Conscientious Objectors

By Jo Angell

As part of the Bowes Museum’s series of lectures related to World War One, many of us enjoyed an excellent lecture by Dr Megan Leyland about conscientious objectors’ experiences.

This country had never had conscription before the First World War and, at first, once war was declared in 1914, many young men had eagerly joined up. From 1914, however, there had been an anti-war movement usually among those who had left-wing political beliefs. The slaughter which quickly ensued necessitated conscription but then, on the grounds, usually of their religious convictions, pacifists, Quakers, members of non-conformist faiths and some Anglicans, refused to join the forces. This was viewed as a crime.

In England, conscientious objectors could not be executed though some who were sent to France and refused to obey orders were condemned to death but their sentences were commuted to ten years’ hard labour. After the war ended, however, they were freed.

Richmond in Yorkshire was a garrison town; the barracks were within the castle where there was also a prison block with eight cells on two floors which were used to hold the conscientious objectors. This block contains a remarkable collection of 2500 graffiti inscriptions. There are verses from hymns, Biblical quotations, diagrams, a picture of a battle ship, and pictures of loved ones. One inscription reads “The only war ought to be a class war.” There is even a makeshift calendar. Unfortunately, this cell block, where conservation work proceeds, is not open to the public. Paint layers are being removed to reveal more graffiti, some from the nineteenth century as well as the huge number from the war. The graffiti reveals the wide range of skills and education of the inmates.

By 1916, there was a crisis in manpower and men could not apply not to fight, but some did farming or building work instead of serving in the forces. Those who refused to obey orders, viewing any such work contributing to the war effort, were horribly treated and were confined to damp, cold prison cells. This was when the graffiti were made.

Three Barnard castle men who were conscientious objectors would have been called to a tribunal to ascertain whether their objections were genuine, or whether they were cowards.

Some few whose work was deemed of national importance were given an exemption, for example; medical and ambulance services were exempt. Some thirty-five men received the death penalty. Why was this commuted? Asquith wanted them to be shot. And, in cartoons, they were depicted as effeminate, sloppy and cowardly. After the war many suffered from prejudice throughout their lives and some committed suicide.

This is another chapter in the dreadful saga of the First World War.