#whitefeather diaries

We have broken the power of military authority

Friday 1 April 2016

World War I ended on 11 November 1918, although most troops were not demobilised until 1919. By summer 1919, all conscientious objectors and other peace activists in the UK had been released from prison, although more than eighty had died during their detention, many due to ill treatment. Conscription was abolished shortly afterwards, in response to public pressure.

Outside the UK, anti-war activists remained in prison in the US and elsewhere. Anti-war sentiment played a significant part in the revolutions in Germany, Russia and Austria that contributed to the end of the war.

A year after the war ended, Devonshire House, then the central offices of British Quakers, hosted the final conference of the No-Conscription Fellowship. The fellowship's chairman, Clifford Allen, who had narrowly survived severe illness in prison, urged peace activists to continue campaigning. This is an edited extract from his speech.

It seems to me that every one of us must be only too conscious of how terrible is the comparison between the anguish of those who have died and been mutilated in the war and the test to which we have been subjected. Not one of us would dare to compare our suffering with that of the men who were actually engaged in warfare.

The human race was in the grip of contrary instincts. On the one hand were bitterness, hatred and terror, so that men were afraid to be isolated from the life of the nation. On the other hand you had from countless individuals what I suppose is really the most wonderful exhibition of self-sacrifice and unselfish heroism of which history has record. Above all things, men were held by a world spell, and that was the spell of the military machine. Fearless men, keen-minded men, gentle men, believed it their duty to bow before that machine. Others held it to be infallible and irresistible. We, like others of our generation, were called upon to become part of this world adventure; we were challenged by the community to bow before the military power; we were expected to engage in war and acquiesce in conscription.

It is not possible for any man or woman to estimate the mental and spiritual struggle of facing that challenge unless they have in fact been potential conscripts. I know that often we expressed ourselves with arrogance, but I beg our friends to realise that situated as we were – cut off as a minority from the community, brought before tribunals where we were placed always on the defensive, always on the look-out for traps set us and our creed – we were forced to become self-conscious, so that it became difficult to say what we wished to say in a really convincing and genuine fashion.

It matters not whether we were in the Non-Combatant Corps refusing to bear arms, whether we took alternative service, whether we became part of the Home Office Scheme, or whether we were absolutist and remained in prison – all of us shattered the infallibility of militarism. That, to me, is a mighty achievement, and I am not willing to allow any false sense of humility to prevent my glorying in it.

We are proud to have broken the power of the military authority. We have witnessed its brutalities. We have seen the cruel degrading of human personality upon which its discipline depends. We have seen how it deprives its victims of that most sacred right, free judgement in right and wrong, how the system makes men hate each other, bully each other, despise each other, till they become so dehumanised that they can be made even to kill their fellow working men at home. We have defeated it. We will defeat it again if conscription should be continued.

There have been times when I wondered if the struggle was worthwhile. But the certainty of hope for me lies in this. It was not some outworn isolated creed that we cherished. We have discovered in our prison cells that very notion which is today challenging the old world order – the notion that men will only feel obliged to serve the community, of which they are a part, when they have come to respect each other's liberty.

We were in prison. Today we are free. But the world is still in prison. It can be released by the spirit of unconquerable love. “Ye that have escaped the sword, stand not still.”

Source: Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War by David Boulton (Dales Historical Monographs, 2014).

Related Materials

Conscientious objectors undertaking work at Dartmoor
Friday 1 April 2016

Conscientious objectors were offered the chance of doing “alternative work of national importance” under the Home Office scheme. John had for a long time been offering to do such work, although others did not agree. Here is John's description of his move from prison to alternative work.

Mobile phone on old-style newspaper

Jane Dawson, Advocacy and Public Relationships Team Lead for Quakers in Britain, reflects on the development of the white feather diaries project.