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Cranks and Kites in the latest Spokesman

Issue 130 of The Spokesman, 'One Belt, One Road', is now available. Among the books reviewed in this issue are two titles on pacifism and conscientious objection: The World is My Country, by Emily Johns and Gabriel Carlyle, and Refusing to Kill, by Oliver Haslam and PPU Publications Group. 

Cranks and Kites


Two peace-oriented publishers; two different approaches to presenting the lives of conscientious objectors and opponents of the First World War. The World is My Country calls itself a ‘celebration’, whereas Refusing to Kill is a more sombre appraisal, and pulls no punches. Read together, they prove there is room to remember both the anguish and the triumphs of this extremely diverse group.

Refusing to Kill is primarily intended for use by teachers and students, as the layout and language indicate. It outlines the various forms of conscientious objection, such as non-combatant COs, who would drill and train but not serve; those who submitted to alternative labour; and absolutists, who opposed the entire system of compulsory service and did not recognise the government’s authority to command them to undertake it. The author takes care to unpack the historical and social context around particular conflicts, for example the limited appreciation for what we would now consider ‘human rights’ as the First World War was brewing. This creates a more rounded impression of what conscientious objectors really opposed, and their unique position. Readers well-versed on the topic might find it repetitive, but I dare say there are useful sections for even the expert.

A particularly valuable passage about the present day suggests that some recruits who go absent without leave from the UK armed forces are unaware that, should they develop moral concerns, they do have the right to stop serving. The words of a deserting paramedic, consumed with doubt after being recalled in 2003 for the Iraq War, confirm the fact:

I never heard the words [conscientious objection]. People think I should have known about it, but there are officers who have been in the RAF twenty years who don’t know about it.

How can such a fundamental right could go unheard of? In some other countries there is still no provision for conscientious objection – oughtn’t we champion the fact that we are permitted this freedom? There can be no conceivable benefit to the government in wasting time and resources sentencing AWOL service members if simple changes to briefing procedures can be made.

Other troubling case studies include the trial of an objector to the Iraq War, who was court-martialled following the decision that his objection was ‘political’ and therefore invalid. This was despite the fact that ‘selective objection’ has been recognised in Britain since 1940, and that the individual was willing to serve as an unarmed paramedic. Depressingly, it would seem that even now it is hard to secure a mutually agreed-upon period of conscientious exemption – the fickle spirit of the old tribunals lives on.

To switch tack, and book, The World is My Country covers the historical and geopolitical context of the First World War as well, but its vignettes about pacifist personalities are its treasures. We are gently reminded that peace activists – and indeed, those they oppose – are also allowed to engage each other with a sense of humour. A prime example, ‘The great case of Bodkin v. Bodkin’, concerns a government lawyer’s offhand remark that, unbeknownst to him, had made its way onto a No-Conscription Fellowship poster, and been exhibited around the streets of London in late 1916. The genesis of this unusual scenario was the trial of eight members of the NCF earlier the same year, for printing an anti-conscription leaflet. At this trial the prosecutor, Crown Advocate Archibald Bodkin, issued the soon-to-be fateful words ‘War will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong.’ The story continues:

Believing that Bodkin had ‘kindly provided us with such a terse and explicit phrase, expressing our view regarding war’, the NCF mischievously turned Bodkin’s unwitting ‘pacifist speech’ into a poster, and had copies printed by the National Labour Press.


One Edward Fuller came a cropper of the law when the War Office learned he was seeking a quote for the poster. Bodkin served as prosecutor at the ensuing trial, during which a War Office senior official had to admit the quote was ‘perfectly true’; ‘a platitude’. Fuller was convicted and fined, but on a positive note the poster’s text received a great deal of public exposure.
To further rub Bodkin’s nose in it, the NCF’s newspaper the Tribunal pledged that if he ‘decide[d] in his devotion to duty to prosecute himself’ that they would offer their assistance to his dependents ‘should they be threatened with financial or other difficulty as a result of his persecution at the hands of the State or himself.’

We also discover people like Frances Sheehy-Skeffington, who steered himself by the causes of feminism, pacifism, socialism and Irish nationalism. His section contains one of those comebacks you only wish you’d be quick enough to fire off yourself: some considered him a crank, and he was not displeased at this, for “a crank is a small instrument that makes revolutions.”
It seems he was a lone voice railing against war amid the mass enlistment of his countrymen. The 1916 Easter Rising saw him apprehended by the British military, against the likes of whom he did not seem to bear a grudge, for we are told

he had braved a hail of bullets to try to rescue a wounded British soldier, explaining: ‘I could not let anyone bleed to death while I could still help.’

Two days after this selfless act, he was executed.

As one might expect, the authors also cherry-pick some of Bertrand Russell’s many exploits. It is Russell’s ill-timed banning order that comes up, and how some lectures he had planned to give found an audience even despite him being banned from effectively a third of the country. Found guilty of ‘making statements likely to prejudice recruiting’, he was prohibited to ‘reside in or enter’ particular areas as defined under the Aliens Restrictions Act 1914. In body, he apparently obeyed – yet in voice he travelled widely indeed. A few months later Robert Smillie, President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, began to deliver one of Russell’s thwarted lectures to an immense crowd at a Glasgow protest meeting. Unaware at first, those gathered were delighted when he revealed the ruse.

Russell is also in Refusing to Kill, but Catherine Marshall is given a touch more limelight, in a chapter dedicated to the women’s peace movement. There is a particularly nice account of her sending imprisoned COs secret messages, by arranging for children to get white kites ‘caught’ in a certain tree outside the jail. This was to signal to them that the No-Conscription Fellowship – from whom the prisoners had sought advice – wished for them not to revolt against the prison rules. A signal in red rather than white would have signalled that they should.


This pair of texts makes a fine and comprehensive overview of the subject. Comparisons in Refusing to Kill between the public view of conscientious objection in the First World War and in modern conflicts show how far we have come, and how much there is yet to achieve. For instance, we could scarcely conceive of conscientious objectors today being disenfranchised, but those of the First World War were – some up until August 1926. This was possibly the least of the indignities COs endured. Many of the punishments listed in the book amount to torture – not only physically brutalised in prison, but starved of human connection in many cases. All this, not for killing, but refusing to kill.

A stand-out sentence in Refusing to Kill’s ultimate analysis is that ‘Britain did not deal with its own militarism’, and so much of the heroics of WWI were in fact futile gestures – more conflict was born out of the loose ends. If only we could say what a difference 100 years makes.

Review by Nicole Morris

Emily Johns and Gabriel Carlyle, The World is My Country: A Celebration of the People and Movements that Opposed the First World War in 10 posters and stories, Peace News Press, 2015, 98 pages, ISBN 9781904527183, £6

Oliver Haslam and PPU Publications Group, Refusing to Kill: Conscientious Objection and Human Rights in the First World War, Peace Pledge Union Publications, 2014, 74 pages, ISBN 9780902680524, £10


One Belt, One Road (Spokesman 130)
ISBN 9780851248509
RRP £6


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