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Conscientious Objectors' work camp (Photo supplied by AK)

Conscientious objectors' work camp (photo supplied by AK).

Determined resistance

A member of Hastings Against War, Ann Kramer is a historian and non-fiction writer. As a freelance writer, she has written on many topics, from Victorians and women spies through to human rights and women’s experiences during the two world wars. Over the last three or four years, however, Ann has concentrated on researching into and writing about conscientious objectors. Her book Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance has just been published – and HOT’s Zelly Restorick asked her to tell us why this subject is so important to her. 

“I joined CND when I was 15,” Ann said, “and ever since then I’ve been involved with the anti-war movement in one way or another. Initially, my biggest concern was nuclear weapons and what we could do to stop being wiped out, but, as time went on, I became increasingly certain that all wars, not just of the nuclear variety, are completely and absolutely wrong. I suppose therefore that my interest in writing about conscientious objectors stems from my personal anti-war beliefs.”

Ann had wanted to write something about the peace movement for some years, but initially was unable to interest her publishers in a book on that subject: in her view, “war books seem to be more marketable than books about peace.” However, things changed after she had a stand at the annual War and Peace Festival in Kent, promoting her book on land girls. “There was a lot of war and absolutely no peace at that festival, and I was getting increasingly irritable. The marketing director of Pen & Sword [Ann’s publishers] came over to see me and I confronted him with a request to write something on peace. To my complete amazement, he agreed and told me to send in a synopsis, which I did. Out of this came my two books on conscientious objectors. As the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has commented, it is quite extraordinary that in the end it has been a military publisher that accepted my ideas.”

Conscientious Objectors of the First World War by Ann Kramer

This being the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, Ann feels it is particularly important that her book on conscientious objectors is being published.

“Much of the emphasis this year is on the men who died during that dreadful war — more than 800,000 of them from Britain — and it is quite right that they should be remembered. However, very little attention is paid to the men who took what was a very courageous stand against conscription and refused to pick up arms and fight. There were at least 16,000 conscientious objectors – in fact probably more than 20,000 – and in the climate of the time, it was an unpopular and dangerous thing to do. They were vilified by the press, ostracised by the public, humiliated and insulted at tribunals, physically abused and beaten in the army, threatened with the death sentence and imprisoned – often serving several consecutive sentences; but despite everything that the authorities threw at them, theirs was — as the subtitle of my book describes — a very determined resistance, and most maintained their stand through to the end. I believe that telling their stories is essential to provide a counter-balance to the received image of the First World War.”

In her book, Ann looks at the outbreak of war and the introduction of conscription in 1916, which effectively created the conscientious objector – “Without conscription, there would have been no conscientious objectors.” She describes who the conscientious objectors were, why they took the stand they did and how they were treated. During her research, she spent time trawling through the archives of the PPU, interviewed relatives of First World War conscientious objectors in Wales, London and Hastings, and immersed herself in the invaluable sound archives of the Imperial War Museum. Armed with this research, she tells the stories of First World War conscientious objectors generally and of some in particular, such as Henry Sargent, later curator of Bexhill Museum, Cyril Heaseman, whose granddaughter lives in Hastings, printer Fred Murfin, fiery socialist Fenner Brockway, who spent 23 months in prison, Corder Catchpoole, one of the earliest members of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and many others.

Author Ann Kramer

Author Ann Kramer.

Ann believes that although the numbers of conscientious objectors was very small compared with around five million men who volunteered or were conscripted, their impact was enormous. “I think the First World War conscientious objectors were remarkable. They were really the trailblazers and role models for all war resisters who followed them. They proved they could take on the state and challenge militarism in a completely non-violent way and that nothing the state did to them would change their beliefs.

“After the First World War, their experiences and actions helped to create an unprecedented peace and anti-war movement that flourished right up to 1939, and inspired a second generation of conscientious objectors in the Second World War. Their experiences too meant that the authorities’ attitude towards COs in that war was more humane. I believe that the draft-dodgers of the Vietnam War and the Israeli refuseniks owe more than they know to those early conscientious objectors. Today, conscientious objection is a human right recognised by the United Nations. So, all in all, it’s quite a legacy.”

Ann Kramer’s website here.

Ann will be talking about First World War conscientious objectors and her new book at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery on Bohemia Road on Saturday 15 November at 2pm. Admission is free. She will also be doing a talk at Bookbusters, Queen’s Road, on Sunday 30 November.


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Posted 09:23 Wednesday, Nov 12, 2014 In: Literature

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