Battles of conscience from the Second World War revealed

Leith-born artist Edwin Lucas was a prominent conscientious objector. Picture: National Museums Scotland
Leith-born artist Edwin Lucas was a prominent conscientious objector. Picture: National Museums Scotland
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The Scots who became conscientious objectors in the Second World War are to be honoured in a new exhibition at Edinburgh Castle.

The National War Museum at the attraction will reveal for the first time the personal stories of many of those who refused to fight in the conflict.

It will recall how around 2,000 Scots were officially opposed to the war on religious, moral, political or humanitarian grounds.

The exhibition relives the court-style tribunal hearings conscientious objectors were forced to undergo to avoid being put behind bars while Britain was at war. It will recall how they could help win an exemption if they agreed to play a noncombatant role in the war effort behind the scenes.

Extracts of personal letters and speeches will feature, along with posters from key demonstrations, and photographs depicting how conscientious objectors ended up heavily involved in the war.

The exhibition, Conscience Matters, will examine the stance taken by leading cultural figures, including the Glasgow-born poet Edwin Morgan, who would go on to become the first Scots Makar, the Edinburgh-born short story writer Fred Urquhart, and the artists Sax Shaw, who spent much of his life in the capital, and Leith-born Edwin Lucas.

Also featured in the exhibition is Tom Burns, a conscientious objector, who was serving in a medical unit when he was captured by the Germans in Crete and spent two years in a prisoner of war camp. He later became a professor of sociology at Edinburgh University.

The 10-month exhibition, which will open on 8 March, has emerged from an Edinburgh University research project exploring issues around freedom of conscience around the world, including the 60,000 people in Britain who refused to 
fight in the Second World War.

Maureen Barrie, exhibition officer at National Museums Scotland, which also runs the war museum at the castle, said: “The most fascinating thing in putting the exhibition together is finding out what these peoples signed up for in the war and the roles they fulfilled. One of the interesting things that conscientious objectors have said is that, on the whole, they were tolerated and respected.

“However, some of the images we have going in the exhibition will show how intimidating the tribunals could be for conscientious objectors. It was almost like standing in a dock being questioned about your beliefs. For a lot of people that was a very hard thing to do.”

Tobias Kelly, professor of political and legal anthropology at the university, said: “We tend to talk more about the conscientious objectors in the First World War even though there were more than three times as many in the Second World War.

“The First World War conscientious objectors are often held up as people who opposed a bad war. We’re much more ambiguous about the Second World War, which is seen as a good or just war. It was much more complicated and their stories have been pretty much forgotten. But many of them went on to have very prominent roles in Scottish and British public life, such as Eric Baker, who went on to become one of the founders of Amnesty International, and Gordon Stott, who became a Lord Advocate in Scotland.

“Conscience can be a very private, intimate thing, but when the conscientious objectors went to tribunals they had to make that public. The exhibition will show how some of them did that, whether through their music, paintings or poetry, or through their humanitarian work.

“An interesting thing to come out of the research is that although conscientious objectors were pacifists and had strong convictions, none of them thought it was easy.

“The vast majority of them only got exemption on the grounds that they did something of national importance, such as hospital work, the Royal Army Medical Corps or bomb disposal. It was almost a way of them proving that their conscience was sincere. They were deeply concerned to show that they were not lazy, cowardly or disloyal. They were also worried about being seen as fascist sympathisers.”

Barrie added: “It has been a really rewarding experience to turn the research into an exhibition. The space where it will be on is the very last one that visitors to the war museum will go through. It will tell a fantastic story for the first time.”

Conscience Matters, National War Museum, 8 March to 26 January, 2020