A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Jailed, strait-jacketed, starved, sentenced to death – the conscientious objectors who refused to fight

Jonathan Brown on a landmark trial for Britons whose beliefs prevented them from supporting the war effort

Howard Cruttenden Marten’s was the first name on the list. As he was led out to the centre of the parade ground on a summer’s evening in the French port town of Boulogne to hear the court-martial’s verdict, the first thing he noticed was that a large body of men had been brought out to bear witness to his humiliation.

There was little ceremony for them to observe, however, and the mood was sombre.

“The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot ... confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief,” the presiding officer intoned.

Marten, a 31-year-old Quaker businessman from north London, would later recall his reaction: “Well, that’s that,” he thought.

But then, after a cruelly long pause, the officer added a brief postscript: “… subsequently commuted to penal servitude for 10 years,”

 

Marten’s “crimes” – like those of three other men, Henry Scullard, Jack Foister and John Ring, who were also sentenced that night – were disobedience and a refusal to obey orders. Put simply: they would not fight. 

Actually, it was worse than that. Unlike the 800 other conscientious objectors in military custody at the time, Marten and his co-defendants refused to recognise the army’s authority at all, declining to carry out even such war-related activity as digging ditches or farm work.

Marten was a so-called “absolutist”, whose steadfast and principled stand against the might of the military machine was to become a thorn in the side of the political establishment.

Objectors were forced to cultivate the soil although many were said to have spent much of their time Objectors were forced to cultivate the soil although many were said to have spent much of their time "strolling on the moors, reading, smoking and talking" (Getty)

It eventually earned him and his cause powerful supporters, including some in the House of Commons, where  H.H. Asquith, the prime minister, was humiliatingly forced to guarantee publicly the principle that conscientious objectors should not be jailed – or worse.

The sentences of Marten, Scullard, Foister and Ring had been commuted on the orders of General Sir Douglas Haig – although they were not allowed to know it. But their plight, along with that of 31 other defendants court-martialled in Boulogne (also sentenced to death, commuted to hard labour), proved a turning-point for those who opposed forced conscription under the Military Service Act, which had been introduced earlier that year.

These conscientious objectors were among the first  party to be sent to France – despite political assurances that they would not be  despatched abroad.

However, Marten’s indestructible faith made him immune to the privations he would experience.

“Standing there on the parade ground, I had a sense of representing something outside my own self, supported by a strength stronger than frail humanity,” he later recalled.

In a letter home to his family as he awaited his prison fate he wrote: “Through all I have been supported by a sense of the deepest peace and humbly conscious of my own unworthiness to bear my small share of testimony to the teachings of our dear Lord and thankful for the blessing of His Holy Spirit.”

Marten and other men of the Eastern Non Combatant Corps (NCC) had been gathered from prisons around the country and kept in Harwich, some in shackles.

Fellow inmate Harold Evans described conditions there: “(It) had been built to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars and was a vile place in which severe punishment was given out.

“For example, two of us were strapped up in strait-jackets and stood outside against the wall in the hot sun, and the vindictiveness of the military prison staff saw to it that the strait-jackets were strapped too tightly. I and two others were put into the cells, completely dark, dripping with water and overrun with rats, for three days without food,” he said.

News of their transfer across the Channel emerged only when a member of the NCC threw a letter containing details of the move from a train as it passed through a London suburb.

British conscientious objectors leaving Dartmoor Prison under a gateway inscribed with the words British conscientious objectors leaving Dartmoor Prison under a gateway inscribed with the words "Parcere subjectis" ("Spare the conquered") (Getty)

Taken to a camp at  Le Havre, the first group of men refused to participate in military drill on the huge parade ground there. Moved to a field-punishment camp at Harfleur for 28 days, they were strapped to a wooden frame by their wrists and left to hang and later forced to dangle face down over barbed wire.

At another camp in Boulogne they were similarly  ill-treated. 

“We were handcuffed with our hands behind our backs and put into a dark, underground cage about 12ft square and made of thick planks. With us was one latrine bucket with no lid,” wrote fellow  prisoner Harry Stanton.

In his subsequent statement to the House of Commons on 29 June, the Prime Minister told MPs that men found to be “genuine conscientious objectors will be released from the civil prison on their undertaking to perform work of national importance under civil control”.

But, he added: “Men who put forward objections of this kind as a pretext and a cloak to cover their indifference in responding to the national call, and are therefore guilty of the double offence of cowardice and hypocrisy, should be treated as they ought to be treated, with the utmost rigour.”

By the end of the war, an estimated 16,000 men had refused to fight.

Many were put to work on tasks of “national importance” such as farming, while around 7,000 served in non-combatant roles, either in the NCC or on the front line as medics. At least 6,000 saw out the war – and beyond – in jail.

Marten was not released for a further three years. He led the conscientious objection movement during the Second World War and died in 1981 aged 96.

Tomorrow: Slaughter on the Somme

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn