Remembering Pacifists

Pacifists were not popular during the First World War. I have read of them being shouted at in the street and given white feathers of cowards, but they really did suffer for their beliefs. This is from an article by Cahal Milmo from the I newspaper on Conscientious objectors:

In the aftermath of the Battle of Ypres in 1917, Lucy Pearson received a letter on behalf of King George V offering a “plaque and scroll” on behalf of a grateful nation for the loss in combat of her son, Joseph. She turned it down.

The exact reason why Mrs Pearson wrote her terse response to the military authorities – “I do not wish you to send plaque or scroll” is unknown but it is very likely to have related to the fact that her dead son was a conscientious objector (CO).

Along with his older brother, John, both young men were pacifists from a Baptist family in Cheshire and had joined the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation for COs prior to Britain’s introduction of a compulsory call-up in 1916.

But while John, who was then 24, was court-martialled and eventually saw out the war at Home Office work centres, 22 year old Joseph was meted out a different – and brutal – fate. After his arrest for failing to answer his call-up papers, Joe was transferred to the notorious Birkenhead Barracks on Merseyside, despite his refusal to sign the papers enrolling him in the British Army, he was enlisted into the 3rd battalion of the Cheshire regiment.

By June 1917, Joseph was in France with the British Expeditionary Force fighting at the Battle of Messines. By early August he was dead, killed in skirmishing around Ypres.

From today, the story of Private Pearson and the awful grief of his mother – along with details of 16,499 other COs – will be available online as part of a project by the Imperial War Museum to tell the story of the bravery of those who chose not to fight, alongside the accounts of those who did.

The new digital database based on more than 20 years of research by Dr Cyril Pearce, a Huddersfield academic, details the records of nearly all the British men – including Joseph Pearson – who refused to go to war on grounds of religious, political, moral or social beliefs and in so doing were often punished with imprisonment and approbrium.

While vilified enduring the war and fro decades afterwards, the “conchies” as they were called, are now regarded as having had no little courage in defying the prevailing consensus in a nation at war.

Those refusing to fight had to appear before a local tribunal to argue their case only to be frequently rejected, or ordered to undertake non-combatant but perilous roles such as stretcher bearers.

Refusal, as Private Pearson is likely to have found out, was viewed dimly and treated mercilessly.

George Beardsworth, another CO sent to Birkenhead, who later became a Labour MP, described how he was beaten in a

public park in front of a crowd that included his wife for refusing to obey orders in 1916.

He said, “When I refused ot makrk time 2 soldiers kicked my legs the whole time. When I refused to turn my eyes right someone punched the side of my head… Relays of men, 6 at a time, ran me round the field punching me. ”

Dr Pearce said: “It is impossible to calculate how many men had Joseph Pearson’s experience or that of the other men who had been ‘broken in’. It is clear there was a view that objectors’ principles could be beaten out of them and it is likely Pearson was bullied into signing his army papers. It seemed to me that his family were not best pleased at this treatment.

Dr Pearce’s register makes clear that in the battle of wills, the CO’s chief weapon was eloquence. William Harrison, a Manchester pacifist, told his tribunal: “War inevitably means that the nations involved degenerate and become like brutes. I love my country too dearly to assist it in coming  to such a deplorable state.”


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