Cranks or heroes? Telling the untold stories of courage in First World War

By agency reporter
April 17, 2014

On International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, 15 May, the courageous men who refused to fight in World War I because they refused to kill, will be remembered by Quakers in Britain and by peace groups. Relatives will honour the conscientious objectors (COs) in a simple ceremony led by the First World War Peace Forum.

Events in central London offer an opportunity to view the artefacts and meet the relatives of conscientious objectors, who reveal the untold stories of WWI. Events will centre on the CO memorial stone in Tavistock Square and the Library in Friends House, central office of Quakers in Britain, which holds a rare insight into the lives of those who said No.

In Friends House Library, from 11.30am to 3.30pm, an exhibition of photographs and rare historic artefacts including fragile diaries of imprisoned COs, as well as bullets transformed into cutlery, will document Quakers’ opposition to war and their role in the creation of legislation to allow conscientious objection.

Using social media to the tell the hidden stories of COs in WWI, an online storytelling project, The White Feather Diaries will feature five Quakers and bring alive their dilemmas, their courage and the cost of following their conscience, from the outbreak of the war in 1914 to the introduction of conscription in 1916. The white feather diaries will go live on 4 August 2014.

White feathers were handed to those who refused to enlist, as a sign of cowardice. Quakers were among those COs, some of whom chose other ways to serve, some were imprisoned, tortured, ridiculed, sentenced to death or forced to be child soldiers. Some joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) and chose to go the frontline, unarmed, to collect the dead and tend to the dying. “They showed courage and not cowardice,” says Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain. “Pacifism was then, and still is, a brave and difficult decision, and is by no means passive.”

At noon, in Tavistock Square WC1, the First World War Peace Forum invites all to the International Conscientious Objectors’ Day ceremony. Descendants of more than fifty COs will honour their relatives, some of whom opposed the war for political reasons. Local schoolchildren will sing peace songs. Speakers include Mary Dobbing, who recently took part in the women’s peace delegation which visited Afghan Peace volunteers in Kabul; and Emma Anthony, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, will represent her great great grandmother, who went to international women’s congress in the Hague in 1915. Speakers will remember COs, the anti-war movement in Germany and women war resisters.

At 4.30pm two books charting the history of conscientious objection will be launched in Friends House Library: Objection Overruled by David Boulton and Comrades in Conscience by Cyril Pearce.

At 7.30pm No Glory will hold an evening of music and poetry…cold stars lighting… at St Giles-in-the-Fields Church, WC2H 8LG. Readings from A L Kennedy, Blake Morrison, Michael Rosen, George Szirtes and Samuel West. Tickets from

There are many other events around the country, including:

- Thursday, 15 May, 7.30pm at Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building, Queen’s Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, Peace Lecture, ‘1945-2045: A Century on the Edge’, lecture by Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford. Chaired by Malcolm Evans (Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, Bristol University).

- Thursday 15 May, 7.30pm Public meeting: author and expert in conflict transformation, Diana Francis will speak on ‘Peace now: time for action’ in Chapter House, Gloucester Cathedral.

- Saturday 17 May, Hexham Quakers have a talk by Bruce Kent and Valerie Flessati 'Courage and Conscience in Response to an Avoidable War', the fifth talk in Series 7 of The Hexham Debates.

- Sunday 18 May, Evesham Quakers plan a commemoration of the stand taken by conscientious objectors in WWI. 3.00pm in the Quaker Peace Garden.


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