A story of the struggle and suffering
endured by conscientious objectors during The First World War (1914-18).
Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England, January, 1916.
“I ask you, brothers and sisters, what Jesus would have done in this turbulent time of ours!”
Young Peter Micklewhite leaned forward earnestly, his hands resting on the pulpit of the Methodist chapel in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.
“Would He have walked over to the recruitment center and taken the King’s shilling? Would He have marched off to France with a rifle slung on his shoulder?” declared Peter in an urgent tone. He paused for a moment, his eyes fixed on the congregation. He could hear a few uncomfortable rustlings and stirrings.
“Would Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, have thrust his bayonet deep into the guts of a young Austrian or German? I am sure, my friends, that he would not have done so! But this is precisely what we are requiring our young men to do! And this is why I have decided to refuse to serve in this terrible and misguided war on the grounds of conscience. Christians do not kill their fellow men! Did not Our Lord teach us to love our enemies? Did he not say: Blessed are the peacemakers?”
At that moment several members of the congregation rose to their feet, and headed for the chapel door. Peter watched with a sinking feeling in his stomach, but he took a deep breath and plunged on.
“I know that my decision will be offensive to many whose relatives are at this moment serving in France and Flanders. Indeed, as you know, my own brother is among them. But as a Christian, as a man of faith who accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ, Our Savior, I cannot lift my hand to harm another human being. I declare this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
With these words Peter turned and descended the steps from the pulpit. Then he walked slowly and thoughtfully back towards his seat at the chapel organ. Aware of the tense silence that had fallen over the building, he kept his eyes fixed firmly ahead of him, reluctant to meet the accusing eyes of those with whom he had prayed and worshipped since he was a small child.
He resumed his seat, and following the announcement of the next hymn, began to play, accompanying the chapel choir he had directed for the past five years.
After the service was over, he lingered, tidying away the music sheets, avoiding the glances and whisperings of the departing congregation. When the chapel was nearly empty, Peter felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, and turned to see his good friend, Charlie Ford, standing behind him.
“That were a brave thing to do, Pete,” said Charlie quietly. “I know you’re no coward. It takes a lot of guts to make a statement like you did in the midst of the patriotic fervor that’s sweeping the country.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” replied Peter. “I know my position will be an unpopular one, especially to those who have loved ones serving in the trenches. I appreciate your understanding and support.”
“That’s what friends are for,” said Charlie. “But what’ll happen to you, lad, when you’ve had your conscription papers, and you’ve declined.”
“They’ll put the pressure on, no doubt!” said Peter. “First I’ll have to go before a tribunal, and justify my position as a conscientious objector. Then I reckon I’ll be ordered to serve in a non-combatant position, but I plan to decline that also. I will not serve the cause of this unjust war in any capacity. That I have decided!”
“What will they do with thee then?” enquired Charlie anxiously.
Peter shrugged his shoulders. “Put me in jail, I expect!” he said grimly.
“Eh, lad, I hope tha’s wrong,” said Charlie.
“Well, I’ll not worry about that just yet!” exclaimed Peter, smiling.
He put his arm around his friend’s shoulders.
“Come away to our house, Charlie, and have a cup of tea,” he said warmly.
Charlie nodded, and the two young men strolled out of the chapel arm in arm.
“This just arrived in the post,” said Peter tossing an envelope onto the kitchen table.
His father, well-to-do butcher Albert Micklewhite, looked up from his morning cup of tea, a startled expression on his face. He picked up the envelope. It was addressed in scrawling handwriting to ‘The Micklewhite Family’. Protruding from its flap was a long white feather. Glancing nervously over his shoulder at his wife and daughter, who were busy washing the breakfast dishes, he said in a quiet voice:
“Come to the sitting room, lad, and we’ll have a little talk.”
The two men stepped through the doorway into the comfortable front room of the home where Peter and his brother and sister had been born and had grown up, safe and secure in the domestic warmth of the Micklewhite household. Albert sat down in his favorite chair next to the fire, and Peter perched nervously on the edge of the sofa.
Albert cleared his throat and began to speak:
“I know I’ve not said much since your statement at chapel last Sunday,” he said, “but I’ll tell thee that I have no patience with this nonsense!”
He gestured angrily in the direction of the envelope and feather which he had set down on the small table that stood between them.
“I know as tha’s no coward,” he continued, “I was moved by thy words in chapel. I’m as proud of thee, lad, as I am of thy brother who’s serving in France. Every man must decide according to his conscience, and tha’s reet. Thou shalt not kill. It says it clear in the Good Book. I cannat argue with you, lad, and I’m not about to try. I’ll support thee and defend thee in whatever tha choses to do. You can depend on that!”
Peter felt tears forming in the corner of his eyes as he listened to the words of the grey-haired man seated opposite him. He glanced across the room, taking in the strained expression on the care-worn face of his father.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said. “I’m deeply grateful, but I always knew you’d understand. It were you that took me to chapel and taught me what was right and just. You raised me to think this way, to follow my conscience.”
“You’ve chosen a hard path, son,” his father said with a weary sigh. “They’ll not take your decision lightly. Likely you’ll have to face some tough consequences of your action. But your mother and I, we’ll stand by thee!”
“What was it like for you, Dad?” asked Peter. “In the South African war, I mean.”
“It were sixteen year ago,” mused his father, “a long time past. You were just two year old. Your uncle ran the shop while I enlisted and went over. I were young and daft. I saw terrible things out there.”
He paused as a dark expression crossed his face.
“I saw men desperate and dying, crying out for their mothers. It were dreadful. The Boers were fierce fighters. When we took them prisoner, they were herded into camps, and many of ‘em died from typhoid and dysentery. I realized there were no rhyme nor reason to the war, to any war!” he concluded.
“Then why did you let Joe go off to serve in France?” asked Peter.
“It’s as you said yourself, lad,” replied his father patiently. “Each man must make his own decision according to his conscience. Your brother wanted to go, so I respected his decision even though I thought it were wrong, and even though I was mortally afraid for his safety.”
Peter glanced across at his father. He realized with a shock that the older man seemed to have aged visibly even as they talked. His father’s face seemed more lined, more drawn, and his thinning hair seemed greyer.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better father than you’ve been to me,” Peter said tenderly. “Let’s take a walk down the lane, Dad, and get some fresh air. I feel like I need it.”
“I’d like that, lad,” said Albert, climbing to his feet with an effort. “Just a minute. There’s summat needs doing before we go!”
The old man leaned over, and picking up the envelope and the feather from the table, he tossed them into the fire and watched for a moment as they were consumed by the flames.
This is a short extract from a story about the suffering and privation endured by conscientious objectors during the First World War. Labelled as cowards and shirkers, many of them having declined combat for religious reasons, they were imprisoned, compelled to do hard labor and even threatened with execution. In the majority of cases they came to their decisions out of principle and integrity, and did not deserve the treatment they received. Scorned and derided in their time, their unpopular stances have recently been acknowledged and recognized as the decisions of conscience that they were.