Verses from the First World War: Conscientious Objectors

Published in Solidarity 397, 9 March 2016

Once the Military Service Act come into force in 1916, men aged 18-41 had to apply to a Military Tribunal if they believed that they had a reason not to be drafted. The majority had health, work or family reasons, but 2% were Conscientious Objectors (COs): men who objected to military service because they objected to war.

Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors: some were ordered to do “work of national importance” (e.g. farming), some were given non-combatant duties, but 6,000 were forced into the army. Many then refused orders and were imprisoned, as were those who refused both military and alternative service.

The Grace Unforfeit

Conscientious Objector Alan McDougall edited The Whisperer in Winchester Prison. Prisoners wrote poems, articles, comments or cartoons on sheets of toilet paper and passed them surreptitiously to McDougall, who bound them together with a piece of mailbag as a cover, and sent the single copy into circulation, passed hidden up sleeves from one inmate to another. In this “ballade” poem, he describes daily life in prison, while deriding the failure of the authorities to take from him the thing he treasured most, “the grace unforfeit of a living soul”.

“Three planks, the blankets, soap, a fork
and spoon — Knife?
God forbid his fair young life should be
Thus in his keeping: but, a special boon

We lend him one to cut the bread for tea;
Boot polish, tooth paste, towel, and brushes three —
These and four walls: yea, these shall be the whole
Of his possession.”

But they left to me
The grace unforfeit of a living soul.
I must confess my neighbour’s endless tune
Gets on my nerves,
“The Red Flag” though it be:
I sometimes wish he’d spend the afternoon In peaceful dozing till, at ten past three,

The voice and vision of the “R.M.P.”
Calls us to quit this rather dismal hole
And take a walk – to cherish tenderly
The grace unforfeit of a living soul.

I’m rather glad it will be bedtime soon:
The days pass rather uneventfully.
They say ‘tis Whitsun Monday, 12th of June:
It might as well be Christmas.
Still, perhaps we Will move tomorrow nearer to the goal:
Wandsworth, or wherever it may be –
The grace unforfeit of a living soul.

Architect artless, whosoe’er you be,
That planned this guard-room, choose another role.
You must confess you failed, in leaving me
The grace unforfeit of a living soul.

Conscientious Objectors (After a Military Tribunal)

Irish poet Eva Gore-Booth was a lifelong campaigner for social change and organiser of women workers, and the younger sister of Irish republican Constance Markiewicz. In this short poem, Eva expresses her disgust at the Military Tribunal, where the “six ignorant men and blind” (the Tribunal panel) accuse and vilify the Conscientious Objectors.

For the Hidden One in every heart,
Lost star of the world’s night,
Fire that burns in the soul of art,
The Light within the light.

For the gentleness of Buddha’s dream
And Christ’s rejected truth,
The treasure under the world’s stream
Pearl of pity and ruth.

Before six ignorant men and blind,
Reckless they rent aside
The Veil of Isis in the mind …
Men say they shirked and lied.

The CO’s wife

Like Eva Gore-Booth’s poem, Monica Ewer’s “The CO’s Wife” also records the contempt dished out to COs by Tribunals. Like Alan McDougall’s verse, this describes conditions of life.

Ewer — whose husband Norman did farm work as a CO —urges her husband not to give up his principled stand but to “see it through”. Monica joined the Communist Party after the war, and became the Daily Herald’s drama and film critic.

Swilling teas in sewing bees,
Knittin’ socks,
“Give a contribution, please,
To my box.”

You can half forget the smart,
Rollin’ lint with all your heart,
Feel that you can take your part In landing
“Kaiser” in the cart,
Knittin’ socks.

But a parson and a mayor turned him down,
Lord, what cod!
With a colonel and a baker from the town,
Off to quod.

For the chairman, with a sneer,
Asked if he “affected beer,”
Said, “We want no conscience here;
What ails you is simply fear!”

Oh, my God! Making shirts, you needn’t mourn,
Needn’t mope; And you don’t seem so forlorn,
You can hope
We can only sit and think.

Hear ‘em: “Has your man a kink?
Or perhaps he’s took to drink?”
While they shoves him into clink, Pickin’ rope.

We can only promise you,
Don’t get blue, That there’s one thing we will do,
Straight and true;
Though we seem so helpless, quite,
Yet we won’t give up the fight,
But we’ll keep your faith alight,
And we’ll teach your kiddies right,
So, see it through.

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