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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of the First World War's Conscientious Objectors — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of the First World War's Conscientious Objectors
by Will Ellsworth-Jones
Aurum, 2008

We Will Not Fight is the poignant story of 35 British conscientious objectors who were shipped to France by the British Army because they refused to fight. Who were these men? Why did they refuse to fight? And how were they viewed by their contemporaries? These questions form the basis of Ellsworth-Jones's thoughtful and compelling study.

COs in a Work Camp

Prompted by a newspaper article on the 35 conscientious objectors that appeared in the Daily Telegraph in May 1999, Will Ellsworth-Jones explores the motives and beliefs of conscientious objectors faced with the introduction of conscription by the Military Service Act on 27 January 1916. The heavy losses in the first two years of the war and the activities of the White Feather Brigade increased the pressure on conscientious objectors, who were regarded as both disloyal and cowardly. Ellsworth-Jones corrects this view by providing the background to the men's defiance and describing the horrendous conditions under which they were incarcerated. Theirs is a story of courage based on religious belief and unbending conviction. With the aid of diaries and letters, We Will Not Fight re-creates the personal story of British conscientious objection from 1916 to the end of the war.

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The focus is primarily on Bert Brocklesbury, a newly qualified school teacher. When asked by the Non Combatant Corps (an alternative to bearing weapons) if he had ever made any sacrifices for his opinions, Bert answered that he had worked for 18 years to help missionary enterprise. He realized that his interlocutors would neither understand nor accept his views or principles. Incarcerated first at Pontefract Barracks and subsequently at Richmond Castle before being sent to France, Bert was interrogated by a captain. Part of the interview, which clearly states Bert's position, is recorded in We Will Not Fight

"Why are you a conscientious objector?"

"Do you not think that those commands apply to individuals but not to the state?"

"They apply to both."

"Are you a Christian?"

'There are thousands of Christians in the war.'
'It's not my idea of being a Christian.'

For the remainder of the war, they were held prisoner in England. Bert Brocklesbury was fortunate in that he was one of the few who had the support of his family. His fiancée, however, broke off their engagement. After the war, Bert found it difficult to find a teaching job after having refused to fight. Turning to a missionary career instead, he found not only peace but also his future wife.

Memorials to COs at Tavistock Gardens, London

Bert's story is set in the context of recruitment policies in Britain and the general public disdain for conscientious objection, not least among women. Supplemented by photographs of the Brocklesbury family, Bert's brothers in uniform, groups of conscientious objectors doing hard labor, prison cells and newspaper clippings about conscientious objection, We Will Not Fight is both an historical and a personal story about one of the least understood features of World War One. It is also, as Ellsworth-Jones reminds us, a story that continues to reverberate to this day.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

1 comment:

  1. Ultimately I think these men were misguided.
    But it does take a very particular kind of courage, moral courage, to do what they did. If people were calling you a coward or a traitor, it would be extremely tempting to join up for that reason alone.
    Not all Christians took the principle that far. I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, and they perceived a tension between the Christian principle of not taking life, with the Biblical injunction to "obey those whom God had set over you" (i.e the Government). They mostly resolved this by accepting conscription but opting to join the Non-Combatant Corps. This was not always an easy option; several became stretcher-bearers in the front line, and at least one was in bomb disposal (in WW2).
    Having said that most Christians had no such scruples: a distant uncle of mine was a commited Christian and a member of a different splinter group of the Brethren: Captain Arthur Dean, MC and bar, Royal Engineers - we believe that he was the man who detonated the Hawthorn mine.