#whitefeather diaries

Enlisted in a different fight

Thursday 24 March 2016

Today, we saw Laurence speak of the departure of his colleague Corder Catchpool, whose conscience had led him to leave the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). Laurence was critical of those who chose to leave, so now we have a chance to look at Corder's side of the story.

When conscription was introduced, some FAU members felt it was wrong to accept the privilege of exemption when others were going to prison for refusing conscription. There was also a view that the FAU had become too close to the armed forces.

Corder Catchpool left the unit and returned to Britain, taking a gardening job at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college in Birmingham. He was conscripted into the army and appeared before a tribunal to assert his conscientious objection. Here is his speech.

Conscience does not primarily object and refuse, but commands. It commands loyalty to the voice of God in the heart. I think this is the same thing, whether it be called religion or morality.

I am not chiefly concerned to secure exemption from military service, but to bear witness to the Truth as it is revealed to me – knowing that I do this whether I obtain exemption or not, whether I am free in the body or not, so long as I remain true to principle.

I have little desire for my own safety and comfort, when hundreds of thousands of my fellow men of all nations are laying down their lives. Most strong young men to whom the ideal makes an appeal are possessed by a passion for adventure and sacrifice in a noble cause. I am no exception: I understand and honour those, my comrades, who have enlisted in the army to fight, as they believe, for the right. The greatest sacrifice I have ever made is to withhold from sharing with them their sublime self-surrender.

But I too am enlisted, not merely for three years or the duration of the war, under a Captain who also calls of adventure and sacrifice in his name – whose commands to me are unmistakeable, not only to act towards enemies in a very different spirit, and to overcome them redemptively with very different weapons from those which are being used on the battlefields today; but also to proclaim his commands and to win recruits for his cause.

It is deeply painful for one who has tried, however falteringly, to give his whole life in joyful service for God and humanity, to find his allegiance to the law of the state in jeopardy. For the first time in my life I have become acutely conscious that that command of the state may be for me not compatible with the command of God, to whom loyalty is supreme.

Maybe, because I cannot undertake “alternative service” under the Conscription Act (for this would imply a bargain with militarism, which I believe to be utterly wrong), nevertheless I would respectfully remind the Tribunal that, provided they are satisfied with the genuineness of my conscientious conviction, the Act (Section 2, 4.3) and government instructions for its administration enable them to grant me absolute exemption.

Corder Catchpool was denied exemption. He refused to report to the army and was shortly afterwards arrested in the Woodbrooke dining room. He spent most of the rest of the war in prison. After the war, he moved to Germany to help with reconstruction work and was later involved in nonviolent resistance to the Nazis.

Source: Corder Catchpool, On Two Fronts (Friends' Book Centre, 1971).

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Caroline Young on
I am deeply impressed and moved by this speech. Corder was a brave and wise young man whose integrity probably has only ever been fully honoured by Quakers. This is a truly historical speech and one which all mankind should benefit from. In my view it ranks alongside the oratory of Martin Luther King. I greatly value it.

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