CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION
in Britain during the First World War

 
 
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World War One conscientious objectors

 
 

PART ONE
World War One - Britain

- conscription
- unwilling soldiers
- alternatives and dilemmas
- prison
- Harold Bing's story
- The story of the Harwich 
'Frenchmen
'
- Mark Hayler's story
- Dartmoor
- Horace Eaton's story




PART TWO
World War Two - Britain

 

MARK HAYLER'S STORY

Croydon-born Mark Hayler was 26 and working in a Liverpool school for young offenders when war broke out. He was one of the first 50 people to join the No-Conscription Fellowship. He was a Quaker (a descendant of William Penn) but he was against war for more than religious reasons. 'We were all conscientious objectors - my four sisters as well as my four brothers. It seemed to us too ridiculous for words, war. Not a religious feeling, more a moral point of view.'

Mark quickly joined forces with other Liverpool pacifists, and for a while they toyed with the idea of disappearing into the Scottish countryside. 'It seems crazy when you think of it, but it seemed a way to deal with the situation. We were all very young and there was a bit of adventure about it.'

Once conscription came in, they grew more serious. Mark's tribunal refused him full exemption, and his appeal against their judgement was also dismissed. Mark's employer told him: 'I don't mind your opinions, but don't let yourself be arrested here - all these boys have been through the police courts'. Knowing the railway stations were being watched, Mark cycled all the way home to London, but was arrested the following day, remanded in custody, tried in a magistrate's court, and handed over to the army.

Mark saw himself clearly as a civilian, not a soldier, and he was determined to obey no military orders. His first prison sentence was in Wandsworth. Despite the hostility of the prison governor (Colonel Brooke, who became notorious for his ill-treatment of COs), 'I wasn't frightened.' The number of imprisoned COs at Wandsworth grew, and 'it made me more determined than ever'.

After his sentence he was sent back to barracks, where he was court-martialled for refusing to sweep a floor. He was bullied, given short rations, left naked for hours after refusing to wear uniform, and kept isolated in a tent guarded (at a distance, so that he couldn't speak to them) by two soldiers. At his court-martial he said, 'For refusing to be a soldier I am told I may have to forfeit my life. I cannot understand it. I thought the days of religious persecution were over, and that an Englishman could hold and express his convictions.' He was sentenced to a year's hard labour at Winchester, released and again arrested.

This time he agreed to work under the Home Office Scheme and was sent to Dartmoor. It was here that Mark helped to look after Henry Firth, a CO who died there. 'I was a sort of orderly at the time. He was only a boy, 21, a preacher with the Methodists. His wife came down from Yorkshire and I can see her now, sitting not in the cell but on a chair outside the door. He had pneumonia. He'd been badly treated, sent out to work on the moor in bad weather.... It was the only funeral from Dartmoor, and all the men attended - they couldn't have stopped them. We followed the coffin down to the railway and it was put on the train to Plymouth. We wouldn't let the prison authority do anything except what they had to, it was all arranged by our own people. Some of us got hold of some fog signals and put them on the railway line here and there. As the train went out of the little station at Princetown the signals went off, a sort of farewell. And I remember nearly a thousand men sang a hymn, Abide With Me.'

Mark lived on into his nineties, aware that his whole life had been affected by his experiences as a CO. At one stage in prison he had grown very depressed. 'It produces thoughts that disrupt one's character. No-one to talk to, men shouting out in the night, month after month, it seemed there would never be an end. It's unbelievable what it can do to you.'

And like so many other COs he faced problems finding work after release. 'I was interviewed by committees and the last question was always "What did you do in the Great War?" I knew that was the end. I was offered a very good job somewhere, but the offer was withdrawn: "The whole committee's very sorry about it, but we couldn't possibly employ you with a record like that". No-one would be responsible for employing a man who had been in prison.'  continue...

 
   

  

 
       
  

  

       
 

 

 

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