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ISSUE 68 AUTIUMN 2014 Pdf
UNDER WATCHFUL EYES

Peace Matters Index
ONLINE contents
selection from paper publication

- War without end
- Under watchfull eyes
- Educating for peace
-
Well dressing
- What will we be remembering

 

 

 

Ben

When visitors and volunteers come to the PPU offices they’re always unfailingly drawn to the same place - the wall to the left of my desk, upon which hangs the familiar image of the Dyce “Frenchmen”.

There’s something very arresting about the picture that goes far beyond the many other images we have of Conscientious Objectors at Dyce and elsewhere. On the surface, it’s only a picture of fifteen men in corduroy trousers and overcoats. But the eye is immediately drawn to the faces of the fifteen, whether old or young, sitting up straight or much more nonchalant. Like any group (especially any group of men) there’s no uniformity in their expressions. Some, like Bertie Lief (bottom right corner) look fairly cheerful, while others - the man next to Bertie, Harry Scullard, among them - look determinedly, even angrily out at the viewer.

But who are these men and why are they in this picture? Why is it mounted on the wall, at such size, in the PPU Office?

The “who” is easy and will no doubt be familiar to many with an interest in pacifism and the work of the PPU. These fifteen are some of the “Frenchmen” - Conscientious Objectors sent in May 1916 over to France, when with torture, abuse and neglect heaped upon them, they resisted all until finally they were threatened with the death penalty - a verdict then commuted to ten years hard labour.

The “why” is probably easier still. The experience of France, though the COs were processed, transported and judged in different batches, was common to them all. The photo was taken in September 1916 and the men would have known each other since being held in an army guardroom at Harwich before going to France, and in prison before being sent to Dyce in August. Whether through shared experience or as acquaintances and friends, the end result is the same - someone on one of the few days at Dyce on which photographs were taken saw the Frenchmen as a group that should be immortalised in sepia.
Thinking about why it’s on the wall and why it’s important to the current study of Conscientious Objection and to wider pacifism is rather more difficult. While I’ve often talked in Peace Matters about history, that’s not what I think is important about the image. Instead, it’s the connection to the modern day and the work that the PPU does in educating about and encouraging peace that is the reason we have the image on the wall.

I’ve always felt a connection to the men in the photo. I don’t think it’s because of the fact that I sit next to the image, or that, with hairstyles, clothing and (lack of) facial hair, they look “modern” rather than Edwardian or even that they’re all around the same age I am. I think it’s because of the work that we do here at the PPU, and the feelings that the picture evokes.

What strikes me most is the similarities that exist between the Frenchmen and the PPU. The work we do is different, but our aims are the same. While physical conscription no longer exists in this country, economic conscription does. We may not be in the throes of an apocalyptic world war, but instead well into our second decade of the “War on Terror”, staggering proof that the Imperial British belief in our own international omnipotence is as powerful a lie now as it was in 1914. That’s something I wonder how they would have felt about. The First World War was in many ways more comprehensible - a pointless war for profit and prestige, but a war on a group of nations. Now, we’re permanently at war with a concept; how would the pacifists of 1916 felt about that?

Nevertheless, where COs campaigned, we continue to campaign. Where they spoke out against the injustices and horror of war, we do the same. Where they tried their best to educate the wider public about what pacifism was, why it can work and why it’s a better alternative to war and violence, we’re out in schools and giving talks at museums, galleries and town halls following the same goals. Where they had “The Tribunal”, we have Peace Matters and our website. Our methods may appear different now, in a world where a tweet can do more good and be seen more widely than a protest, but they are substantially the same. We are both groups finding ways to act individually and together to secure a world free from war through publicising, discussing and educating for peace.

There are differences, of course, between me, sat at my desk in the PPU offices and the Fifteen men in the picture that hangs beside it. I’m not in a work camp, I haven’t been threatened with death, I’m not facing prison and most importantly, I’m talking about them and as flattering as it would be I can only presume they weren’t wondering if someone would be writing about them a century later. At the very least, they were probably quite busy.

What I’m reminded of when I look at the picture is that these differences only exist because of their experiences. Because they were in prison and because they were threatened with death, I can work for peace without the threat of conscription, torture and death. Their actions and their example were a key reason for better treatment of COs in the Second World War and one of the cornerstones of the abolition of conscription in this country.

Because of that, there’s a little hint of a reproach in that photo, one aimed especially at me. At 26, some of the men in the photo would have been in prison for half a year. For all my year at the PPU, noone has (yet!) suggested that I sleep in a tent outside the office or that I should face a firing squad. My experiences, and those of nearly everyone reading this as a pacifist can’t measure up to that, but it’s not a resentful reproach, rather one that says “We’re here, you’re there. Britain’s still at war - what are you doing about it?”. It’s a challenge from a group of pacifists to another today. What are we going to do about it?

Well, we can take heart from the fact that we aren’t in prison, we aren’t under direct threat but we are, like the men in the photo, capable of working towards real and lasting change. They didn’t secure world peace through their actions and example and one, Alfred Evans, smoking his pipe in September 1916, would be unaware that he’d end up in prison in the Second World War as well. It’s likely that we won’t get world peace in the near future either. But we can make our smaller actions in research, education or even just supporting groups like the PPU count for something and, as they did, take at least a step towards a better, more peaceful world. We can talk about peace to people who don’t understand what it means and we can get the word out there, to absolutely everyone whether they’re supporters or not, that it’s time to end war. That’s what I see us doing with the Objecting to War project and the wider work of the PPU. It’s what I feel I can proudly say to the men who sat down to have their picture taken on a Sunday in September 98 years ago.


Ben Copsey


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