I heard the words “conscientious objector” on the news the other day and they immediately grabbed my attention.
However, the item turned out to be about doctors exercising their conscientious objection to performing abortions. I grew up with the term in a specific context, because my uncle Bert was a conchie during WWII and had two - maybe three - stretches in Wormwood Scrubs.
He was an absolutist who refused all alternatives to military service. I've been thinking about him because I've just read Will Ellsworth-Jones sensitive and moving account of conscientious objection in WW1.*
A history graduate, W E-J's interest in the subject was aroused by a story in the Daily Telegraph concerning 35 COs who were sent to France to be court-martialled and sentenced to death.
One of the men in particular, a Methodist absolutist Bert Brocklesby, caught his attention and his remarkable book is centred on the Brocklesby brothers and all that befell them. It's a coincidence that this absolutist too, should be called Bert and that his brothers, Phil and Harold, should be volunteers.
Love and war in families
Apart from the wider implications of refusing to fight, W E-J has meticulously researched its impact on one solidly middle- class family. What he found was that - despite all the scorn and hatred that was heaped upon COs then - the very proper and patriotic Brocklesby family did not go to war with itself but remained bound by love and family loyalty throughout Bert's ordeals in prison and court and Phil and Harold's ordeals in the trenches. The parallel with my own family is striking.
While Uncle Bert went to prison for his beliefs, his younger brother Syd volunteered for the Royal Air Force at and became a rare bird indeed: a non-commissioned pilot.
He was eventually made up to a Flying Officer and spent most of the war submarine spotting on Atlantic patrol. Meanwhile, their father (my grandfather - a building worker) was engaged in heavy rescue operations in blitzed London.
My grandma once told me that her youngest brother - who was home on leave from the trenches of WWI - wept in the passage of their house when the time came to return to France. He never came back. After grandma died, mum found she'd kept my uncle Syd's “wings” from his battle dress together with a lock of his hair, in her dressing table drawer.
But, like the Brocklesbys, Uncle Bert's pacifism and Uncle Syd's patriotism never drove a My uncle's refusal to fight or support any war effort, had a huge effect on me. Propaganda by deed, you might say. wedge between them. Each respected the other's position and, so far as I know, they held to their own views forever.
On my dad's side, Granddad Cloves volunteered and ended up in France too.
In 1917 the field kitchen where he was working took a direct hit and so did his stomach. Thereafter, with a stomach full of silver tubing, he never held down a full-time civilian job again and was in severe pain to the end of his life in 1944.
The casualty and death figures from WWI are monstrous but I doubt the death statistics include my granddad. His was killed by the war as surely as if he'd been blown to smithereens in France.
As for myself, you could say I've never been tested. National service was over before I was eligible and, though I counted myself a pacifist, I've no idea what I would have done if I'd actually been conscripted.
My own dad, a sheet-metal worker, was sent to build aircraft fuselages at Gloster Aircraft during WWII. He was in a “reserved occupation” and worked where the government chose. So when we upped sticks from London and moved to Cheltenham, Uncle Bert's son, my cousin Paul, came with us to escape the blitz.
My aunt Win stayed in London and that was when I first encountered the term “conscientious objector” - or conchie. My uncle's refusal to fight or support any war effort, had a huge effect on me. Propaganda by deed, you might say.
W E-J's book records that some WWI conchies stated at their tribunals: we will not fight because we are socialists and believe in the brotherhood of man.
Sentiments which cut no ice then and would today send Newlab's ideology-free apparatchiks running for cover.
What the Brocklesbys and their comrades suffered in WWI provoked more humane treatment towards COs in WWII and his account reads like a horrifying and sadistic novel at times. Nevertheless, the Brocklesby brothers all survived the war and their lives are worth the telling. Read this book and weep.