Insight: Heroes who refused to fight

The white feather, a traditional symbol of cowardice, was used to taunt those whose principles would not allow them to enlist in the war against Germany. Picture: Getty
The white feather, a traditional symbol of cowardice, was used to taunt those whose principles would not allow them to enlist in the war against Germany. Picture: Getty
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After 100 years, should we honour the bravery of the Great War’s conscientious objectors, or must they remain ghosts at the feast?

WERE the men who refused to serve in the armed forces during the First World War simply cowards? Should they have been taken out and shot as traitors, as many deserters were? Or should they, like those who died serving king and country, be commemorated during next year’s national ceremonies to mark the outbreak of the Great War?

This is a tricky and controversial matter; but in my experience, tricky and controversial matters often get to the heart of things.

I first became interested in the subject when I was researching and writing the biography of George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. Lord MacLeod, arguably one of the greatest Scots of the 20th century, is an intriguing case.

MacLeod came from a dynasty which had provided five Moderators for the Kirk. His accountant father, John MacLeod, became a Tory MP. When the First World War broke out on 4 August, 1914, George MacLeod, a student at Oxford University intending for the law, signed up with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Like many other young men, he fancied a bit of glory in what was expected to be a short war. He was 19 years old.

After conscription was introduced in 1916 because so many regular soldiers had been killed or maimed, there were some 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in the UK. Members of the No-Conscription Fellowship – mocked as “The No-Courage Fellowship” – had successfully campaigned to secure the right to claim exemption from military service on grounds of conscience.

In the midst of the jingoism, the marching bands, and the rhetoric of politicians like John MacLeod – who had become the West of Scotland’s chief recruiter of young men for the army – the COs were reviled. It is not difficult to see why this should be so. Families who had lost loved ones in battle were understandably enraged by those who refused to enlist. The theatrical pinning of white feathers of cowardice on the clothing of COs was applauded. There was scant sympathy for COs when they were sent to prison for their disobedience; after all, however brutal the treatment they received they mostly held on to their lives.

The COs came from all walks of life. Their approaches differed. Some were “Non-combatants”, who accepted call-up into the army, but refused to use weapons. Others were “Alternativists”, who were prepared to engage in civilian work not under military control. Others again were “Absolutists” who believed that any form of alternative service helped to maintain the war effort, and could not be supported in conscience.

Many COs were court-martialled and imprisoned. The Peace Pledge Union, Britain’s oldest pacifist organisation, estimates that more than 70 COs died either as a result of the inhumane prison conditions, or because of physical or mental illness.

Many of the COs were religious believers. Those who were Christians felt that their primary duty was to follow the example and teachings of Christ, and that they could not, in conscience, kill fellow human beings.

The issue of the legitimate use of state violence had troubled Christian consciences since the first days of Christianity. For the early church, the answer was uncompromising: Jesus was a pacifist, and therefore the Church must be pacifist. Christians could not be soldiers.

After Constantine became Roman emperor in 324 AD and eventually made Christianity the official religion of the empire, accommodations were made. Since they were protecting the Christian political realm, Christians could serve in the army. Rather than loving enemies, they could now pursue them, sword in hand.

The Church, though, could not give its blessing to a free-for-all. The principles of a “just war” theory, which originated with classical Greek and Roman philosophers, were developed and refined by Christian theologians such as St Augustine in the 4th century AD and St Thomas Aquinas nine centuries later.

For a war to be regarded as just, it had to be justified in its inception, and carried out to its conclusion by morally legitimate means. A just war could be waged only as a last resort, with all non-violent options exhausted. The war’s weapons must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Its violence must be proportional to the injury suffered. The attackers must have legitimate authority.

Was the First World War a “just war” in terms of Christian theology? I am not going to attempt an answer to this question here; what is certain, though, is that the raising of such a troubling question by the awkward squad at a time when a whole generation was being slaughtered in order to capture, lose and then attempt to recapture comparatively small areas of territory was itself incendiary.

By and large, the churches supported the war. God, it seemed, was on the side of the Allies (an assumption that would create serious belief problems after the war). In 1916, many Christian COs were standing out against not just their own families and communities, but against the majority Christian culture of the time. That took guts.

Like his zealously crusading father (who said of the Germans that “besides being the vilest race the world has ever seen, they are the stupidest”) the young George MacLeod was in no doubt about his Christian duty. From the trenches at the front he wrote to his father condemning “mouse-eyed conscientious objectors” and urging no mercy for “the Boche”.

