By John Ellis
Weapons are not to be used “for the Kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”: so declared the Quakers 350 years ago at a time of political turmoil. It was therefore appropriate that the Quakers should organise the commemoration in the Houses of Parliament of the centenary on 27 January of the Royal Assent being given to the Military Service Act 1916. This made Britain the first country to protect by law the right of Conscientious Objection to bearing arms. The event was officially sponsored by Helen Goodman MP, the idea having been first put to her when the Free Church leaders met her at the Labour Party Conference in 2014.
Debates about the morality of conscription had raged long before the First World War broke out. In 1907 the enthusiasm of the Daily Mail for compulsory military service was so great the paper announced it favoured conscription even in Heaven. The wartime Coalition Government of Mr Asquith decided late in 1915, despite the opposition of many of its Liberal supporters, that it was necessary to introduce conscription. Two Liberal Quaker MPs, one a member of the famous Rowntree family, approached the Prime Minister over Christmas and persuaded him to insert a conscience clause in the forthcoming Bill to protect those who could not bear arms. Despite vigorous opposition from, among others, the Bishop of London, this clause survived the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Unfortunately it was drafted in a hurry and was not at all clear; had it been better drafted a great deal of subsequent suffering endured by Conscientious Objectors might have been avoided.
With their instructions unclear, the Tribunals set up to examine the arguments of those who claimed military exemption were thought by many to fall below the highest standards of British justice. Amongst those who did not persuade the Tribunals of their genuineness, 1,300 went to prison, a large proportion of them Nonconformists. Liz Saville Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, reminded us that the influence of the chapels made this a particularly live issue in Wales.
Nor is this a piece of ancient history. Work by Quakers and others finally achieved a ruling by the United Nations in 2007 that conscientious objection should be seen as a universal human right. Nonetheless South (sic; not North) Korea imprisons around 400 men a year for refusing military conscription.
The most powerful parts of the centenary event were readings from those who in 1916 had to wrestle with their consciences, often in families (like mine) where Christian convictions drove different members to opposing conclusions. Even the Quakers proved not of one mind: in the first year of the War, a third of eligible Quakers joined up, deciding that their pacifist tradition had to be set aside in the face of the appalling nature of the enemy.
Perhaps nothing showed the quality of the COs’ unselfish self-awareness better than the statements that stressed they did not think their own suffering bore any comparison with that of their friends who had decided their duty was to go into the trenches. And some of us can thank God we have never had to make the terrible choice.