Conscientious objector receives military medal
Oliver Watkins was an employee of Swansea City Council who joined the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1916. Council employees who joined the army were given half-pay by the council while they were away, but Oliver was offered no pay at all.
The next year, he received a medal for bravery from the French government and Swansea's embarrassed councillors changed their position. A report appeared in the Cambria Daily Leader with the headline ‘A C.O.'s heroism’. Here's a slightly abridged version.
A romance of the war was unveiled at the Swansea Council on Wednesday by Councillor Percy Molyneux.
In February 1916, Mr J. Oliver Watkins of the Estate Department joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. Under the circumstances, as he had not entered the Army, the Council did not treat him on the financial basis of other employees who “joined up”. Mr Watkins had conscientious objections to combatant service.
Having finished his training in England in the month of March 1916, young Watkins was dispatched on active duty to Flanders, since when he has been carrying out his duties unostentatiously and unobtrusively as a motor ambulance driver at the front, and persevering onwards with the good work of looking after his wounded fellow men.
This genuine attention to his fellows has been discovered by those in superior positions above him, with the result that after a very trying and dangerous adventure he has been decorated by the French government with the Croix de Guerre.
A great deed
On 11th December 1917, at 6 o'clock, the doctor of a field dressing station took advantage of the intense darkness, and asked that an ambulance car should be sent up in order to expedite the clearance of the wounded from the station. Mr Oliver Watkins and a conveyor immediately proceeded along the only accessible shell-torn road. Loaded up with wounded, the return trip was commenced for the casualty clearing station. After having proceeded a few hundred yards, the car failed to get between some newly formed shell hole and communication trench on the other side of the road, with the result that one front wheel went into the shell hole and the other into the communication trench.
It was evidently a moment for prompt action, for immediately the roadway was swept with rifle fire and shrapnel, endangering the lives of the wounded. The wounded were immediately got out and hardly had this been done when gas shells rained in the area. This left no choice but for the wounded to be transferred away from this road which was well known to be a nightly target for Fritz.
Back to danger
Happily this was successfully accomplished and Watkins and his chum crept back to see what could be done to save the car, which would have certainly been destroyed if left after daybreak. There was a wealth of debris lying about. With the aid of this, and one small trenching tool, their labours were rewarded after about nine hours (during which time gas masks had to be worn for four). After twelve hours' interval it was discovered he had been burnt with “mustard” gas. A month's hospital treatment has cleared away the worst of the evil effects and now he is home for a short convalescence.
An act of justice
Councillor Percy Molyneux referred to the fact that he had been the mover of the resolution under which Mr Watkins was debarred from receiving the emoluments which would have gone to him in the ordinary way had he joined the RAMC. In that case, he would have received half pay.
Councillor William Owen, as the seconder of the original motion of 1916, now seconded the motion that Mr Watkins be given half pay from the beginning of the present year. The fact that he had been at the front all this time without civil or military pay showed his earnestness. He had objected to taking life, but had done much to save lives.
The motion was passed unanimously.
Source: Cambria Daily Leader, 16 January 1918.
Image: Croix de guerre medal © 2014 Michael Preston for Britain Yearly Meeting