'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Friday, April 25, 2014
Conscientious objectors: men who fought a different kind of battle
Over eight million men served in the British army during the first world war, and as the centenary approaches, their descendants will be remembering them and the battles they fought. A much smaller number of men – about 16,000 – registered not as soldiers but as conscientious objectors. Some accepted non-combatant roles in, for example, the ambulance service; others took on alternative service in other parts of the world and some were absolutists, who refused to play any part in the war machine, and were often imprisoned as a result.
A century on, how do their descendants view the stance these men took?
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, the future prime minister Clement Attlee was on holiday with his brother Tom. Both men knew what they must do: Clement hurried back to London to enlist in the army, while Tom went home to prepare his case as a conscientious objector.
Today, Tom's grandchildren are as proud of him as Clement's no doubt are of him, although Cath Attlee – Tom's granddaughter – points out that if Clement had taken Tom's stance, he could never have gone on to hold the highest office in British politics, as he did from 1945 to 1951. Tom's career – he was an architect – was ruined by his decision to be a "conchie". After the war ended, he moved to Cornwall to escape the jibes and stigma, and never fully practised his profession again.
"What was interesting about Clem and Tom was they were both socialists, both members of the Independent Labour party when the war began," says Cath. "But while Clem saw it as his absolute duty to fight – he was in his 30s in 1914, so quite old to be signing up – Tom took a very different view. He was a committed Christian and believed that war could never be the Christian answer to any dispute – he was prepared to suffer for what he believed in."
In fact, Tom's wife, Kathleen, suffered almost as much as Tom and maybe more: Cath's brother Jeremy remembers another familymember once telling him that Tom's decision had ruined his grandmother's life.
Kathleen was from a military family – two of her uncles had been decorated in previous conflicts – and the stigma of being the wife of an objector must have hit her hard, especially as, by the time of Tom's court-martial in 1917, she was the mother of a toddler and pregnant with her second child. "Coping on her own, without an income, was very hard for my grandmother – my grandfather did three months' hard labour in Wormword Scrubs and then spent a year in Wandsworth prison," says Cath.
Clement, meanwhile, had been invalided back from the front so that when the armistice was signed in 1918, Ellen Attlee, their mother, had two sons in Wandsworth: one in the military hospital, the other in prison. "Ellen apparently remarked that she didn't know which of her sons she was more proud of, which is really rather lovely," says Helen, another of Tom's granddaughters. "I think there was a strong sense in our family that people were entitled to their convictions, and that having the courage of your convictions was something that everyone respected – and I think we respect that still."
Tom's daughter-in-law Peggy, now 95, wrote his biography and its title – With a Quiet Conscience – says it all.
Interestingly, the Attlee children's other grandfather, Peggy's father, was killed in the first world war before she was even born; on Remembrance Day, says Cath, she always wears two poppies, one white and one red, to remember the sacrifices made by both her grandfathers. "I recognise both the principles of the just war and the principles of pacifism," she says.
Jeremy says that as a child he never remembers his grandfather discussing pacifism or his time in prison; but he does know he accepted the fact that both his sons joined the army in the second world war. "I think Tom's view was that Hitler made things different," he says.
The anti-war feeling in Tom's branch of the Attlee family has filtered down through the generations, says Helen.
"I'm not against war in all circumstances, but I have been against many individual wars in my lifetime. I was one of a very small number of people who marched against the Falklands war in 1982, and I marched again, with my three children, against the Iraq war."
Tom died in 1960 when Cath was four, but Jeremy and Helen were in their late teens by then. Jeremy recalls: "He was very accepting of us, of what we thought and believed – his whole life had turned on standing up for what he believed in. We're all very proud of him.".. read more: