British conscientious objectors against World War I

This video from the USA says about itself:

Nuclear submarine officer to conscientious objector: Mike Izbicki at TEDxUCR

16 December 2013

Michael Izbicki graduated from the US Naval Academy in 2008 and was selected to be a nuclear submarine officer. He trained to operate the S5W nuclear reactor as the engineering officer of the watch. However, a spiritual transformation, fueled by Christianity’s teachings to “love your enemy,” lead Mike to the realization that he couldn’t participate in war.

After two applications for discharge and a petition in federal court, the Navy discharged Mike as a conscientious objector in 2011. These discharges are extremely rare, and the case made national news in the New York Times.

Currently, Mike is a Ph.D. student at UCR studying artificial intelligence. His research endeavors to simplify learning algorithms so they can be easily used by amateur programmers. Mike can be found homebrewing beer in his spare time. Inspired by the brewing tradition of Trappist monks, Mike developed the “Food not Bombs” Belgian dubble recipe, which won 2nd place out of 550 in LA’s Mayfaire 2012 homebrew competition. Mike likes to write about religion, programming and homebrew beer on his blog (

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Conscientious objectors: men who fought a different kind of battle

As the centenary of the first world war approaches, men who chose not to fight because of their pacifist principles will also be remembered by their families. Joanna Moorhead meets the descendants of three ‘conchies

Friday 25 April 2014 16.00 BST

Over eight million men served in the British army during the first world war, and as the centenary approaches, their descendants will be remembering them and the battles they fought. A much smaller number of men – about 16,000 – registered not as soldiers but as conscientious objectors. Some accepted non-combatant roles in, for example, the ambulance service; others took on alternative service in other parts of the world and some were absolutists, who refused to play any part in the war machine, and were often imprisoned as a result.

A century on, how do their descendants view the stance these men took?

Tom Attlee

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, the future prime minister Clement Attlee was on holiday with his brother Tom. Both men knew what they must do: Clement hurried back to London to enlist in the army, while Tom went home to prepare his case as a conscientious objector.

Today, Tom’s grandchildren are as proud of him as Clement’s no doubt are of him, although Cath Attlee – Tom’s granddaughter – points out that if Clement had taken Tom’s stance, he could never have gone on to hold the highest office in British politics, as he did from 1945 to 1951. Tom’s career – he was an architect – was ruined by his decision to be a “conchie”. After the war ended, he moved to Cornwall to escape the jibes and stigma, and never fully practised his profession again.

“What was interesting about Clem and Tom was they were both socialists, both members of the Independent Labour party when the war began,” says Cath. “But while Clem saw it as his absolute duty to fight – he was in his 30s in 1914, so quite old to be signing up – Tom took a very different view. He was a committed Christian and believed that war could never be the Christian answer to any dispute – he was prepared to suffer for what he believed in.”

In fact, Tom’s wife, Kathleen, suffered almost as much as Tom and maybe more: Cath’s brother Jeremy remembers another family member once telling him that Tom’s decision had ruined his grandmother’s life.

Kathleen was from a military family – two of her uncles had been decorated in previous conflicts – and the stigma of being the wife of an objector must have hit her hard, especially as, by the time of Tom’s court-martial in 1917, she was the mother of a toddler and pregnant with her second child. “Coping on her own, without an income, was very hard for my grandmother – my grandfather did three months’ hard labour in Wormword Scrubs and then spent a year in Wandsworth prison,” says Cath.

Clement, meanwhile, had been invalided back from the front so that when the armistice was signed in 1918, Ellen Attlee, their mother, had two sons in Wandsworth: one in the military hospital, the other in prison. “Ellen apparently remarked that she didn’t know which of her sons she was more proud of, which is really rather lovely,” says Helen, another of Tom’s granddaughters. “I think there was a strong sense in our family that people were entitled to their convictions, and that having the courage of your convictions was something that everyone respected – and I think we respect that still.”

