Remembered, those who said `No' to war

Mark Rowe reports on a memorial service for conscientious objectors
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The Independent Online
CONSCIENTIOUS objectors in this century's two world wars suffered for their beliefs. Often viewed as cowards or traitors, several were sent to the front line in spite of their convictions, while others were imprisoned.

They were vilified. Conchie became a term of abuse. But this Friday their moral courage will be remembered - at a memorial service in London for the 80,000 British men and women who refused military service on ethical grounds.

It will be opened by the former chairman of CND, Bruce Kent, and will also commemorate conscientious objectors from other wars. White flowers, rather than red poppies, will be laid and a minute's silence observed.

The ceremony has been initiated by Edna Mathieson, whose motivation stems from the treatment meted out to her uncle, a conscientious objectorduring the First World War. "He had a political belief about war and was a real socialist," she says. "But the idea of killing someone you don't know struck him as irrational."

Ms Mathieson is keen to highlight the stigma that surrounded many objectors. "My uncle's sister - my mother - was called a German at school. Like all COs it was difficult to get work and my uncle was landed with an awful job loading quicklime from the barges."

She feels the courage shown by conscientious objectors has rarely been recognised or acknowledged.

"It would have been incredibly difficult to be a CO in the face of the mob," she says. "If I'd been a man in World War One I don't know if I would have the guts to take such a stance."

The ceremony is intended to dispel other myths concerning COs, according to organiser Robert Ashby, director of the British Humanist Association. "The popular perception is that COs were always sitting in prison. In fact, many were working alongside the armed forces."

He said he had expected "a lot of flak" from military quarters, but reaction from MPs and the defence establishment had been quite favourable.

The service will remember 16,000 male COs in the First World War, 60,000 men and women COs in the Second World War, and more than 10,000 COs from National Service between 1945 and 1960. It will not distinguish between those who chose to help the war effort in a civilian capacity and those who refused to assist in any way. "We know very little about the motivation of COs because the records and documents are available only in piecemeal fashion," said Mr Ashby.

The ceremony takes place at Tavistock Square, home to the memorial stone to conscientious objectors, as well as a statue of Gandhi and the Hiroshima cherry tree. Among the speakers will be George Cox, a conscientious objector during the Second World War and now vice-president of the World Disarmament Campaign.

Mr Cox, born in 1916, said he was imbued with a sense of anti-militarism as he grew up in the wake of the First World War, and was especially influenced by ateacher. A Customs and Excise officer, he registered as a conscientious objector in 1939. "It wasn't a religious objection. It was humanitarian and based on the dictates of conscience and an absolute revulsion against any kind of military activity.

"It was a fundamental moral and ethical objection. I had a great loyalty to my country, but a greater loyalty to humanity as a whole."

At a tribunal into his objection, Mr Cox received an unconditional discharge - not the prison sentence he'd been expecting, - and said that he had encountered little of the social stigma that others suffered. "I got the odd joke, but no nasty remarks."

The service comes at a delicate time, with an announcement expected soon on whether more than 300 First World War soldiers shot for cowardice will receive posthumous pardons.

The issue of both deserters and conscientious objectors is still relevant today, said Ms Mathieson. "It makes us realise there are some human beings who are extremely brave under the most extreme circumstances. If we can bear it in mind it makes us have hope for the future of mankind."