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Let's commemorate the WW1 objectors

Next week marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

All kinds of commemorations will take place but our starting point should be this: the First World War was an unnecessary catastrophe.

Unnecessary and senseless. A catastrophe which paved the way for the even worse calamity of the Second World War.

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The Great War wasn't a defence of democracy. Women didn't have the vote. Neither did 40% of adult men in Britain. In Germany, all men had the vote. If we were fighting for democracy, we had strange allies: Tsarist Russia and the militaristic Japanese imperialists.

Nor was it a crusade to protect some wonderful British way of life. Many of our soldiers were better fed and housed in the trenches than they were in their slums back home.

As for resisting an expansionist Germany, Britain and France eagerly divided up the German Empire as soon as the war was won. Germany and Austria-Hungary lost huge tracks of their pre-war territories. A lot of this was justified, rightly so, in terms of national self-determination for the likes of Poles and Czechs. But national self-determination had no place in India or Ireland or any other part of the British Empire.

In the forefront of our remembrances therefore, we should acknowledge all those Scots who demonstrated remarkable insight and incredible courage in opposing the war.

Sixteen thousand individuals in the UK were recorded as conscientious objectors. Many, like Quakers and the Presbyterian minister James Barr did so on religious grounds. Many opposed the war for political reasons. Perhaps most, like the abstract artist, William McCance, did so out of simple humanity.

More than a third of UK COs, or 'conchies', were imprisoned at least once. One thousand five hundred spent the entire duration of the war in prison. These were mainly the 'absolutists' who refused even non-military work if they felt it supported the war effort. They were treated very harshly.

Two hundred and fifty conchies were imprisoned in Dyce Camp near Aberdeen and set to breaking rocks in the nearby quarry. The local press called them 'degenerates'. One died of pneumonia.

Thirty-five COs were shipped off to France and sentenced to death when they still refused to fight. The sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment.

Imprisoned or not, all COs were stigmatised as reprobates, cowards and traitors.

There was no outlet for such objectors in the main political parties. Labour, like the socialist parties in France and Germany, could not resist the mood of militant jingoism. It was soon part of the wartime government. The much-maligned Ramsay MacDonald, though, resigned as its leader because of his opposition to the war.

Many of the Red Clydesiders led the anti-war campaign in Scotland. John Maclean was sentenced to three years imprisonment. He was charged with activities "likely to prejudice recruiting, to cause mutiny and disaffection among the civil population and to impede the production, repair and transport of war materials." Now that reads like a citation of honour.

James Maxton was ordered by the Military Service Tribunal into alternative work on barges. There he helped organise strikes and was eventually imprisoned for a year for sedition.

Mary Barbour not only led the resistance to profiteering rent rises during the war but was also a leading light in the Women's Peace Crusade which she, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan founded in Glasgow in 1916.

Chrystal MacMillan, the first female science graduate from Edinburgh University, organised relief for refugees and medical help for war torn areas. Passionately anti-war, she represented the UK at the Women's Peace Congress in The Hague in 1916.

Let's hope, amid all the triumphalism, the analyses of military strategy and the tales from the battlefields, there will be space for the heroism of the men and women who said 'No' to war.

Last year, the Jimmy Reid Foundation urged Glasgow Council to include the city's peace campaigners in any proposed commemorations of the WW1 centenary.

We need such a memorial to be national. As the Foundation noted, there is not a single plaque or monument to those who opposed the war anywhere in Scotland.

These men and women were right about the war. Many of them suffered grievously for their principles. They were as brave as those who went into battle. Their efforts deserve remembering.

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