Tom’s daughter-in-law Peggy, now 95, wrote his biography and its title – With a Quiet Conscience – says it all.

Interestingly, the Attlee children’s other grandfather, Peggy’s father, was killed in the first world war before she was even born; on Remembrance Day, says Cath, she always wears two poppies, one white and one red, to remember the sacrifices made by both her grandfathers. “I recognise both the principles of the just war and the principles of pacifism,” she says.

Jeremy says that as a child he never remembers his grandfather discussing pacifism or his time in prison; but he does know he accepted the fact that both his sons joined the army in the second world war. “I think Tom’s view was that Hitler made things different,” he says.

The anti-war feeling in Tom’s branch of the Attlee family has filtered down through the generations, says Helen.

“I’m not against war in all circumstances, but I have been against many individual wars in my lifetime. I was one of a very small number of people who marched against the Falklands war in 1982, and I marched again, with my three children, against the Iraq war.”

Tom died in 1960 when Cath was four, but Jeremy and Helen were in their late teens by then. Jeremy recalls: “He was very accepting of us, of what we thought and believed – his whole life had turned on standing up for what he believed in. We’re all very proud of him.”

John Rickman

Many conscientious objectors were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was set up in 1914 to campaign against war – so it seems appropriate that, 100 years on from her great-grandfather’s stance as a pacifist, Emma Anthony, 24, works for the organisation at its Oxford HQ.

“I was raised a Quaker and was always aware that my great-grandfather had refused to fight during the first world war. It always seemed like a very principled line to take, especially as it meant he ended up having to go to live in a remote corner of Russia and to endure situations and circumstances that were far from easy for him,” she says.

Emma’s great-grandfather, John Rickman, was born in 1891. By 1914 he was a medical student at St Thomas’ hospital in London. He qualified two years later and, says his daughter, Lucy Rickman Baruch, 92 – Emma’s grandmother – was expected to join the Royal Army Medical Corps.

“But he was a Quaker and opposed to war, so he refused. He put his case to a tribunal, and in many cases the tribunals refused to accept conscientious objectors – he was told at one point that he could end up in prison. But eventually the tribunal did accept his case, provided he took up an alternative to going to the front.”

John elected to travel to Russia, then in the throes of civil war, to work in a field hospital set up by the Quakers to provide relief to ordinary Russians in an area where medical facilities were otherwise almost non-existent. “He was based in the Samara region – as a child I grew up hearing stories of the Red army and the Czech army and about how difficult things were at that time,” says Lucy.

But there was one positive result from his time in Russia: John met his wife, an American Quaker who had also travelled to Russia to join the relief effort at the hospital. “My parents’ wedding was the first civil marriage held in that town because the revolution had happened by then and secular marriages had replaced church weddings,” says Lucy.

John joined the Royal Army Medical Corps during the second world war. “By this time he was a psychiatrist and was working with traumatised soldiers – he felt he could be more useful in uniform than not,” says Lucy.

Emma says her great-grandfather influenced her decision to work for a peace organisation. “I’m very proud of what he did – I think he was incredibly brave,” she says. “Some conscientious objectors were sent to France and then shot. What my great-grandfather did definitely wasn’t an easy option.”

Sydney Silverman

Growing up in London in the 1940s and 50s, the three Silverman boys knew their dad was a high-profile Labour MP whose campaigns included working towards the abolition of capital punishment. But what they didn’t find out until they were older was why Sydney, their father, felt so strongly about it.

Sydney, who was raised in a working-class family in Liverpool, was against fighting on socialist principles. “His idea was that the workers of the world should unite: if the ordinary men on both sides refused to join the armies, the powers-that-be couldn’t have had a war,” says his son Paul, now 80. “But when war was declared everyone seemed to be infected with war fever and my father found himself very much in a minority.”

Worse, for Sydney, was the fact that socialist principles were not regarded as a reason to refuse conscription. “Dad was taken to the military barracks but when he got there he wouldn’t obey orders and so was arrested and court-martialled,” says his youngest son, Roger, 68. “In 1917 he was sentenced to two years of hard labour, and put in prison in Preston.” There, he was stripped naked and a soldier’s uniform was thrown into the cell; he refused to wear it.

