Conscientious Objection in Britain

Conscientious Objection in Britain

This research explores the experiences of the over sixty thousand other British citizens, who refused to take up arms in the Second World War. As millions of men and women were called up to fight, a small minority remained convinced – influenced by images of the death and destruction of the First World War – that violence was wrong under all and any circumstances. Some were unwilling to make any compromise with a world at war and spent long periods in prison, firm in their absolute convictions. Many more worked as farmers and foresters, or as ambulance workers and in bomb disposal units, as they tried to help others but stopped short of holding weapons. They could be found scattered across the world: in war torn China, volunteering for medical experiments in Britain, amongst the troops fleeing the Japanese advance, heaving wood in the forests of Scotland, in the bombed out cities of western Europe, and amongst the first people to enter the newly liberated concentration camps. Their story has been largely forgotten, but the experiences of these people tells us a great deal about British traditions of freedom and conviction, but also more universally, the line between war and peace and the limits of strong beliefs. After the war they would go on to shape modern human rights and humanitarianism.

In many ways, the story of these conscientious objectors has a particularly British flavour. Britain was the first country in the world to grant the right to conscientious objection in wartime to anyone who could show they were sincere and genuine. Even at the height of the war, as Nazi troops were poised to cross the channel and march into British towns, conscientious objectors were largely tolerated in Britain, and often working happily alongside people in military uniform. Yet, if freedom of conscience is part of the British self-image as a nation that values liberty, this has not always been straight forward. British public life has also been marked by a self-conscious and detached irony, where intense convictions are mistrusted and downplayed in favour of steady practical judgements. Many claims of conscience have also been routinely excluded, reproducing inequalities of class, gender and ethnicity.

Importantly, conscience is not simply a question of abstract principle. It is also an issue of intensely intimate hopes and fears. Conscientious objectors were just on the brink of adulthood when war was declared, their whole lives stretching out before them with all the excitement and terror that can imply. Above all, conscientious objectors were sisters and brothers, friends and lovers. Their conscience was threaded through obligations to mothers, fathers, and siblings, as well as nation, class and religion, even if it was sometimes torn at the edges. Conscientious objectors therefore did not just confront questions of absolute personal conviction, but simultaneously also had to grapple with the wishes and disappointments of those close to them. This research therefore draws on the letters, diaries, and memoires of conscientious objectors and those that knew them, in order to understand what was at stake, both personally and politically, in refusing to fight in the Second World War.

Looking back eighty years on, conscience objectors can appear naive or even utopian. There is an important sense in which they lost the argument: they failed to prevent the war, and it was military might, rather than non-violence that defeated fascism. But the significance of their actions did not end in 1945 on VE day, or even with the abolition of conscription over a decade later. Many of their commitments emerged intact from the ashes of the war, as significant aspects of international post-war life were made in their image, bodies like the UN and the EU who were formed in commitment to peace. Conscientious objectors would also go on to leave an indelible mark on British public life. Their numbers included some of the leading composers, writers, scientists and politicians of their generation. Most importantly, they were central to the growth of human rights and humanitarianism in the second half of the twentieth century, both in Britain and across the world.