The Bravery of a So-Called Coward

With the centenary of the start of the Great War, and the commemoration of the heroism of the fighters, it is also a time to commemorate another brave group: the conscientious objectors, often inspired by their religious faith, obeying the words of the bible, even prepared to die for their beliefs when the rest of the world chose to forgot them. This is from an article in the i newspaper by Johnathan Brown:

“Howard Crutttenden Marten was the first name on the list. As he was led out to the centre of the parade ground on a summer’s evening in the French port town of Boulogne to hear the court martials verdict, the first thing he noticed was the large body of en brought out to bear witness to his humiliation.
There was little ceremony for them to observe however, and the mood was sombre.

“The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot… confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief” the presiding officer intoned.

Marten, a 31-year-old Quaker businessman from north London, would later recall his reaction: “Well, that’s that,” he thought.

Than after a cruelly long pause, the officer added a brief postscript: “…subsequently commuted to penal servitude for 10 years.”

Marten’s “crimes” like those of 3 other men, Henry Scullard, Jack Foister and John Ring, also sentenced that night, were disobedience and a refusal to obey orders. Put simply: they would not fight.

Actually, it was worse than that. Unlike 800 other conscientious objectors in military custody at the time, Marten and his co-defendants refused to recognise the army’s authority at all, declining to carry out even such war-related activity as digging ditches or farm work.

Marten was a so-called “absolutist”, whose steadfast and principled stand against the might of the military machine was to become a thorn in the side of the political establishment.

It eventually earned him and his cause powerful supporters, including some in the house of commons where Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, was humiliatingly forced to guarantee publically the principle that conscientious objectors should not be jailed – or worse.

The sentences of Marten, Scullard, Foister and Ring had been commuted on the orders of General Sir Douglas Haig – although they were not allowed to know it. But their plight, along with that of 31 other defendants court-martialled in Boulogne (also sentenced to death, commuted to hard labour), proved a turning-pint for those who opposed forced conscription under the Military Service Act, which had been introduced earlier that year.

These conscientious objectors were among the first party to be sent to France – despite political assurances that they would not be despatched abroad.

However, Marten’s indestructible faith made him immune to the privations he would experience.

“Standing there on the parade ground, I had a sense of representing something outside my own self, supported by a strength stronger than frail humanity,” he later recalled.

In his subsequent statement tot eh House of Commons on 29 June, the Prime Minister told MPs that men found to be “genuine conscientious objectors will be released from the civil prison on their undertaking to perform work of national importance under civil control.”

But he added: “Men who put forward objections of this kind as a pretext ad a cloak to cover their indifference in responding to the national call, and therefore guilty of the double offence of cowardice and hypocrisy, should be treated as they ought to be treated, with the utmost rigor.”

By the war’s end, an estimated 16,000 men had refused to fight.

Many were put to work on tasks of “national importance” such as farming, while around 7,000 served in non-combatant roles, either in the NCC or on the front line as medics. At least 6,000 saw out the war – and beyond – in jail.

Marten was not released for a further 3 years. He led the conscientious objection movement during the Second World War and died in 1981 aged 96

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