Fighting for freedom but denied it at home: Why I feel its unjust to still consider Conscientious Objectors as Cowards.


Examples of White Feathers as given to COs

Examples of White Feathers as given to COs

Today people who live in the free world hold dear the principles of freedom of speech and belief. We fought 2 world wars in order to maintain these principles and yet during these times of war, there were the minority of men who were persecuted and treated appalling for exercising these very right of standing by their personal beliefs they were Conscientious Objectors.


So what has sparked this post which I will confess out of my historical comfort zone. Well it was seeing Sunday night’s return of Upstairs Downstairs and how the butler was treated when it was found out he had been a CO in the First World War. I was shocked that 20 years on, the bitterness and anger were still present.


At the time these men were seen as cowardly; why should grown men refuse to go to war when young men some of them mere boys were going off to the trenches not because they wanted too but because it was their duty and many of who made the ultimately sacrifice of losing their lives. Yes to a degree I can understand this, and I do not in any way take away from the bravery of the millions who lost their lives or came back damaged both mentally and or physically. However I do not see Conscientious Objectors as cowards, I see them as brave in a very different way, I see them as having courage to stand by their convictions and standing up for their beliefs.


There were some men who objected on grounds of religion many reformist protestant Christian groups such as the Quakers and Amish are pacifists. In fact the Quakers played a large role in the abolition of slavery and should not be seen as cowards.


During the Great War of 1914-18 a Military Service act was introduced in 1916. The act did say that men could come forward and state a case for conscientiously objecting to military service and could be found non combat role within the army or important work at home to contribute to the war effort. An estimated 16,000 men were recorded as being COs. Of those 16,000 men 4,500 were ordered to do other work of national importance such as mining or farming. 7,000 were ordered to do non combat duties in the army but 6,000 were forced into the army and when they refused to carry out orders were imprisoned. The tribunals were very harsh in their treatment of these men which reflected the public opinion of the time; which thought these men were lazy, degenerate, ungrateful looking to benefit from the bravery of the many without giving to society.


During the Second World War because, sadly the Great War was not the war to end all wars, there were 60,000 recorded Conscientious Objectors that went to tribunal but only 3000 were given complete exemption. Another 18,000 were found to be false claims. 7000 were given non combat roles. In 1940 CO were allowed to volunteer for bomb disposal work and 350 brave souls came forward – hardly the act or a cowardly man. Other useful roles for these men were jobs such as mining farming fire fighting and work within the medical corp. There were 5500 that were imprisoned on charges of unrecognised claims of objection while 1000 were forced into military detention centres or civil prisons for the beliefs.


Any man not seen with an injury or in an uniform would be verbally and sometimes physically abused often by women for their beliefs. Women would give men white feathers as an insult.


To stand up for ones beliefs regardless of the cost to oneself, is in my book, an act of bravery that should not be belittled in any way. It took 5 decades for the UN to finally amend the commission on human rights. In 1995 it amended the commission to say


“persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service”


This was further backed up in 1998 when it added that


“Persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections”


As someone who has suffered from anxiety problems I can only imagine the horror of those men who felt so compelled to object, who were willing to suffer public persecution and sigma from their peers to be then forced into the army. I know thousands of young men went to war and were terrified and did their duty and suffered as the result of it but there still seems to be a sigma attached to these men which I for one think is unfair, unjust and unwarranted in this day in age.

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2 Responses to Fighting for freedom but denied it at home: Why I feel its unjust to still consider Conscientious Objectors as Cowards.

  1. Michele says:

    I agree – I became more aware of the issue as it was portrayed in Downton Abbey – I think alot of people didn’t realise that some men HAD to stay “at home” as there were some jobs that women were not capable of doing – and they were vital to the country as it was in that time – I don’t know if I would go as far as calling them hero’s but I don’t think they should be treated as villians

  2. David Nolan says:

    A good piece, Laura. When I saw the summary on Twitter I guessed this was probably prompted by ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. In that particular case I think they avoided criticising the butler solely for being a CO, suggesting that it was the apparent contrast between his actions in the 1914-18 War and his enthusiasm for his Home Guard work that undermined his position and hinted at apparent hypocrisy. Of course, as the story evolved we found out that he had still played his part in the ambulance corps.

    I agree with you that there is also bravery in standing up for what you believe. Modern militant atheists (and none of those three words apply to me) might perhaps argue that religious objections are no more important than any others, being built on beliefs that they hold to be without foundation. In the context of peace rather than war, I saw a comment article last week that was headed something like ‘Want to be able to break the law in Modern Britain? Just make sure your exception is based on religious belief.’ Food for thought, I will concede. Not that it was any easier to be a conscientious objector back in 1914, as you point out. Far more people held religious beliefs then, but I suspect the Church of England, perhaps on account of being part of the Establishment, was more likely to preach about the duty of fighting for one’s country than to question the morality of the war; although given the diversity of belief (theological and ideological) within the Anglican Church there must have been prominent exceptions?

    Perhaps the worst accusations of cowardice made during what we now call the First World War were the shell shock victims, court martialled and executed for failure to obey orders.

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