How 'No More Soldiering' began by Stephen Wade
I was researching in the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull, digging into the background for a biography I was writing on George Grossmith, the singer and writer, when there was a large folder of photographs and I could see from the front cover that it was intriguingly entitled: 'Prison Photographs.' As I am primarily a crime historian, how could I resist taking a peek at that? It's hard to explain the shock. There were images of the frame used for flogging men; solitary cells, and even a monstrosity called an 'insanity box.' What was the context for all this? It was regarding the treatment dished out to some of the so-called 'Absolutists' in the ranks of the conscientious objectors in the Great War. These were the people who not only would not fight, but also refused to do anything in support of the war with the Kaiser and his allies.
I knew at that moment that I had to tell the story of some of those men, and as with any historical enquiry, like Topsy, it grew and grew. Of course, I still regard this book as an account of something partly criminal, though the government of the day created legislation and acted accordingly. But when it came to reading out death sentences to men standing in line and then cancelling them, then that was surely some kind of cruelty beyond all reason. I brought to mind the story of Fyodor Dostoievski and his friends - a group of young radicals, who were rounded up and blindfolded, ready to face the firing squad, and were then reprieved and sent to Siberia.
Oh yes, No More Soldiering is the one book among all my books that was written with a sense of indignant rage. Most works of history of course are expected to give a balanced view of past events, and I was always aware of that, but I think that my feelings kept showing through the narrative.
The other perspective on this subject is the alarming tendency for people today, in some areas and groups at least, to want to erase these men who did not take up arms; their stories are often eclipsed from the family record.
But I must finish with my own dilemma. Should I have been a young man in 1914, I would have joined up. After all, the Germans were using Zeppelins to bomb my home county of Yorkshire, along with Hartlepool and Cleethorpes. I would have wanted to hit back. But of one thing I am certain: I would have respected the objectors. There would have been no smug smile from me when a white feather was posted.
In the end, I felt that I had made a small contribution to the persistent debate about pacifism and the forms it tends to take at different points in time, and my respect for the courage of those non-combatants was something I felt I had to explain to myself, as well as to my readers of No More Soldiering.
No More Soldiering: Conscientious Objectors of the First World War by Stephen Wade is available for purchase now.