Uncovering the history of Britain’s war resisters

Cyril Pearce
Cyril Pearce
On International Conscientious Objectors day, Cyril Pearce explains how communities can now use the Lives of the First World War website to explore the stories of those who resisted the war.

2016 is the centenary of the introduction of compulsory military service, conscription, in Britain. For the men and women who for personal, religious or political reasons had opposed the war from the beginning it presented a dramatic new challenge. Something like 20,000 young men of military service age took up that challenge by refusing to become soldiers or to take up arms. They were called Conscientious Objectors – ‘COs’, ‘Conchies’.

In my book, Comrades in Conscience: An English community’s opposition to the Great War, I explored the history of Huddersfield’s anti-war community. It began as an investigation into local claims that Huddersfield had been a special place during the war because of the number of its COs and the extent to which they appear to have been supported. The research confirmed that the local claims were right. I should probably have left it at that but an intriguing question then hung in the air, ‘If this was so, were there other Huddersfields?’

[quote]"The Pearce Register of WW1 British Conscientious Objectors contains more than 17,000 individual stories."[/quote]

Researching the histories of ordinary soldiers and their families is difficult enough; researching those of COs has other complications. Evidence is scattered, incomplete and fragmentary and some of it has been accidentally or intentionally destroyed. Nevertheless, it has been possible to gather fragments of evidence to create a database of CO histories. That database, the Pearce Register of WW1 British Conscientious Objectors, now contains more than 17,000 individual stories.

The database attempts to cover the whole range of CO experiences. At one extreme are those who, while refusing to carry arms, were prepared to ‘do their bit’ in Work of National Importance. Other COs were prepared to do hospital work in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit or the Royal Army Medical Corps. The men who agreed to serve in the specially created Non-Combatant Corps are there too. Over 600 of them served in France behind the lines.

The database also includes the cases of the men who refused all service. Their Courts Martial have been recorded as have their prison sentences or time in Home Office work centres at Wakefield, Dartmoor, Warwick or Knutsford. Many of their stories have already been told. Others are less well-known. For example, what of the COs who gave up their objection and joined the army? The stories of nearly 200 ‘Soldier COs’ have been recovered; and there are probably many more still to find. Other recovered stories concern the COs who went on the run to Ireland or the USA and were never captured.

[quote]"[The database ]has already been used to positive effect in HLF-funded projects in Lancashire, the West Midlands, Chesterfield and Leicestershire."[/quote]

Beyond these personal stories, the database has done what was intended. It has answered the question, ‘Were there other Huddersfields?’ The answer is that indeed there were. In fact there were a number of places, some of them rather unexpected, where the anti-war movement was much stronger. There appear to have been very few British counties which did not have significant anti-war hot-spots.

While the Pearce Register has much to offer family historians and local groups, it is far from complete. Work is needed to extend it, correct its errors and create a richer story. This can only be done through the work of local groups in their own home areas. Local knowledge supported by accounts in local newspapers, personal testimony, family stories and the histories of buildings and places is key to what is needed. Nevertheless, it has already been used to positive effect in HLF-funded projects in Lancashire, the West Midlands, Chesterfield and Leicestershire. It has been a core component in the Peace Pledge Union’s Objecting to War project and features significantly in the Working Class Movement Library’s Invisible Histories from World War One.

On 15 May 2015, International Conscientious Objectors Day, the Pearce Register goes online, free-to-use, as part of the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. This means that new and existing local groups are able to draw on its resources while, at the same time, adding to them.

Local groups are already researching stories, writing books, creating exhibitions and producing teaching materials for schools. In doing so they have begun to widen and enrich our understanding of the CO story. As we approach the centenary of conscription, perhaps the time is now right to expand that process even further.

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