May 15 is International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. To coincide with this, Lancaster charity Global Link has launched a website telling the stories of World War One conscientious objectors (COs) from across Lancashire. In this feature, Global Link volunteers outline the stories of local COs who resisted the call to fight.
They were ordinary working men leading ordinary lives, until World War One propelled them into a crisis of conscience that would dramatically change their lives.
The decision to resist the call to arms and become a conscientious objector was not an easy one.
Individuals paid a painful price for their beliefs, shunned by their communities as shirkers and cowards. Many of those who were imprisoned suffered appalling brutality and near starvation at the hands of their captors.
Now the unflinching stories of local COs have been brought to life in the ‘Documenting Dissent’ website launched by Lancaster charity, Global Link.
Volunteer researchers were recruited during the Heritage Lottery funded project to uncover the case histories of men and women from Lancashire prepared to stand up for
their convictions. Estimates show more than 1,600 people from across the county turned to conscientious objection during WW1, although these figures could be higher due to military tribunal records being destroyed.
Twenty volunteers were involved in the project, including history students from Lancaster Royal Grammar School, who gathered stories of former pupils who became COs.
Following the introduction of compulsory military service in 1916, all conscripted men who claimed conscientious objection faced a tribunal by a local panel.
Depending on the tribunal decision, a CO could be offered an exemption on the condition they undertook ‘alternative’ civilian service.
Or they could be given an exemption from duties involving weapons as long as they undertook other non-combative war-related work.
Many COs were ‘absolutists’, committed pacifists who refused to undertake any form of alternative or non-combatant service.
They included Alwynne Walmsley, a teacher from Lancaster, who was twice imprisoned. Alwynne was a Quaker whose faith meant he rejected any form of violence.
Alwynne was court-martialled and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. Following his release in 1918, he was re-arrested shortly afterwards for refusing to do military service. The case of Henry Alty, a Pilling joiner who objected to the war on religious grounds, highlights the levels of brutality C.O.s faced. His case led to questions being raised in the House of Commons following his court-martial at Oswestry military camp, in 1916.
During a debate, a Liberal MP from London, who took an interest in the welfare of COs, asked the Secretary of State for War, Hugh Arnold Fraser if he was aware of Henry Alty being subjected to ‘persistent ill treatment by being tied from shoulder to shoulder with a rope and then on to a barrow handle; whether he was aware that he was then dragged along by men on either side while another forced his head back and he was prodded behind with a sharp instrument until he collapsed on the floor, and that he was then dragged some considerable distance and afterwards thrown on top of the barrow.’
Though the war minister denied the brutality allegations amidst suggestions of a possible ministerial cover up, it was clear imprisonment had left psychological scars on Henry.
After the war he developed an aversion to anyone wearing a uniform. Becoming a CO also its toll on Preston market gardener and fitness instructor Joseph Garstang.
As a committed socialist and member of the No Conscription Fellowship, Joe took an absolutist stance and refused to have anything to do with the conflict.
As a result, he spent several years in prison, during which time he went on hunger strike and was force-fed.
His great niece Ann Berry believes that this experience broke Joe’s health. A market gardener and fitness instructor before the war, he was unable to return to his former working life when he was released from prison for the last time in 1919 and he died less than 10 years later, aged only 38.
Other COs, while refusing to fight, agreed to undertake alternative service. Among these were Quaker brothers John Lamb Howson and William Giles Howson, and Robert Waites, all former pupils of LRGS.
Their stories were researched by current pupils, who discovered the trio joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and each worked on
Ambulance Train 16, transporting soldiers from the Front to Boulogne.
Marble carver Albert Tomlinson, who worked at his father’s business, in Penny Street, served in France as a driver with the FAU after a military service tribunal exempted him from combatant role due to his religious beliefs.
Another Lancaster CO, Cyril Walmsley – brother to Alwyne – took a different stance from his brother. Rather than face imprisonment, as his brother had done, he opted to work for the Friends War Victims Relief Committee alleviating the suffering of people in war-torn France.
Alison Lloyd Williams, Global Education Worker at Global Link, said the stories highlight the dilemmas faced by individuals when faced with issues of conscience.
She said: “I think what’s really striking is how diverse the experiences of COs were and the different moral choices they made.
“It makes you appreciate how brave a decision it was to become a CO. Some of the stories we have discovered are very shocking indeed.
“However, it is also inspiring to learn more about individuals who held to their beliefs and continued to show resistance to war, even in the face of enormous pressure.”
Global Education Support Worker Ruth Jenkins agreed, describing the COs as “incredibly courageous in standing by their convictions.”
Along with the website, a story board poster is being produced to highlight the stories of COs. This will be displayed in schools and libraries and is aimed at educating the wider public about conscientious objection.
Alison added: “We hope the project will create a legacy that others will learn from. The stories of these World War One COs still have great relevance today.
“Conscription is compulsory is many countries today and there are still COs, some of whom face imprisonment for their beliefs.”
l The Documenting Dissent website is being launched to coincide with International Conscientious Objectors’ Day on Friday May 15.
A launch event is being held at Lancaster YMCA, Fleet Square, on Thursday May 21, at 7.30pm.
There will be a talk by retired Leeds University lecturer Cyril Pearce, who has compiled a database of WW1 COs.
This will be followed by presentations from project volunteers.
The event is free. Anyone wishing to attend is asked to contact Global Link at email@example.com or on 01524 36201.
For some volunteers, the stories of conscientious objection took on a deeper meaning after researching the wartime history of family members.
Angela Norris investigated the story of her great grandfather, Pilling joiner Henry Alty, who was sentenced to six months’ hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs and was the subject of alleged brutality.
She said: “I never knew Henry as he died when I was three years old, but I wish I had known him.
“He was clearly a man of principle, who stood up for what he believed was right and evidently paid an emotional and psychological price. Through researching Henry’s story, I feel I have got to know him better. My dad tells me his conscientious objection was always shrouded in secrecy and shame, something never to be talked about – such was the sense of stigma that persisted.”
Ann Berry, great niece of Joseph Garstang, said she had found researching his history an ‘emotional roller coaster.’
She said: “When I heard how he was treated I was shocked. But it makes you feel quite proud of how he stood up for his beliefs.
“I hope by telling his story I’m doing him a bit of justice to what he went through, and giving him a voice.”
Zephyrine Barbarachild, who researched the role of women activists who supported COs, said she now had a greater understanding of her grandmother, who was a suffragist.