What his sons realised later in their lives was that their father’s experience in Preston prison had been fundamental to much of the rest of his life’s work. “He devoted a great deal of his career to the campaign to abolish capital punishment, which was finally achieved in 1965,” says Paul.

“The story in our family has always been that one of his fellow prisoners was hanged while he was in Preston, and that sowed the seed for the work he did as an MP to end it.”

After Sydney was released in 1919 he did a law degree and specialised in defending ordinary workers, often working pro bono. “What he witnessed in prison affected everything he did thereafter,” says Roger. “And he was my role model: I decided I wanted to dedicate my life, as he had done, to good causes.”

In the 1950s, when he was called up for national service, Paul thought long and hard about what to do: in the end, he decided to join the army. “I discussed it with Dad and he understood my position,” he says. “If I’d been making the decision when Sydney had to make it, I’d have done what he did. But by my time we’d had the second world war and Hitler had changed the landscape. I felt there was a time and a place where military intervention was necessary, so I decided to join up.”

A few years later, Sydney’s middle son, Julian, now 77, took a different line and decided, like his father, to be a conscientious objector. “My father supported my point of view, but in the end I didn’t have to argue my case to the authorities because national service was abolished before they got round to calling me up,” he says. “But my father never tried to influence me one way or the other, just as he didn’t with Paul. He felt what mattered was that we should work out for ourselves what was right for us, and then act on it.”

Families descended from first world war conscientious objectors will attend a memorial ceremony in Tavistock Square, London WC1, at noon on 15 May, which is International Conscientious Objector day.

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32 thoughts on “British conscientious objectors against World War I

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  25. Thank you for posting this, I found it on a search about ww1 and realized I follow your blog but somehow missed it. My grandfather and his two brothers were conscientious objectors in the first world war. He was imprisoned at the age of 18 and sentenced to hard labour, (Wormwood scrubs, Wakefield and Dartmoor). One of his brothers died from pneumonia at 21 and we think this was due to the bad conditions he endured but I’m still researching this. My father doesn’t know much about what his father and uncles went through, as it wasn’t spoken about. I really appreciate the information in your post and the video, too.


  26. Wednesday 10th may 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    NEIL MUDD reports on a unique choral tribute to conscientious objectors during WWI, with its roots in local communities

    A 12TH-CENTURY Norman stronghold may seem an unlikely site for pacifist resistance. Yet, in both world wars, conscientious objectors imprisoned at Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire left their mark, engraving the walls of their cells with pacifist graffiti.

    Their spirit of defiance underscores Refrain, an immersive choral experience devised by composer and artist Verity Standen which I caught up with at a dawn performance.

    Staged across three very different historical sites in Richmond, St Helens and Newhaven, it is a provocative and moving work that explores conflicting narratives of conscientious objection, using a cast of untrained male singers drawn from each locality.

    “There’s a really interesting question, which is what would a contemporary memorial look like,” explains Claire Doherty, director of Situations, the organisation which commissioned the piece.

    “The monuments that exist tend to be peace gardens. We wanted something that would bring all the conflicted opinions and political positions to life.”

    Situations specialises in site-specific public artwork and, since 2002, it has been exploring the civic role of art and artists, often in connection with some unlikely partners. “Mention English Heritage and most people visualise medieval jousting and battle re-enactments,” says Doherty.

    When she asked if they had any sites with a history of pacifist resistance, they put her in touch with Kevin Booth, their senior curator in the north.

    He introduced her to the so-called Richmond Sixteen, a group of conscientious objectors imprisoned in the 19th-century cell block of Richmond Castle, whose memorial is the scrawled testimonies and drawings they left behind.

    “Some were objecting for religious reasons, some for social or political reasons. It wasn’t a blanket objection and Verity wanted to bring that out,” Standen explains.

