WE WILL NOT FIGHT – The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors. Review by Mark Barnes

The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors
By Will Elsworth-Jones
Published by Aurum
ISBN: 978 1 78131 148 6

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

In 1917 the outcry against the supposed comfort and easy life of conscientious objectors exercised the venom of the Northcliffe press as much as it did just about everyone else. It is difficult to imagine what the conditions for a Conchie were. They sailed into a wind of hatred, confusion and utter disbelief. Our country was at war and not winning it. Thousands were dying and more men were always needed, so why should these people be allowed to avoid military service when so many could not? You can see all the arguments and even now, nearly a century on, it would be easy to make hard and fast opinions and easily put yourself in a position of loathing them.

So when numbers of these men were placed in the supposedly cosy surroundings of the Princetown Work Centre in Devon – Dartmoor Prison to you and me – the local community was pretty soon in uproar, whether genuine or stoked up by the press is irrelevant. They held a meeting in Plymouth where all manner of speakers denounced the Conchies. The Times reported that they were accused of practising a bastard socialism and tells us that a delegation of the men were refused the right to speak for themselves. A photograph of the meeting appeared in the Daily Sketch, a paper strongly against the men and the very principle of conscientious objection. It makes for a curious view because you cannot help but notice the lack of men in uniform in the image even though sailors at the Plymouth naval base are cited as being particularly angry with the Conchies. If you read much of the thinking of Siegfried Sassoon you will know of his stand against the conduct of the war. He took a great risk to publicly denounce the way the war was fought. He threw away the Military Cross he had won on the Somme and was shunted off to be treated for his apparent nuttiness at Craiglochart.  His contempt for the loud voices of the Home Front, men who did a lot of talking about but shared none of the life of men ‘in the trenches’ is well known. What did he make of the Conchies? Despite the fireworks at home, a great many soldiers admired them for their brave stand and their endurance; but of course, a fair number did not.

Heroes come in many forms. In wartime they appear where we expect to find them; on the battlefield or high seas, defending the homeland or striking out into the heart of the enemy. They take on an aura which never fades. Some become household words and garner an immortality we cherish and feed with relish. Others have their moment and quietly slip into the recesses of our history waiting for a sudden curtain call, which in this modern media age is not as unlikely as they might have thought; such is our appetite for them when anniversaries come round or when our modern news is thin. We need heroes.

Our perception of them is easily drawn but what do we make of the men who refused to play the game and would not fight? How do we assess their courage to stand up to the intense scrutiny and anger of a nation absorbed in war?

Now out in paperback, this stunning book by Will Ellswoth-Jones tells the story of a group of men who were brave enough to stand up to a tide of white feather infused vilification as they sought to avoid involvement in a war many of them could not countenance because of their deep religious faith. They endured violence, humiliations, imprisonment and the harsh reality of a death sentence to maintain their convictions. Some of them you will like and admire, while others just come across as a thorough pain in the arse – contrary at every turn and just too stubborn. But where would we be without an alternative voice to mass support for any cause? We need people like this who do not follow the herd and who are prepared to stand up and say ‘no’. They create a balance and allowing them to continue, even in the harsh atmosphere of Britain during the Great War, is something we should take some pride in.

I am a man steeped in military history and my admiration for warriors is immense. But there is something about these men, teachers, piano tuners and clerks; who held an alternative view – saw the world differently; had convictions for God or political ideals and a faith in their calling. They took decisions that defined their lives and their relationships with their families and communities. They risked everything.

I’m not an overtly religious man. I avoid supporting a particular team although I am a far from convinced agnostic, let alone an Atheist. I believe in a goodness which balances out evil and don’t much mind if it is powered by a genuine deity or just the best of the people around me. But to have the strength to invoke the word of God to step away from the rush of sentiment energising the war is something I would lack. Clergymen took up the cause of a religious crusade against the evil of the Kaiser’s hordes and yet the majority of his army wore a belt buckle emblazoned with the words Gott Mitt Uns. God With Us. It sometimes makes no sense at all.

The heroes of this book are the Brocklesby family where the sons took decisions to fight or not, but never lost faith and love in each other. There were four boys and they were all a credit to their upstanding and loving parents. We see Bert, the Conchie, a man of intense principle who would not be swayed from adherence to the sixth commandment. He was forced into uniform, sent to France and sentenced to death for his disobedience.  Meanwhile his brother Phil served on the Somme and survived that terrible first day in front of Serre, an officer with a Pals battalion. Bert kept up his principles all his life and was still demonstrating for peace well into old age. I admire him and although I disagree with much of his stance I support his right to take it and that is precisely what fighting for freedom is all about.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It presents the story of the Conchies in a calm way, although it seems impossible to me that the author wouldn’t favour many of them. They are an amazing bunch, but I’m sure they would exasperate me. The book offers an alternative view to the war through the eyes of these men. In the years ahead you will read so much of the martial stuff of the Great War; the heroics, the hardware, the victories and the tragedies. Amidst all this we have to find room for a dissenting voice. Will Elsworth-Jones brings these voices to us with style and I’m really glad to have read their story.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.