Oxford bookshops are closing at an alarming rate. Waterfield’s last month, Borders this week. The upside of Borders going broke was that they had a spectacular sale to get rid of stock. This meant not only that I solved a whole load of Christmas present problems extremely economically; I also bought a bundle of books for myself.
One of these was We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors by Will Ellsworth-Jones. The author of this very readable history has done some good research, especially at the Liddle Collection of the University of Leeds, which has enabled him to trace the careers of several ‘conchies’ during and after the War. A central narrative is that of the Brocklesby brothers – Phil an officer and Bert an ‘absolutist’ who refused to do any work even remotely connected with the War effort, and who ended up in jail.
There are plenty of grim anecdotes, especially the story of the C.O.s who in 1916 were conscripted, and when they refused to obey orders were taken to France and told that they would be shot. As well as this official bullying, there was plenty of unofficial ill-treatment, too, from soldiers taking out their frustrations on these easy targets.
The book is very much a tale of individuals pitched against a cruel system, and as I read I began to wish for a different kind of book, a more sociological one that sees the War as bringing into conflict two types of community with value systems that simply cannot comprehend one another, the Army and extreme religious dissent.
Will Ellsworth-Jones gives some details of the backgrounds of his conchies, but does not give the sort of analysis that is found in Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience (2001), a book not included in his bibliography. Cyril Pearce shows how his socialist objectors came from within a mutually supportive Huddersfield community sharing the same socialist and pacific values. This book presents Bert Brocklesby very much as a loner; it describes well how the C.O.s in prison became a community because of their shared situation, but doesn’t really tell us how their values had been shaped before the War.
The Army in this book is very much the villain, despite acts of decency on the part of individual soldiers. The behaviour of the commanding officers who throw dissidents into jail, sentence them to Field Punishment Number One and even threaten them with death seems grossly cruel (Though Will Ellsworth-Jones takes care to remind us that other European countries treated their conscientious objectors more cruelly; in Gemany, Russia and France, many objectors were not just threatened with the firing squad – they were finished off by it.) And yet the Army was being given a problem that was quite out of its usual range. Military law was designed for a small army of professionals – still very much the Army described by Wellington as being composed of ‘men escaping justice, with bastard children, or seeking cheap wine — the scum of the earth.’ The code designed to deal with such an army could not possibly meet the expectations of a twentieth-century mass army of idealistic volunteers and sometimes-unwilling conscripts.
The Army must have felt very threatened by the C.Os who refused to obey any orders. When seventeen of them were taken to France, they were spread around various platoons on parade. Eventually the order was given: ‘Right turn. Quick march!’ One of the C.O.s describes the scene:
Visualise a large parade ground covered with rank upon rank of soldiers and the same ground half a minute later, empty save for seventeen conscientious objectors standing at irregular intervals over it. For some moments we stood there, striving to suppress feelings of unholy mirth, until those in command realised what had happened. The commandant took in a deep breath and then proceeded to expend it in his most lurid language. The parties of soldiers were halted and men sent to bring us back into line.
In an army full of men trained to obey any order instantly, with tough punishments for small infractions of discipline, this kind of open rebellion was clearly something that had to be tackled, but the blunt instrument of military justice could only punish, in ways that turned the men into martyrs, and gave them further opportunity for exercising their disobedience. They must have been seen as perverse wasters of time and resources in time of war.
An action like the one described exposed the fictiveness of a military culture in which commands had to be obeyed. The conchies demonstrated that actually men had the freedom to disobey, a disturbing thought indeed for officers. The only resource that military authority had was brute force, and while there are stories of some men bullied into submission, a surprising number, with immense courage and even greater contrariness, stuck it out.
The Army culture could not understand the Quakers or the Christadelphians, and they could not understand the Army. For centuries the two subcultures had existed within the same country, only rarely coming into contact with each other, and therefore rarely coming into conflict. The War changed all that, exposing the disunity of a supposedly united country, and the mutual incomprehension of different subcultures.
I’d have liked a bit more exploration of such themes, but the strength of this book is that it gives you plenty of detail about the experiences of the conchies, and starts you speculating about this fascinating subject.
And I’m full of admiration for Mr Ellsworth-Jones as a researcher. To find out exactly how horrible the experiences of the C.O.s were, he tells us, he had himself tied up in the Field Punishment position, and left for two hours. His verdict on the experience ? That it was not quite torture, but was very unpleasant. Now that is what I call research.