Ernest Everett was 32 years old when the First World War started. He lived and worked as a teacher in St Helens. By the autumn of 1915, men were required to sign a register to “attest their willingness to serve”, if they hadn’t already signed up. ‘Why are you not serving at the front, sir, like my dad, sir?’ Then, when the Conscription Military Service Act became law in 1916, he was arrested and appeared before a tribunal. ‘How long have you had a conscience, Mr Everett?’ ‘Sixteen or seventeen years…’, he answered. How do you prove to someone you have a conscience? ‘I am not a Quaker but I am a Christian’, he reasoned. He had also become a member of Edmund Morel’s Union of Democratic Control, which campaigned to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by Belgium in the Congo and was suspicious of the motives of the great powers in starting a war.
His claim for absolute exemption from service on the grounds of conscience was rejected by both local and Appeal tribunals. Everett refused to take non-combative service in the forces on the grounds that his conscience would not permit him to support actions in which another human was killed, though he was sent off to army camps in Warrington and then Abergele. As a result, he was court-martialled and sentenced to two year’s hard labour in a camp on Dartmoor, the first conscientious objector (CO) to be given such a sentence. There was a public outcry, led nationally by Bertrand Russell, who argued that Everett was keeping up ‘the old fight for liberty’. In the end, he served a few months’ hard labour before finding himself back with the army to deal with. He would be court-martialled again, as many were, perhaps six or seven times, before finding themselves back in prison, for up to six months at a stretch.
There is no record of him after the war, living or working in St Helens. There maybe a Leeds family connection somewhere. He just seems to have vanished. I wondered where he went, what he did for a living. Perhaps, we’ll never know. It was hard for those men, fighting on the front line in the forces. It was hard too for the men, standing up for their country, refusing to fight on grounds of conscience. George Baker, a leading conscientious objector (CO) at the time, said, ‘I am a pacifist…a patriot. I love my country, and its heroic poor who are the salt of the earth.’ How do you prove that to an often hostile tribunal?
How do I know about Ernest Everett? Well, I was watching a re-enactment of his tribunal before Liverpool Appeal Tribunal, a transcript of which was published in the Liverpool Echo in 1915. This must have been quite unusual and shows the importance of the case at the time. The re-enactment formed the second part of the event following a talk given by Lois Bibbings, an academic from Bristol University, who’s just published a book about COs, called Telling Tales About Men, Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors during the First World War.
Her own family were split. Her father and one of his brothers chose to be COs. Two other brothers joined up, supported by their father. It is not recorded what their mother thought. A decision taken to fight or not could split families and communities dealing with the pain, rejection and brokenness. The effects continued long after the war was over. Perhaps, this was a reason why Everett moved away. He couldn’t vote for five years and the lack of a service record may have effectively barred him from ever teaching again.
The reasons for conscription are more complex than I thought. Most people think it was because the war effort needed more manpower. According to Bibbings, the services had enough manpower. What they didn’t have was enough of the right kind of men, skilled and experienced in particular fields of work. What the forces needed was a controlled workforce with enough men of the right calibre.
At the time, men were, in effect, faced with three choices. You could flee and hide. You could elect for non-combative work, usually in agriculture or with the ambulance service. Under the Act, there were exemptions for your job role and for the clergy. And there was enough support in Parliament to insert a ‘conscience clause’ under which, you could claim absolute, partial or conditional exemption on ground of conscience, if you could prove it.
Absolute exemption was rare; partial or conditional more frequent. By and large, tribunals did their best to discourage conscientious objection. The questions asked of Everett at his tribunal were personal and upfront. ‘What would you do if you could stop the submarine from sinking the Lusitania?’ ‘By sinking it?’ ‘Yes.’ Then, I could not do it.’ ‘What if you saw your sister being attacked by a German soldier?’ As a man beyond conscription age (hopefully), but with two young sons in their early 20s, I wondered what I would do. Everett’s answer was consistent. ‘If it means killing anyone, then, my conscience will not let me do it.’ There is a difference between being a pacifist and a passivist. Deciding to stand up to the local authorities, police and military, with the knowledge you could end up in prison was not one to take lightly. COs were not passive and could find themselves in fights on their local streets. Imagine the name calling and sarcasm they would face. Standing up against the public authorities took courage.
As a Quaker, I try, not always successfully, to resolve my everyday conflict situations in a non-violent manner. Thankfully, there are tools you can learn and practise. Two examples of Quakers as well as others showing faith in action today are Alternatives to Violence Project Britain (avpb) and Turning the Tide. It was generally assumed then that, because you were a Quaker, you would be more likely to be granted absolute exemption. In fact, about a third of Quakers opted for conscientious objection while the rest either joined non-combative services or enlisted and fought. Quaker families and communities were deeply divided too. They were at pains to argue that they be treated all the same, no special treatment, which would separate them from other COs.
There are estimates of between 16 – 20,000 men as Conscientious Objectors during the war. They were vilified in the press – accused of cowardice, effeminacy, often treachery. Cartoons and newspaper articles lampooned and pilloried them, ‘The Fellowship of Faint Hearts’. Of course, there were other ways of looking at it. Some men refused to fight because they were patriotic. Clifford Allen, a CO leader, said, ‘It was our love of our country that made us choose prison rather than see her bound by conscription.’ Others had political reasons for not fighting – socialists, who mistrusted the motives behind Britain’s reasons for fighting Germany. Many objected on moral or religious grounds. Often, Cos would have some or all of these motives together. It raised and still raises many questions, which each man had to ask.
We heard about the so-called ‘Group 46’, a Chamber of Commerce scheme, which enabled men in business and commerce to continue working during the war until they were called up, about 20,000 men.
Not many people, not least those serving, know that Conscientious Objection is allowed for under the Queen’s Regulations. There have been a number of high profile cases, where service military personnel have claimed the right to conscientious objection after enlisting. A strange one, you might think, but explicable, for example, when a non-combatant’s role, say, that of an army medic, is changed to include bearing arms.
On the radio not long ago, I listened to a discussion about allowing women to fight on the front line. A retired army officer, who had fought in the Falklands, gave his view, ‘Men have to run uphill, in the dark, carrying packs on their backs, weighting 79 kilos, over rocks, holding their rifles, wielding bayonets, looking for the enemy, ready to bayonet them. That is the reality. And that, in my view, is not a fit job for a woman.’ Nor, I thought, is it for a man.
National Conscientious Day is commemorated on 15 May every year. There is a memorial stone in Tavistock Square in London.
A copy of the script used by Liverpool Quakers in the re-enactment of Ernest Everett’s tribunals is available to download at http://www.liverpoolquakers.org.uk/ . It is hoped to put the film made of it on youtube in the near future. Keep an eye on the site for more information, if you’re interested.
Boulton, David, Objection Overruled, Conscription in the First World War
Bibbings, Lois, Telling Tales About Men, Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors during the First World War