I hold in my hand a small A5 booklet. It’s 16 pages long and, with a sans serif cover and serif font on the inside, clearly from the 1940s. At first, what I hold could be a religious tract, but it is something more. It is a moment in history that could lead to life or death.
In 1939, first in peace and then in wartime, conscription returned to the United Kingdom. This legal basis enabled the government to call up people of defined age for military service. While the vast majority of the population followed the call, nearly 60,000 people rejected and declared that their conscience led them differently.
This ability to declare (and recognise) a rejection of the ways of war was a new one, having been formalised in 1916, during the previous war. There were certain criteria for having this recognised, and the individual wishing to state this needed to have their views tested by a panel.
The panel meetings, known as a Tribunal, were often written up as verbally brutal affairs in the first world war. By the second world war, the era this booklet covers, the style of the tribunal had changed. No longer was the sincerity or knowledge of the applicant tested. Instead, it was the depth of the belief that was tested.
Once questions have been asked and the applicant has responded, then the tribunal will pass judgement. This could be
a) Registered as a Conscientious Objector
b) Registered as a CO on condition they undertake civil work or training
c) Registered as COs but liable to be called up for non-combatant duties in the forces
d) Removed from the Register of Conscientious Objectors
Each of these options brought different impacts. ‘b’ could lead to difficult and dangerous work, such as digging to clear bombs. ‘c’ could lead to being in the services in areas of danger around the world. ‘d’ lead to a call up being issued and dispatched off into the forces.
So what is this booklet? This small pamphlet is a guide to the questions someone may face at a tribunal. Split into five sections, covering personal outlook, political belief, religious views and general questions, and it aims to enable the CO to prepare themselves for facing the tribunal. Some of the questions are broad (e.g. What method would you use to resist evil), some are provocative (What attempts did you make to improve things around you before the war broke out?) and some strangely timeless (Are you sure you are not just selecting texts from the bible to suit yourself?).
What turns this into a living document and a story of a justice journey is not the nicely typed out text. It’s the careful handwritten annotations alongside. Its clear that someone has sat and studied this item, working their way through and classing the questions by what type they are. The person reading views questions as about policy or general, and some as just nasty. Like stumbling over old sermon notes or a family bible, you get a sense of someone’s deep personal work reflecting on faith, justice, peace and faith.
These handwritten annotations turn statistics about the number of applicants into something more human. The Fellowship of Reconciliation published the booklet to help people navigate their conscience in front of a tribunal which was notoriously harsh (compared to the South West, which was more generous). Over 70 years later, we still have members today whose lives were shaped and formed by the objection to either WW2 or national service conscription. Their commitment to peace didn’t stop with objecting, instead many spent a lifetime speaking out for peace and justice in the UK and around the world. Their work and witness, in times when peace was popular and when it was not, was infused with an understanding that social and economic justice was central to the peace they pictured.
Their commitment to building peace and resisting war is a challenge to us all. We know as the situation in Ukraine makes clear, that it’s easy to promote peace in times of peace. Yet when war and conflict begin, it takes something different. What is also clear is that while the whole world talks about war, there is never a chance to build peace.
As news breaks of over £1billion of ‘lethal aid’ (weapons) being sent to Ukraine, I think about what it takes to stop war. Not just the current one but to prevent new wars from happening. As I think about the fact the current UK Government has committed this Parliament to increasing military spending, I lament that spending on tackling climate change stagnates. As I read this booklet I think of the horrors of nuclear weapons and the holocaust. How humanity has used science and technology to destroy and end lives rather than bring life in all its fullness. Being a CO was not about denying the realities of the world, it was about facing them on and daring to walk a different path.
So, as I hold this booklet, I give thanks to all those who dared have their views tested and affirmed as true followers of peace. I find challenge to consider what my response to be. And I reflect on one small injustice within the wider story. Few records were kept of woman, called up to forms of service, who wished to be a conscientious objector. This is because their number was not considered ‘ significant’ enough. This injustice, not thought about or talked about, is a footnote we shouldn’t ignore. Our image of justice should always be justice for all, including in the way we interpret and share our history.
Find out more
- Read an account of the first Conscientious Objector tribunal from WW2 in The Christian Pacifist, the FoR newsletter here
- Here the story of Donald Saunders, a Quaker CO from WW2