Remembering the First World War’s conscientious objectors

Elizabeth Allen with pictures of her grandfather John Searson, a conscientious objector. Photograph: Neil Hanna
Elizabeth Allen with pictures of her grandfather John Searson, a conscientious objector. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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THEY were often imprisoned, ostracised and sent white feathers in the post for their refusal to join the military services at a time when the majority of able-bodied men were being called up to fight in the Great War.

But now, as the centenary of the First World War is being marked with commemorative events throughout the nation, the role of Scotland’s thousands of “COs” (conscientious objectors) will be the focus of a special event in Edinburgh.

Conscientious objectors pictured in Dyce

Conscientious objectors pictured in Dyce

Phil Lucas, a Quaker and human rights activist leading the debate on “Conscientious Objectors and WW1” at Edinburgh Central Library on Wednesday, will be joined by a panel including the granddaughter of a First World War CO and two Second World War COs, one of whom went on the run in the Highlands to avoid arrest.

By the second year of the Great War volunteers were in short supply, leading to the government introducing conscription. The Military Service Act of 1916 allowed those with objections to be exempted on religious, moral and political grounds, but appeals were judged by a military tribunal.

Scotland saw massive anti-war rallies and many COs were assigned to “work of national importance”.

However, a controversial work camp at a granite quarry in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, was shut down after an inmate died from pneumonia.

Lucas, from Stenton, East Lothian, said: “Quakers faced a dilemma at the beginning of the First World War. Some were in the ambulance unit wearing military uniform but doing first aid only. But with conscription some argued this was helping the war effort by mending soldiers to send them back.

“Quakers have been very active in opposing war, including the interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. If the sort of money spent on Trident and weapons was put towards mediation and peacekeeping the world would be a safer place.”

Elizabeth Allen, from North Berwick, will talk about her grandfather John Searson, from Rutherglen, Glasgow, a CO dismissed from his librarian job and sent to Dalmarnock power station to shovel coal.

“My grandfather was an active member of the Independent Labour Party and argued he didn’t think it was right for workers in one nation to kill workers in another.”

David Turner, 91, from Portobello, Edinburgh, fled to the Highlands to avoid being sent to Barlinnie prison after appearing before a tribunal.

“I put my case that I could never be trained to kill,” he said. “Foolishly I said something about my political opinions and they didn’t accept my appeal.

“I decided to go on the run and knew a number of safe houses through the Peace Pledge Union. I hid in the Highlands, working for part of the time at the Glen Nevis youth hostel.”

Nan Stewart, 91, a former civil servant, from North Berwick, lived with other COs in Dundee. “It is such a long time ago but my views will never change.”

Edinburgh City Council is considering a petition to have a CO memorial in the city.