    Warming to the story, Standen is remarkably chipper, despite the dawn start: “As a composer I don’t normally work with any narrative as such. This was the first time I was tackling a specific part of history.”

    Equipped with a reading list from Booth, she visited Richmond Castle for its incongruously impressive acoustics and to view the cells for herself — “a magical experience.”

    Her preference when composing is to utilise untrained singers — “it frees up the voice” — which meant that she had just 10 weeks to bring the whole thing together. Her choir of male singers was mostly recruited from the local community three months ago and includes a scrap metal dealer, a doctor and an Iranian asylum-seeker.

    The composer was insistent that individual histories percolate through the work. “You can tell a piece of music where somebody is dead within it, just singing what they have been told to sing,” she says. “It has to be about their voices, about them bringing themselves into that.”

    The piece represents a comingtogether, a haunting of sorts, that feels suited to the rugged theatrical confines of the castle grounds. “Richmond Castle is overlaid with all different kinds of histories,” Doherty tells me. “It’s about bringing it right up to date with living, breathing male singers with their own lives.”

    In performance, a figure nestles inside the castle nook and sings a traditional Iranian folk tune, his voice plaintive and resonant.

    His refrain is taken up by a baritone somewhere high up on the battlements, while a choir congregates on the central knoll. Their lament suffuses the bright early morning chill.

    A t the climax, men congregate inside the tower room with its vaulted wooden ceiling and unlikely, sonorous acoustic. Voices are roused in momentary unison coupled with the symbolic beating of their breasts like some socialist synod. “There is a sense of something coming out,” says Doherty.

    Freed to wander the site, the audience is integral to the success of the performance. Refrain is an immersive encounter, intentionally open to question and, at times, it is intimate, meditative and even discomfiting.

    “Verity wanted very much that idea of the audience coming in, beginning to hear something in the distance and then for it to become quite an intense moment,” explains Doherty.

    “One of the things we try do with our work is break down some of those barriers. For a lot of people here today this might be the first contemporary piece of music that they’ve come across, so it’s about encouraging them.”

    When Refrain relocates to St Helens in May and Newhaven in June, the process will begin anew.

    With a fresh cast, each with their own stories to tell in each locale the piece is transmutable.

    In St Helens, the urban setting includes a pub and Masonic lodge, while in Newhaven the site is next to the sea and consists of a series of underground tunnels.

    Plans to make a film across all three sites are not firmly fixed, says Doherty. In part this is due to the nature of the performance itself. “We can’t help but feel that the men, the presence of being here and moving among them is so important. The film would be a very different thing.”

    In fact, a film of sorts is being created, a unique edit in the mind of every visitor to Refrain, one that is determined by time of day, an individual’s chosen route around each site and personal engagement with the ensemble.

    Just as the graffiti inscribes the cell walls at Richmond Castle, the marks made by Refrain will be there for years to come.

    Verity Standen, Refrain is performed from May 19-21, in collaboration with Heart of Glass, St Helens, Merseyside and from June 9-11, in collaboration with The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Newhaven, East Sussex. Details:


  27. Tuesday 16th May 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Britain

    BRITAIN joined countries worldwide to stage vigils yesterday paying tribute to those who refuse to kill during war.

    Towns and cities including Cardiff, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Leicester, Liverpool, Norwich, Oxford, Portsmouth and Sheffield took part in events to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day.

    More than 100 braved the rain to attend a ceremony in Tavistock Square in London, where actor Mark Rylance addressed crowds.

    Names were read out of a sample of conscientious objectors across the world past and present as attendees placed white flowers on the memorial stone.

    Peace Pledge Union pacifist group co-ordinator Symon Hill told the Star: “Across the world, there are hundreds of people in prison for refusing to fight, to kill or to submit to military authority.

    “In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted into the armed forces.

    “Instead, our minds are conscripted by militarist propaganda through initiatives such as Armed Forces Day and school cadet forces.”


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