MacLeod was involved in the hellish Third Battle of Ypres. When his commanding officer was killed, Adjutant MacLeod took over immediately, showing conspicuous gallantry. Fifteen out of 20 officers were lost, and 330 men out of 400 failed to return. George MacLeod was awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre. His father would be knighted.

MacLeod returned home a hero. But his experience of war had given him much to think about. His reflection led him to give up his law studies, and become a minister of the Kirk. When he became minister of Govan Old Parish Church in Glasgow, he was shocked by the unemployment and poverty he saw all around him.

By the mid-1930s, MacLeod had outed himself as a pacifist and a socialist. The family script had been well and truly torn up. As a pacifist, he would have been a conscientious objector (mouse-eyed or not) if he had had to do it all again. (Mind you, George told me that he preferred the company of military men to pacifists, and described himself as “a 51 per cent pacifist”.)

So what about the forthcoming commemorations? A bit of political posturing is going on at the moment, but nothing about the Scottish Commemorations Panel tells me that there is any desire to glorify war. Commemoration is not the same as celebration.

But the centenary of the start of the First World War provides a new opportunity to listen to voices that have been either ignored or suppressed – for instance, the voices of “deserters”, most of whom would nowadays be diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and the voices of those women who were treated contemptuously for campaigning not just against the war but for the right of women to have equal opportunities in the workplace, and equal pay for equal work.

And what about those who died but whose names are not inscribed on monuments? One example comes from Orkney. The cruiser HMS Hampshire sank off the coast of Orkney on 5 June, 1916. The best known casualty was Lord Kitchener. The number of officers and men who died with him is 655; yet the monument standing on the cliffs of Orkney near the site of the disaster bears only one name – that of Kitchener himself.

The voices of the conscientious objectors who had the courage to stand up for what they believed, in the face of relentless ridicule and hostility, must be heard as well. I believe conscientious objectors deserve proper recognition, rather than being ghosts at the feast. Far from being cowards and traitors, most “Conchies” were brave and principled men. After the war, many COs continued to suffer great hardship, unable to get work simply because of their stance. We need to attend to their stories.

It seems that most of the First World War COs’ records were destroyed in 1921. To fill the gap, the Peace Pledge Union has been compiling a database of every British CO of whom there is any trace. They say that for a large number of COs, no location is so far recorded; currently, 236 COs from Scotland have been identified. They are from Aberdeenshire, Angus, Argyll, Ayrshire, Caithness, Dumfries, Dunbartonshire, Dundee, Edinburgh/Leith, Fife, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Lothian, Midlothian, Orkney, Perthshire, Renfrewshire, Selkirk, Skye, Stirling, and Wigtownshire.

The statistics obscure stories of personal courage. According to information supplied by the Peace Pledge Union, Archibald Brown Naysmith was 20 years old and a postman from Musselburgh when he applied for exemption from conscription in the war. His reason: “I am a Christian and war is opposed to the spirit of Christianity: therefore I refuse to participate in any service directly connected therewith. The military representative on the tribunal’s response was: “This man would make a splendid soldier. He has a fine physique and just wants the nonsense knocked out of him.”

John McCallum, of Oban, was Medical Officer of Health for Argyllshire, and a Scottish international footballer. He was refused CO recognition and was compulsorily enlisted. He refused orders, was court-martialled and sent to Perth Prison.

Andrew Henderson was arrested in September 1916, having been refused CO status. Court-martialled at Hamilton on 6 October, 1916, he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs. He died at the age of 36 in the influenza epidemic of November 1918, leaving a wife and two children. By chance, his funeral procession passed that of a soldier; salutes were exchanged between the two parties, the soldiers standing to attention and the COs doffing their hats. It turned out that the two deceased men were acquaintances.

The commemorations which begin on 4 August next year will provide opportunities for new learnings. Might there be a programme over the next five years that highlights and promotes work for justice and peace? It might, for example, focus on some of the work of the United Nations, and ask what lessons can be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process.

The answers are not just blowing in the wind; some lie in history books, and in the embodied lives of people who fought – and those who refused to fight. Listening to strange or previously unheard voices might be a good place to begin. «

A former Church of Scotland parish minister and Leader of the Iona Community, Ron Ferguson is a journalist and author. His biography of George MacLeod was shortlisted for the Scottish Writer of the Year award. A member of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, he writes here in a personal capacity