Why They Would Not Go to War

In Lewisham and Deptford, as elsewhere in Britain, anyone objecting to the First World War at the time was completely at odds with the rest of society and often with their friends and family, although conscientious objectors often found support and friendship from within political or religious support networks. Like the country at large, both boroughs were in a frenzy of enthusiasm for the War effort. Germany was seen as an aggressor who had had committed atrocities in Belgium and France; Deptford and then Lewisham were bombed in a new form of war that must have caused great terror and anger. Canadian troops were stationed at Blackheath, Belgian refugees found asylum in Grove Park, and elsewhere in both boroughs. Soldiers who joined the brigades raised by its Mayor were billeted in almost every house in Deptford; [1] and the local papers recounted little more than the deaths, daring escapades, and battle honours of their citizens serving overseas and in the navy.

The people of Lewisham and Deptford like the rest of the country felt under threat; propaganda in support of the war was everywhere. There were 1,500 demonstrations alone organised and held during London's Patriotic Fortnight in April 1915 and recruitment often took place in the carnival like atmosphere of the great recruiting meeting held at Greenwich Park as reported in the Kentish Mercury February 24, 1915. No wonder 4,700 men flocked to enlist in the brigades raised by Deptford's Mayor. From press reports of claims eventually made to the local Military Service Tribunals, those who did not respond to recruitment drives did not see themselves as "shirkers" or "slackers", rather they felt business, domestic, and health issues kept them from "doing their bit", although they seemed ready to apply pejorative terms to others.


Lewisham and Deptford's Conscientious Objectors

Who were the men with the courage of their convictions who said “we will not go to war” when conscription was introduced on 2 March, 1916 and how did they stand by their convictions?

"He had a conscientious objection to war and believed that the present war would cease if the majority refused to have any part in it". The Lewisham Borough News report of March 17, 1916, on Wilfred George Bligh's appeal to the Lewisham Military Service Tribunal

Many held religious beliefs based on the sanctity of life, they belonged to all religious faiths, but of those who expressed religious motivation many were from dissenting groups and those churches known to be against the war: Christadelphians, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists. There were also humanists, socialists, and trade unionists like Albert Edward Allen who held it wrong to kill another human being and believed that their government had no right to force them to do so. The majority of members of mainstream churches and political parties did not hold their anti-war beliefs; trade unionists and socialists found most of their comrades had flocked to enlist and many of their leaders enthusiastically supported the war. Independent Labour Party (ILP) members are generally said to have held firm to their pre-war hope that the unity of all workers would bring about the end of war, but both James Maxton [2] and Fenner Brockway acknowledge that not all members did so. The latter tells of his anxiety in 1914 on meeting fellow members and wondering if they too had "succumbed to patriotism", and in Inside the Left he says that probably one-fifth of ILP members supported the war. [3] The religious, like Horace Valentine Fuller, often had to find churches less supportive of the war than the one they usually attended, and even among the Quakers one-third of their eligible men had enlisted and some older members sat on Military Service Tribunals.

The poster shown on this page announcing that all eligible men would be enlisted on March 2nd must have confused some COs, because it encouraged those subject to the Act to attest. Many of Hackney's Seventh Day Adventists, who were not opposed to serving in a non-combatant roles, attested, only to find out later that it was not in their interest to do so. In Lewisham 3 men with religious objections also attested they were Alfred Gauron, Henry James Green, and Arthur Raitt and all were later court marialled because of their objection to active service. Lewisham's Military Service Representative Mr. H.E Harry was reported as having said that any man who had attested, could not have a conscience.

Support Networks

Lewisham's conscientious objectors found support from one and other and being a member of one anti-war group often meant being a member of another. Both socialists and some motivated by religious conviction joined the the socialist umbrella group the No-Conscription Fellowship, while others turned to those of their co-religious, who were also conscientious objectors. The local branch of the NCF was in Dulwich and met in the ILP Hall in Hansler Street off Lordship Lane. Its members came from what are now the Boroughs of Lewisham, Lambeth and Southwark, were predominately socialists and trade unionists, [4] and some like Archibald Miles were Christian pacifists. Many were also members of the Independent Labour Party; Sydney William Rose who told the Lewisham tribunal he was a "Calvinistic Baptist" lists his society as ILP on the Dulwich NCF leaflet [5] and as a member of the the local ILP he could be sure of the support of his leaders and comrades.

