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The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors by Karyn Burnham

July 16, 2017

Joining the military had been voluntary until 1916, though a huge amount of pressure was brought to bear on those reluctant to join up. Government propaganda and recruitment campaigns ranged from pricking a man’s sense of duty, to questioning his masculinity. There were even campaigns directly addressing women – probably the first time the government had seen fit to address women about anything. Then of course came the infamous practise of issuing white feathers to men who were not in uniform. The women who doled out these symbols of cowardice often selected their targets at random on the street and feathers were regularly given to men home on leave or even invalided out of the war.

With the introduction of the Military Service Act in January 1916, joining the military was no longer a choice, all men between the ages of 19 and 41 were legally obliged to fight for their country. Asquith’s government accepted however that for some, warfare was incompatible with their beliefs and allowed exemption from military service on grounds of conscience. The decision was a controversial one with many believing that cowards would simply use it as a ‘get-out’ clause.

Between January and July 1916, there were 750,000 claims for exemption from military service. Although most of those were for reasons other than conscience, the system struggled to cope and the tribunals set up to hear each claim had little time or patience for conscientious objections. For men like George Beardsworth, whose claim was a political one, they had no patience at all. Beardsworth was a Trade Unionist and member of the Independent Labour Party. He, like many socialists, believed that the war was being waged by the wealthy, capitalist elite at the expense of millions of working class lives across Europe and the war was being deliberately prolonged for political gain. Beardsworth was not prepared to play any part in a war on those terms, but his objection was flatly rejected and in August 1916, he was drafted into the 3rd Battalion Cheshire Regiment in Birkenhead.

Determined to stand by his beliefs, Beardsworth refused to follow any military orders, refusing even to don a uniform. The standard way of dealing with insubordination was court martial, followed by a 28-day stint in prison, but Beardsworth was denied this right.

At that time, the Cheshire Regiment were using Birkenhead Park as a training ground; it was a public park and there were often passers-by watching the soldiers training. On the morning of August 31st 1916, George Beardsworth was dragged onto the parade ground where he was made to march time by being repeatedly kicked in the legs, and punched in the head when given the order ‘eyes right’. He was forced to run round the field, being punched and kicked as he went. By the end of the morning, he was badly cut and bruised, but still refused to give in when faced with the assault course. Beardsworth was dragged around the course, lifted and thrown over the vaulting horse; pushed head first into the water jump; lifted up and dropped over an 8ft high wooden hoarding; hurled over railings; rolled up a wooden incline and pushed over a 6ft drop. This was repeated several times before he was allowed to rest, although he had to remain standing. Soaking wet, dazed and bleeding, Beardsworth gasped for breath while the other men were invited to taunt him as a coward. When he looked up, he noticed his wife and sister standing at the perimeter of the training ground and realised they had witnessed his humiliation.

The ‘inhuman barbarities’ inflicted of Beardsworth and others at the hands of the 3rd Cheshires did not go unnoticed; questions were asked in Parliament and the soldiers involved in the beatings were court martialled. None were convicted due to lack of witnesses, most of whom said they had seen nothing out of the ordinary.

The experience of George Beardsworth is not unique. During the First World War, conscientious objectors were bullied, beaten, starved, imprisoned and even threatened with the death penalty for standing by their beliefs. Their courage paved the way for pacifism as the right we take for granted in Britain today.

Opposition to the war was probably strongest in Glasgow, where support for the Independent Labour Party was high. Nonetheless, opponents were legally pursued. James Maxton, also a teacher, was taken before a tribunal, where he refused the chance of serving in the army medical service. Before a decision was made at the tribunal, he was arrested for supporting strikes at arms factories. With James MacDougall, he was tried in Edinburgh where the judge, sentencing them to a year’s imprisonment, commented on “the dastardliness and cowardice of the offence”.

In prison, they endured primitive sanitation, inadequate meals, and mostly solitary confinement where they sewed mail bags. MacDougall collapsed with a mental breakdown and Maxton’s subsequent ill-health probably stemmed from his treatment. He survived to become a prominent and radical MP.

Quotations:

When George Beardsworth registered his claim for exemption from military service on grounds of conscience, he knew he would face a difficult path through the war. He would be labelled a coward, a shirker and much worse besides, but while he was prepared for this, he wasn’t prepared for the shocking level of brutality the army would use in their attempt to break his spirit.

…women who doled out these symbols of cowardice often selected their targets at random on the street and feathers were regularly given to men home on leave or even invalided out of the war.

…Asquith’s government accepted however that for some, warfare was incompatible with their beliefs and allowed exemption from military service on grounds of conscience.

…George Beardsworth was dragged onto the parade ground where he was made to march time by being repeatedly kicked in the legs, and punched in the head when given the order ‘eyes right’.

…Beardsworth was dragged around the course, lifted and thrown over the vaulting horse; pushed head first into the water jump; lifted up and dropped over an 8ft high wooden hoarding; hurled over railings; rolled up a wooden incline and pushed over a 6ft drop.

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