Conscription – in 1916 and today

Ninety-nine years ago today (2 March 1916), every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces. It was only a few months before another act was passed, extending conscription to married men.

A few months later, on 1 July, over 19,000 British troops were killed in a single day at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. They were not conscripts, for the first conscripts were still being trained. Nonetheless, conscription made the Somme possible. Commanders were able to send thousands of men to their deaths knowing that were now many more to replace them. Thousands of German and French soldiers joined them in death, fighting for competing sides in an imperial war that had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money and power.

In World War One, between 16,000 and 23,000 British men refused to accept conscription and became conscientious objectors (COs). The vast majority of COs were denied exemption by the tribunals set up to deal with them. Many were offered partial exemption, which some accepted but many did not. Over 6,000 COs went to prison, while others were held in work camps run by the Home Office in which conditions were only slightly better than prison. Others – both men and women – were imprisoned for anti-war activism under the terms of the draconian Defence of the Realm Act.

The COs’ witness against militarism is an inspiration today. We no longer have physical conscription in the UK, but it is a reality in much of the world, from Israel to South Korea to Colombia to Eritrea. In the UK, volunteer troops theoretically have the right to leave the forces if they develop a conscientious objection during their term of service. In practice this is not upheld, as shown by the case of Michael Lyons, a member of the navy imprisoned in 2011 after having a change of heart and refusing to use a gun.

In the UK, our bodies are not conscripted. But our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the highest military budget in the European Union. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and that soldiers are heroes. Our very language is conscripted, as we say “defence” when we mean warfare, “security” when we mean fear and “conflict” when we mean violence.

The struggle against militarism and warfare is as vital in 2015 as it was 99 years ago. Earlier today, the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Burghfield, Berkshire, was peacefully blockaded by people determined to stop the development of nuclear arms. Yesterday, thousands of people marched in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian and British people have more in common with each other than they do with their warmongering governments. Every war opposed, every weapon disarmed, every aspect of militarism denied, every refusal to put our nationality ahead of our humanity is an act of resistance to the idols of violence that were rejected by the pacifists during World War One.

Harry Stanton was a blacksmith’s son from Luton. As a Quaker, he refused to accept conscription in 1916. He was forced into the army, where he refused to obey orders. Within four months, he had experienced imprisonment, torture, hunger and a death sentence that was commuted to ten years in prison. He was 21.

As Harry listened to his death sentence being commuted, he felt that “the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of being one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance”.

Nearly a century later, we are still struggling to grasp that truth. Let’s honour the COs’ legacy by continuing their struggle. We need to object, conscientiously, to warfare and militarism today.

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