Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We Will Not Go to War — reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

We Will Not Go to War
by Felicity Goodall
The History Press, 2010

We Will Not Go to War is not a textbook but a series of snapshots from people's lives, told in their own words. Based on interviews that are complemented by unpublished memoirs, letters, and published memoirs, We Will Not Go to War explores what it was like to question one's conscience and decide not to go to war. The personal stories are told with straightforwardness and honesty. Goodall argues that conscientious objectors were courageous both in withstanding the pressure from the general public and in upholding their beliefs in the face of imprisonment and/or execution. Goodall's study counteracts the general view of pacifism as cowardly and shameful

Order Now
The 21 chapters discuss a wide range of subjects, from conscription and the Non-Combatant Corps to working on the land. The first eight chapters deal specifically with World War One; the remaining 13 show how the legacy of World War One influenced pacifism in World War Two. Chapter four, "Prison," contains heartrending comments by conscientious objectors. A case in point is Quaker journalist Hubert Peet, who describes the conditions as follows:

Now I want to tell you [his three daughters] about the little room in prison in which I have been living. It is about as big as the scullery at Peak Hill with a [sic] iron door with no handle on the inside and a little window with iron bars on it high up in the wall. All it has is a little table, a stool, a few pots and a wooden bed without any legs. This is put up against the wall during the day with the bed clothes over it. I have a spoon to eat with, a funny tin knife, a tin plate and a mug which I wash up myself after every meal. For breakfast and supper I just have porridge and brown bread and that's all. No butter or jam or cake. Then for dinner I get bread and potatoes and sometimes suet pudding, sometimes soup and sometimes a little bit of meat.

Anti-Conscientious Objector Poster

On completion of their sentence, conscientious objectors were released and returned to barracks —where they would disobey orders and be returned once again to prison. Periods of depression were common among conscientious objectors. Mark Hayler, for example, wrote that

Men would shout out in the night, yell anything to break the monotony. And when things went on month after month and went into years, it seemed as though there would never be an end to it . . .

Chapter 6, "Those at home," investigates the situation for wives, focusing on their emotional and financial stress. It contains letters in which wives express their distress at seeing other families together, men home on leave, and the general financial well-being of such families. Chapter 8, "Aftermath," is the shortest chapter in the book but contains important details about the fate of conscientious objectors at the end of the war. Most were not released from prison until April 1919, after which they were disenfranchised for ten years. It was also extremely difficult for them to get a job.

Similar Anti-C.O. Poster

John Brocklesbury, one of the 50 early resisters shipped to France (See my earlier introduction 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'), expresses his surprise at the strength of public feeling against him:

I was surprised to find how bitter local feeling was against me; it seemed much worse than in 1916. I had thought that having proved myself sincere they would give me credit for it. But no, they had suffered the poisoning effects of nearly three more years of war. Possibly they had thought that the British army, the only God that many of them trusted, would certainly break such resistance. But we had beaten the military and they hated us for it. I could feel it as I walked the streets, and I saw it in the faces of people who at one time pretended to be friends.

We Will Not Go to War is highly readable and copiously illustrated with photographs of conscientious objectors. The set of challenges in the final chapter, "Hindsight," is highly topical and reminds the reader that conscientious objection plays an important, albeit underestimated, role in wartime democracy. As Ernest Lenderyou writes in the quotation that concludes Goodall's study, pacifists contributed "to the maintenance of sanity and humanity in public life." Goodall concludes that "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle."

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. Two members of South Dakota's Hutterite community, Joseph and Michael Hofer, died in Fort Leavenworth after being imprisoned as conscientious objectors.

  2. I learn t so much from this book. thank you.