taken by the COs was making a statement, about a refusal to fight. If everyone took that stance, war couldn’t happen,” says Mary.

“The COs took a decision, which sowed the seed in all of our consciences.”

The COs 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 in thrall to the Establishment,” says 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 COs’ legacy 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,” says Mary, however, she does concede that as weaponry has become more sophisticated it is easier for governments to wage war 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 COs and the development of that tradition has made direct peaceful actions more acceptable. There is a support for that tradition of conscience and action.

She remembers that at the time of the first world war there was no such tolerance. COs would find it difficult to find work, with their families ostracised in society for years afterwards.

“I’ll always remember my grandfather and other COs with pride. Events like the remembrance on May 15 are important because that stand made was the right one and we need to continue to put over the anti-war message,” says Cathy.

The annual CO ceremony will take place at noon tomorrow at the CO stone in Tavistock Square, London WC1. It is being organised by the First World War Peace Forum — a coalition made up of Conscience, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Network for Peace, Pax Christi, 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.

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9 thoughts on “Pro-peace people punished during World War I

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