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

Monday, May 19, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Kill: Conscientious Objectors in World War One
Series Introduction by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Corrected Text, 20 May 2014

[Editor's Note:  Regular reviewer Jane Mattisson Ekstam will be examining works on the topics of pacifisim and conscientious objectors in her next several pieces. To start the series, she will provide some background on these general topics here on the eve of her first review.]

Conscientious objectors, or "conchies" as they were sometimes called, took the Lord's commandments at face value. At a time when so many answered Lord Kitchener’s exhortation "Your Country Needs You," many asked themselves, "Who were the pacifists, and why were they held in prison and threatened with execution?" In total, there were approximately 16,300 British conscientious objectors in World War One, of whom 6000 served varying sentences in prison. Thirteen hundred of the 6000, labeled "absolutists", refused to compromise with the state in any shape or form.

A Tribunal for British Conscientious Objectors 

As war fever hit the streets in 1914, conscientious objection was regarded as both unpatriotic and cowardly. While many conscientious objectors served as non-combatants in the trenches and were prepared to die, they were unarmed and refused to handle munitions; as a result, they risked being shackled to the wheels of a gun carriage or hung on barbed wire. According to author Adam Hothschild, almost 50 conscientious objectors were shipped to France for possible execution for refusing to fight. Hothschild does not claim, however, that they were executed.  [The original version of this article suggested that the 50 men were executed.  We apologize for publishing this error. MH] And in 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme, a group of war opponents at a British camp nearby refused to bear arms. Threatened with the death sentence, they stood their ground. It was only thanks to last-minute lobbying in London that their lives were spared. Few at the time understood what it meant to be a conscientious objector.

Conscientious objection existed not only in Great Britain but also in Germany and America. At the beginning of the war, for example, a handful of German parliamentarians opposed war credits. Radicals like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht later went to prison, as did the American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Conscientious objection was international and was here to stay. Indeed, as Will Ellsworth-Jones has noted, "the battle over conscience fought between 1914 and 1918 laid the groundwork for the treatment of the conscientious objector both in the Second World War and in the wars that have followed in Vietnam and Iraq." (We Will Not Fight. The Untold Story of the First World War’s Conscientious Objectors. Aurum, 2008).

COs Sentence to Work in a Quarry near Dartmoor Prison

While historians have tended to focus on combatants, histories of the conscientious objectors are relatively rare. A few historians, like Felicity Goodall, are trying to correct the balance, arguing:

To stand against the tide of public opinion armed only with your beliefs; to be divided from friends, family and even spouses by those beliefs; to be isolated from the defining experience of your generation. Few people have the courage not to follow the common herd. (We Will Not Go to War. Conscientious Objection During the World Wars.  The History Press, 2010)

The story of the conscientious objector is a noble one. It involves people, events, and moral testing grounds that are, as Adam Hochschild argues, "more revealing than any but the greatest of novelists could invent." (To End All Wars. A Story of Protest and Patriots in the First World War.  Macmillan, 2011)

I will review all three books cited here for Roads in the coming months, along with one novel, Edward Marston’s Instrument of Slaughter (2012), a riveting tale about a group of conscientious objectors in London in 1916. My series of reviews begins tomorrow with Will Ellsworth-Jones’s We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of the First World War’s Conscientious Objectors


  1. By their refusal, they redeem the rest of us.

  2. I do not accept the comment that, "Approximately 50 early resisters were forcibly inducted into the British Army, transported to France and executed.". What is your source for this?

    1. Hi David,

      I probably should have questioned this myself before presenting it. I have posted a notice on the article: "[This assertion has been challenged and referred to the contributor for a response, which will be published when I receive it. MH]"


  3. (To End All Wars. A Story of Protest and Patriots in the First World War. Macmillan, 2011) is a great read! It is available on audio and is well preseented.

  4. Archive article on Lew Ayres here:

  5. Many conscientious objectors died whilst serving in none combatant corps and such qualified for a military headstone. I have taken many photographs in the past years but I have only recently found one with the marking N.C.C instead of the usual regimental badge. photo submitted.

  6. Who lobbied whom in London on behalf of CO's transported to France and 1916 refusers to bear arms?
    Readers of this website may be interested in a different perspective of the run up to WW1 which includes the build up of imperialist powers sleepwalking into the inevitable war.
    John Boyd - see