An article about British conscentious objectors during World War One made me aware of the way these events of mass unthinkingness become a kind of totalitarianism against people who have their own minds.

It also makes me think again about how difficult it would be to avoid the draft. You’d have to move, but who would take you in? And how could you get or keep a job? Those without money would need friends or relatives to hide and feed them, or else they’d be sent off for the slaughter.

Selected passages:

In the spring of 1916, Britain had begun conscription, and some 50 men who were among the first to refuse it were forcibly inducted into the army and transported, some in handcuffs, across the English Channel to France.

“We have been warned today that we are now within the war zone,” he [conscientious objector Stuart Beavis] wrote to her [his mother] stoically, “and the military authorities have absolute power, and disobedience may be followed by very severe penalties, and very possibly the death penalty.”

Periodically they were summoned to hear announcements of soldiers sentenced to death for desertion or disobedience.

After it [the war] began, people jeered him [antiwar activist Keir Hardie] on the street in London and mobs hooted and sang “Rule, Britannia” to try to drown out his speeches. … A newspaper printed a cartoon showing Kaiser Wilhelm II giving “Keir von Hardie” a bag of gold.

“Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon, “ . . . not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. . . . Kill the good as well as the bad. . . . Kill the young men as well as the old. . . . I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican Bishop of London.

Women stood on street corners handing out white feathers, an ancient symbol of cowardice, to young men not in uniform.

[After the introduction of conscription] The authorities started raiding soccer games, movie theaters, and railway stations to round up military-age men who were not in uniform.

Violet Tillard, an NCF [No-Conscription Fellowship] activist, served two months in prison for refusing to reveal its [organisation newpaper press] location.

Ramsay MacDonald, an antiwar Labour MP, had not gone to prison during the war but had been under police surveillance and was repeatedly stoned when he spoke at peace meetings. Angry patriots had even voted to expel him from his golf club.


And some curious touches:

The [No-Conscription Fellowship, or NCF] organization’s chairman, wrote one delegate, “did not wish to incite further attack by the noise of our cheering. He therefore asked that enthusiasm should be expressed silently, and with absolute discipline the crowded audience responded.” When Bertrand Russell addressed the gathering, he was “received with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the low sound of rising and falling wind, but with no other sound whatsoever.”

…a lawyer on the government side, Sir Archibald Bodkin … protested angrily that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong.” Delighted, the NCF issued a poster with exactly those words on it, credited to Bodkin. The government then convicted an NCF member for putting up this subversive poster. In response, the NCF’s lawyer demanded the arrest of Bodkin himself, as author of the offending words. The organization’s newspaper called for Bodkin to prosecute himself, and declared that the group would provide relief payments to his wife and children if he sent himself to jail.

…often the only meat on sale in Germany was that of dogs and cats. A foreign visitor described what happened when a horse collapsed and died on a Berlin street one morning: “Women rushed towards the cadaver as if they had been poised for this moment, knives in their hands. Everyone was shouting, fighting for the best pieces. Blood spattered their faces and their clothes. . . . When nothing more was left of the horse beyond a bare skeleton, the people vanished, carefully guarding their pieces of bloody meat tight against their chests.”

When he [Bertrand Russell] arrived to begin serving his sentence, the warder taking down his particulars “asked my religion and I replied ‘agnostic.’ He asked how to spell it, and then remarked with a sigh: ‘Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.’ ”