South London conscientious objectors could also face dangerous hostility and physical attack from the "war-mad mobs" in their locality. Fenner Brockway recounts this happening in the neighbouring Borough of Bermondsey [6] and there were major riots in Deptford in October 1914 against those perceived pro-German and again after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Conscientious objectors were often supported in gaol by women associate members of the No-Conscription Fellowship and by Quaker prison chaplains, some of whom were also women. They also supported each other in the Non-Combatant Corps, while on the Home Office Scheme, and in prison when they were able to.

War Service and Absolutism

Almost complete records are held on Cyril Pearce's Register for twenty-five men from Deptford and eighty-eight men from Lewisham who were conscientious objectors. Around a third of these men who appeared before the local Tribunals were conscripted into the Non-Combatent Corps, where some went on to disobey orders in their unit, be court martialled and imprisoned. Others took up humanitarian service, or work considered of national importance and were sent to work on the land, like Joseph Charles Lardent, or as millers and bakers; a few were allowed to remain in their current job, although usually it was not considered important enough and, as in the case of Arthur David Taylor, working for the government in any capacity was sometimes used to reject their case for exemption from conscription. Conscientious objectors who ignored their call up papers were arrested, some, like Cyril Miles, had appeared before the local tribunal, others had gone on the run. Once arrested they were taken before the Greenwich police court magistrates and handed over to the Army where, when they refused to obey orders, they were court martialled and imprisoned. When the large numbers of conscientious objectors in prison throughout the country became a public scandal, the government introduced the Home Office Scheme to reduce the numbers in gaol. Of the 52 Lewisham and Deptford COs imprisoned, 31 accepted its provisions, two were considered not to be genuine conscientious objectors and they, together with nineteen others, were to remain in prison until released in 1919, these men became known as absolutists. Absolutists refused to do any work that in any way supported the war effort or released another man to fight and they spent long periods of time serving prison sentences from which they were then released back to the army, only to disobey orders and within a few weeks be given yet another lengthy prison sentence.

Sometimes facing ferocious hostility and often branded traitors, they kept their belief that it was wrong to kill another human being or to support the war. They must also have felt frightened about what might happen to them, the Lewisham Borough News reprinted the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act weekly from January through to March 1916, often on its front page, and the speaking against conscription could lead to arrest for "uttering statements deemed prejudicial to recruiting". Certainly Frank Rockingham and William Cahill felt they would be shot if they held firm to their refusals to fight, small wonder when this commonly held view was given prominence in the local press sometimes in letters said to have been written by local soldiers. [7] It was also common knowledge, and William Cahill refers to it in his statement to the tribunal, that the military had shipped 41 conscientious objectors to France and had sentenced 34 to death, [8] hoping to make an example of them. [9] Even though the military's actions backfired and the sentences were immediately commuted to 10 years hard labour, it must have left those resisting war feeling very fearful.

Whatever the basis of their action or however they chose to express their opposition to war they all deserve to be remembered and respected for their stand against a war that lead to industrialised slaughter on an unprecedented scale.

(As biographies are completed they will have tags added reflecting religious and political motivation, these tags can be accessed by clicking on "Tags" in the navigation bar to the left).

1. Lt. Col. H.W. Wiebkin, M.C., A Short History of the 39th (Deptford) Divisonal Artillery 1915-1918, published by E.C. Berryman & Sons, Ltd. London, 1923
2. James Maxton, M.P., War Resistance by Working Class Struggle, in Julian Bell, Ed. We Did Not Fight, London Cobden-Sanderson 1935, pp. 215-216.
3. Fenner Brockway, Inside the left : thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament : London: New Leader, 1947, p.47
4. Cyril Pearce http://www.hssr.mmu.ac.uk/mcrh/files/2014/05/mrhr_17i_pearce.pdf pp. 45-46
5. Dulwich N-C.F What are Conscientious Objectors? July 1917 in the Cumbria Archive Centre ref:D/Mar/4/97
6. Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story:The Life of Alfred Salter, Alan Sutton Publishing Stroud, 1995 edition, pp 57-73
7. Lewisham Borough News May 12, 1916
8. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, (1922). Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969 Chapter IV.2
9. Lewisham Borough News August 11, 1916

John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, (1922), Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969
Jo Vellacott, Conscientious Objection:Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, Spokesman Books London, 2015 edition
Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights, Vintage Books, London 2014

Image taken from http://www.ppu.org.uk/men/context/context_tribunalsintro.html and reproduced with their permission.

Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2014, Revised March 2015

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