Quakers in Britain have released a free resource kit ‘Witnessing for Peace on the centenary of WWI’, telling the stories of the early stages of the war from a Quaker perspective.
The kit contains a newspaper featuring articles by present-day Quakers and original 1914 contributions to The Friend, (the Quaker magazine), peace education materials, an audio play about members of the Rowntree chocolate family, a timeline about the creation of Friends’ Ambulance Unit and images from the Quaker archives.
Being a Quaker in wartime was not a simple story of ‘cranks’ or ‘shirkers’, as portrayed by many newspapers both then and now. Some, opposed to fighting, joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), working close to the frontline – and unarmed– in ambulance convoys and medical stations, treating wounded soldiers and civilians.
Nearly a quarter of a million sick and wounded soldiers were carried by FAU ambulance convoys, and 21 FAU members died whilst on service. Other Quakers wanted nothing to do with the war. Known as ‘absolutists’, they risked imprisonment, hard labour, or the death sentence.
In 1916 through the work of Quakers and others the ‘conscience clause’ was enshrined in British law, the first time the legal right to refuse to fight was recognised.
“This is the beginning of a four-year project for Quakers in Britain during which we will tell the untold stories of those who refused to fight in WWI,” says Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain. “We found powerful and moving stories in our archives, of those who were, for their conscience, imprisoned, tortured, ridiculed, sentenced to death or forced to be child soldiers.
"Today many countries, including Finland and Greece, still do not recognise people’s right to refuse to serve in the armed forces. Around the world prisoners of conscience are tortured. Today in Britain the armed forces recruit child soldiers younger than they did during WWI. This project will bring alive for a new generation how ordinary people can endure extraordinary circumstances for their beliefs.”