Sunday, 9 February 2014

Objecting to War

Objecting to War

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, called at the time 'the war to end all wars'. I think we can expect a lot of revision of war silence this year, especially with the digitization of archives and the outreach of social media. One hundred years on, we have more access than ever to records of those lost in the trenches and those who returned. It is also time to look closer at the relative silence on those who chose not to go to war: the conscientious objectors of 1914-1918.

Poppies in Normandy, summer 2013.

One hundred years on, we see a world still at war, with minimal coverage of those who strive for peace and object to conflict. The Pledge Peace Union (PPU) support conscientious objectors around the world, in countries where objecting to serve is still illegal. This year, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the PPU have launched the Objecting to War project.

This project hopes to encourage people in the Greater London area to search for and explore the forgotten stories of conscientious objection in the period of 1914-1918. The project aims to bring together people of all ages to uncover the voices of those who chose to say no to war.

Here is their message:

"As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, The Peace Pledge Union aims to explore the stories of those who refused to fight so they are remembered and their reasons understood."
The PPU hope to put on public exhibitions, online collections of stories, and teach in schools on the subject of conscientious objection. If you're in London, or in the Greater London area, and you'd like to get involved, you can read more on the No More War Blog and contact the Objecting to War Officer, Ben Copsey, here.

Who were they? 

On a nationwide and worldwide note, if you want to start searching for stories, the Guardian are writing some great articles in their 100 Years On series. Last month, their Data Blog carried out some excellent research, pulling 654 records from The National Archives to present who were the conscientious objectors of the First World War? 

They have also set up a form you can fill in to find out about your own ancestors here: how did you ancestors experience the First World War?

You can also search directly with The National Archive.

Monument to the fallen of 1914-1918. Morzine, France.

In the spirit of Rupert Brooke, there is one corner of a foreign field that is forever England and that's my writing desk in Geneva. Though my work keeps me in Switzerland, I'm excited to support the Objecting to War project from here.

Geneva is home to The International Red Cross (ICRC), an organization founded in the nineteenth century that offers humanitarian assistance to people affected by armed violence and promotes the laws that protect victims of war. It celebrated its 150th birthday last year. I contacted an archivist there, Mr. Fabrizio Bensi, to see if the archives contained any record of conscientious objection from the period of 1914-1918. Though he was unsure what the archives could offer in terms of First World War conscientious objection, he suggested I come and take a look at the files of that period anyway anyway.

Meeting Mr. Bensi was interesting in itself. As we sat down to talk about the project, he talked for a while about Swiss military service, which he has completed, and which is mandatory for all male Swiss citizens to this day. Fabrizio allowed me to ask him a few questions, and told me how he had been taken away from his family and studying at nineteen to complete seventeen weeks training in the Swiss Alpine Corps. From then onward, between the ages of nineteen and thirty-six, he served various periods of eighteen months on the mountainous border between Switzerland and Italy. He told me how before the 1990s, conscientious objection in Switzerland had been a crime. Objection to military service was considered highly offensive, and offers to do civilian service instead were punished with doubly long periods of service. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the system was improved as the country spoke up and called for reforms. 

To return to the archives, the ICRC are in the process of making their First World War archives available to the public online later this year. This search should be easier in the summer when the files are digital. The relevant military files were unavailable as they were in the process of being transferred onto the web so instead we decided to focus on how prisoners were treated throughout Europe, in prisons and prisoner of war camps, to see if we might find any evidence of conscientious objectors imprisoned alongside prisoners of war. 

Though the search has unearthed nothing on conscientious objection so far, the archives have already shown me the importance of this research. The ICRC's dedication to the preservation of dignity is apparent in every page of their archives. It was incredibly moving to read snippets of what was reported when delegates visited camps - how the British were treated, the French were treated, the Germans, Serbs, Italians, Polish, Belgians, Americans, Russians were treated. The list went on. The delegates recorded the work prisoners did, the food they were given to eat, the clothing they given to wear, the intellectual activities organized for them, the physical activities arranged for them, the sanitary conditions they lived in, the contact they had with their families. There were letters in the archives written to inform families of prisoners of war that their relatives had died in imprisonment.

All of this left me wondering how many people had spent the duration of their war imprisoned. How many had died, how many stories war leaves untold. And this was just one war. How many wars have been fought and continue to be fought since the war called the war to end all wars? And most importantly, why are we not commemorating more those who object to them?

Thanks for reading. 

My research continues, and here is one photograph from the archives that made me smile: here are a group of Brits, French and Germans who ended up interned in neutral Switzerland for the last two years of the war. Which doesn't look too bad at all...

With great thanks to the ICRC for allowing me to reproduce this photo, and for their assistance.

Vive la solidarité entre les peuples

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with the research.
    At the beginning of 2014, this article was published in the The Irish Times, about the launch of a new digital archive which lists the 49,000 soldiers from the island of Ireland who died during the First World War or as a result of wounds sustained during battle.
    Records of 49,000 Irish WWI dead in new digital archive
    The records can be searched here: