WHO WERE THE CRANKS

Jeremy Paxman's "Britain's Great War" has stirred quite a bit of interest online and there's one part of it we've really focused on here at the PPU. Quite casually, Paxman says:

“To be honest, the extreme conscientious objectors have always struck me as cranks,”

We know these "Extreme conscientious objectors" as Absolutists and today acknowledge the courage and determination it took to stand up and register their absolute and complete opposition to all forms of warfare. Absolutists refused to do any form of military service - medical, munitions and even manual labour for the army. Absolutists acknowledged that in a modern industrial war like the First World War, any help that someone gave to the armed forces was helping to kill.

In the words of one Absolutist CO Carl Titford: "I will not do absolute service just because it is judged more efficient to have one man killing and another helping him to do it"

Who were the Absolutists?

They came from a wide section of British Society and had nearly as many reasons for objecting to war as there were men! We think that nearly 6,000 men were Absolutists, though many others are no doubt yet to be found in archives and library records. Their many different motivations and characteristics fall into a few main groups:

They could be religious men from communities around the country, who saw taking life as against their moral principles. Members of the Christian and Jewish communities dominate this group of religious absolutists, but it's becoming increasingly clear in our research that Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were also Absolutist COs. Members of virtually every religious group in the country can point to at least one CO who shared their beliefs.

The most numerous religious COs were probably the Quakers, but other Christian denominations, from Catholic and Anglican to Christadelphian and Jehovas Witnesses are also common in the history of Conscientious Objection. Many of these men would write extensively about their experiences and the strength they found in religious faith.

Other absolutists were political often sharing strong left-wing positions. They range from the Secretary of the British Socialist Party, Albert Inkpin, to members of the Labour and Liberal parties who saw war as an unjust and undemocratic decision made by governments. Many of these men were on what would now be considered the far left wing of British politics, but by 1914 standards, some political COs were far to the right of elected members of the Labour party.

Many political COs were members of Trades Unions that were strongly opposed to the introduction of conscription and became Conscientious Objectors partly due to their anger at the government for ignoring the position the unions had taken on Conscription. 

Of course, many (if not most!) Conscientious Objectors in London were both religious and political - for many, left-wing politics were inseparable from their religious convictions.

Absolutists came from both the poorest and richest parts of Edwardian London, and everywhere in between. They worked in factories, on the docks, in schools and printworks and universities, could have been self-taught and fully employed virtually from childhood or could have undertaken philosophy degrees at prestigious universities. They were middle, upper and working class men, from every single borough of London who looked just like anyone you'd see today. They had families, neighbours and friends before becoming a CO and they were supported throughout the war by a vast network of sympathisers, well wishers and political allies.

For everything that they went through, from prison to torture to threats of death, they remained committed and dedicated to the ideal of peace for everyone and an end to war. They were simply men who said it was wrong to kill in war. Whether this was motivated by politics, religion, personal ethics or any other reason, having a strong belief that peace is right doesn't make you a "Crank".

It makes you a pacifist.