15 THE MEN SENTENCED TO DEATH

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‘As long as we were in the hands of the military authorities, we were subject to military punishments.’

Soldiers who refused to obey orders from their senior officers were punished in numerous unpleasant ways. If they were on active duty and did not obey orders (or went AWOL or deserted or were simply paralysed with terror or weariness), they faced not only a court martial but the risk of being executed.

Conscientious objectors refused to take any part in military activity. But they were, of course, regarded as soldiers by the military: they had been called up by law to serve in the army and ‘fight the enemy’. So, like soldiers, when COs refused to obey orders they were punished. In many cases they were punished more harshly than some soldiers were. The penalties paid by COs for quite simple acts – refusing to salute an officer, or to march – were often brutal.

Many of the military leaders loathed the COs and were angered by what they saw as a shameful lack of guts. They failed to see just how much courage and self-discipline a man needed to continue protesting in the face of hostility and ill-treatment.

Some military leaders strongly believed that COs ought to be shot: their refusal to do what they were told, and their reasons for not doing it, amounted to desertion.

Perhaps this was why a few officers set about making an example of some of the COs, to show the other so-called ‘cowards’ what their fate might be.

We know something of what happened to this unofficial tactic, from the personal records of some of the men who were its victims. Here are some of the experiences of two groups of COs, one of them British and the other from New Zealand.