#whitefeather diaries

Absolutists and alternativists

Friday 18 March 2016

Conscientious objectors were divided over whether or not they were willing to undertake work of national importance as an alternative to joining the army. From the summer of 1916, the government brought in the Home Office Scheme, allowing COs to do “alternative work”, usually in camps that were similar to what we nowadays call open prisons. Quakers and other COs disagreed over whether they should accept. Quotes from the time give some idea of the issues at stake.

The alternativist argument

T. Edmund Harvey was a Liberal MP and a Quaker. He backed the Home Office Scheme as soon as it was announced. In July 1916, he wrote:

I believe that for most of us who are debarred by our deepest convictions from undertaking military service, the way by which we can interpret the spirit of citizenship most effectively is by accepting without complaint the humbler tasks which the community now offers to many who would help it in an hour of great need.

A similar view was taken by Herbert Runacres, who had been training for the priesthood in the Church of England when he was conscripted and sent to prison for refusing orders. He was one of the first COs to accept the Home Office Scheme. He wrote in November 1916:

The triumph of the CO will not consist in his having stopped the war or smashed conscription. The pacifist supports principles which are only true if they can be practised in the face of evil. He must therefore stretch to the uttermost his willingness as a citizen to serve an imperfect state. By this habit of mind he can best act as a corrective to the mind which is full of war and thinks only of humiliation, pride and power.

The absolutist argument

Others disagreed. Will Chamberlain was editor of The Tribunal, the newsletter of the No-Conscription Fellowship. Shortly after the scheme was announced, he wrote:

If our action was merely a refusal to help our fellows because we were asked to do so by a government with which we disagree, it would be harder to defend. But it is nothing of the sort; it is an active protest against what we consider the greatest evil in the world, and our method of protesting is to refuse to acquiesce by a single act or deed in a system which is indescribably evil, both in origin and purpose. By doing this – by making this protest – we believe we are doing more for the community than by doing safe civil jobs as plain-clothes conscripts.

The rules of the scheme declared that those who took part were not permitted to speak out against the war. For many, this was a reason to refuse. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, a leading anti-war campaigner, strongly criticised the scheme. He pointed out that the minister who launched it, David Lloyd George, had himself campaigned against the Boer War 17 years earlier. Russell wrote:

Does Mr George think St Paul would have been satisfied with a certificate excusing him from preaching Paganism? Does he think that Luther would have acquiesced in a dispensation from maintaining the doctrine of indulgences, on condition that he should preserve silence as to his objections to the doctrine? Does he think that Joan of Arc would have accepted civil alternative service? Would he himself have been willing to spend all his time during the Boer War in growing cabbages?

Sources: Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War by David Boulton (Dales Historical Monographs, 2014) and Subversive Peacemakers: War Resistance 1914-1918: An Anglican Perspective by Clive Barrett (Lutterworth Press, 2014).

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