Thanks to all who made such a success of Comrades in Conscience at the Conway Hall on May 25th, marking a hundred years since the introduction of compulsory conscription in this country.
Now I’m heads down preparing the solo version This Evil Thing which is appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe this August.
With military conscription still in force in many countries today, and prisoners of conscience still languishing in jails, the questions posed by THIS EVIL THING are as relevant and urgent as they were one hundred years ago.
The show is being directed by Rosamunde Hutt and will be on between 4th and 28th August (apart from Aug 16th and 23rd). It starts at noon, lasts 75 minutes and is at the New Wee Theatre.
More details and the press release can be found below.
This Evil Thing Press Release
Tickets for THIS EVIL THING now on sale here.
Dyce camp, Aberdeen, 1916
And so, tis done…what a very special evening at Conway Hall – COMRADES IN CONSCIENCE – thanks to all who came, some from quite a way away – and all those who tried to but couldn’t make it…
and of course to all the wonderful performers, singers, speakers…
And great to hear laughter ringing out too at times – mainly at Bertrand Russell’s droll witticisms of course…
Those of us who are pacifists will probably never have our pacifism and beliefs put to the test in the way that those young men who were COs in WW1 were tested – the abuse, the punishments, the threat of execution… so all we can do is remember them, pay tribute to them, keep their example alive – and try to keep the freedoms alive, of thought, action, conscience, that they struggled to maintain… and anyway, in other parts of the world today, there is still conscription in many countries, and COs in those countries still face all kinds of punishments…so, still work to be done, then. Joining the Peace Pledge Union and other similar peace movements would be a start…
The photo is of a poster with the ominous news that conscription was now the law of the land for all men, unmarried and married, between the ages of 18 and 41. Conscientious objectors would be compelled to make their case for exemption before local tribunals, who were often prejudiced against them and deeply unsympathetic.
For example, Harold Bing, an 18 year old CO, had his claim turned down –
‘You’re too young to have a conscience!’ he was told.
This is a picture of Bert Brocklesby, South Yorkshire schoolteacher and Methodist preacher – one of 35 COs who were sent to France in 1916 and sentenced to death – simply for refusing to act against their consciences and take part in warfare.
They were reprieved at the last moment and given 10 years penal servitude instead. On International COs Day 2016, Bert’s granddaughter Jill Gibbon spoke movingly about Bert and the inspiration his story gives to her and all war-resisters.
Having been reading and writing about Bert and his fellow COs for the last four years, it was truly special for me meet his granddaughter. She gave me the picture of him, was displayed on the wall of Conway Hall for The Comrades in Conscience event on 25th May.
This is a photo of Walter Roberts – the first conscientious objector to die during the First World War – just 20 years old. In a state of exhaustion, having already endured four months hard labour in prison, he died of pneumonia as he lay in a leaking tent in the pouring rain at Dyce work camp, near Aberdeen.
Fenner Brockway said: ‘To all of us, Walter Roberts’ life and death must be an inspiration.’ It helped close the camp at Dyce but achieved little else. Bert Brocklesby said of him – ‘A true martyr to the cause of peace and brotherhood.’
Red Lion Square
Only through researching the COs’ struggle against conscription, did I come to learn the full extent of Bertrand Russell’s passionate commitment to the anti-war effort – pretty much giving up his own work for the duration of the war in order to help and support the young COs. He became acting chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, and eventually went to prison himself for six months in 1918 – for an article he’d written.
This image is of Clifford Allen, agnostic socialist, and quietly charismatic chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship – before his imprisonment for refusing military service. He served three prison sentences including many weeks of solitary confinement on bread and water diets, at the end of which he was a frail and emaciated thirty year old, who looked twice his age, weighed less than eight stone and was suffering from the onset of tuberculosis.
Catherine Marshall was instrumental in the struggle for women’s suffrage and then devoted herself to the cause of the conscientious objectors in WW1.
When the young men in charge of the No-Conscription Fellowship were arrested for failing to report for military service, she and Bertrand Russell pretty much took over the running of the organisation. She was indefatigable, meticulous, and highly inventive at circumventing the probing and prying of government and the military.
In Balliol College, Oxford, I came across this portrait of Herbert Henry Asquith – with strange lighting effects – a former scholar here, who later as Prime Minister, was the man who took us into the First World War.
Then, in 1916, he introduced the bill which ushered in military conscription, but who was also willing to wave through that bill’s controversial conscience clause, thereby giving some hope to the 16,500+ young men whose consciences would not permit them to take up arms.
This is Fenner Brockway, founder of the No-Conscription Fellowship, a crucial organisation supporting COs during WW1, and which constantly challenged and harried the government and the military for fair treatment of COs during the war. Continue reading