This blog post by Victor Hulbert explores the history of World War 1 Conscientious Objector, starting with his great uncle, Willie Till, one of 130 Seventh-day Adventist young men who stood their ground as pacifists.
Can there be any worse picture then that of the death and destruction in the trenches of World War I? Over 65 million soldiers fought each other in a war that seemed it would never end. Over 8.5 million died. A further 21 million were injured. It was horrific. Modern weaponry combined with out of date tactics from yesteryear.
But what if you believe war is wrong? What if you believe human life is sacred? How can you stand for peace in the midst of tremendous political and social pressure? Lord Kitchener’s propaganda machine made ‘conchies’ very unpopular people. Earlier this year I discovered that my great uncle, Willie Till, was a WWI Conscientious Objector. He was one of 130 Seventh-day Adventist young men who stood firm for their pacifist principles in the midst of that horror. Some of them discovered a different horror for themselves. Refusing to fight, and standing by the principle of Sabbath observance, they were beaten, starved, forced to spotlessly clean latrines without any equipment, and punished with the dreaded ‘crucifixion’ –shackled in irons and painfully strapped to a fixed object such as a gun wheel.
From when conscription was introduced in 1916, some 130 young Adventist young men were called up for military service. Most chose to uphold the principle of the sacredness of life, and equally had strong views on Sabbath observance and other moral values.
Bernard Belton was one of those early conscripts. He was stationed as solitary Adventist with 70 or 80 other non-combatants in France. In those early days he sent a letter to the church paper reporting that after discussion with his commanding officer he given Friday sunset to Saturday sunset off and was even able to witness with those in his billet. “I have had a grand time with two corporals”, he wrote. “They are very worldly men but they have been so impressed with the views I have presented that they are continually bringing the Bible and pointing out apparent contradictions with the request that I should explain.”
He was one of the more fortunate one. Seventeen young men, such as Hector Bull, and Charles Meredith spent time in Dartmoor prison where hard labour, dragging granite in from the moor and smashing it into road building material was the order of the day. Discipline was harsh, particularly in the earlier months of conscription. Conscientious objection was not to be seen as an ‘easy option’ for escaping the trenches. For men like Hector Bull, discipline would be at its harshest on Saturday, when he refused to work.
Yet his life was easy compared to that of 14 students from Stanborough Training College in Watford. They were conscripted into the 3rd Eastern Non Combatant Corps at Bedford Barracks on 23 May 1916, and soon after sent to France.
Despite their NC status, trouble stared even on the boat. They had been handed out their uniforms. On the ship to France they were handed rifles. They refused them. Landing in France they were put to one side on the dock and after a while, to try and break the resistance, the tallest and strongest of them, and therefore perceived to be the ring-leader, was forced to carry large rocks from one end of the dock to the other. When he had completed his task he was made to carry them back.
Despite that difficult start, accommodations were made and for 18 months the Adventist group worked mainly as stevedores, unloading ships on the docks at Le Havre and elsewhere. H W Lowe wrote in a letter, “The colonel asked us about our beliefs and told the colour sergeant, ‘see that these men are excused duty from Sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
That is exactly what happened until November 1917. That autumn they were moved to a new area with a new, young captain. He was determined that he would have none of this ‘Sabbath nonsence’. This they jointly refused to do. They were immediately court martialled and sentenced to six months hard labour at Military Prison number 3 in Le Havre.
H W Lowe, in his understated manner recalled, “The prison routine was very rigorous, and obviously geared psychologically to control a tough lot of men.” They were isolated from each other, forced to work long hours at double-pace, and, Lowe reported, if you could not keep up the frenetic pace of work then you could expect severe punishment. “The armed guards were not blessed with the milk of human kindness when administering these punishments. On some occasions a man would be tied to a wheel in crucifixion fashion for hours in the sun. All prisoners dreaded what they called ‘crucifixion’.”
Writing years later to a young man who asked about the experience, Worsley Armstrong wrote,
“I will not go into the details of the horrible treatment we received, but finally each one of us was cast into a small cell, approximately 7 foot by 4 foot with iron walls and a concrete floor. It was mid-winter. There, after punishment, our hands were placed behind our backs and locked with what were called ‘Figures of eights’. This was very painful.”
Alfred Bird died early, in 1944, partly as a result of ill health resulting from this appalling treatment. His daughter says the marks of these irons digging into his wrists could be seen until the day he died. Armstrong developed a heart condition, even in prison, and lived with the serious consequences of his treatment for all his life.
Those were nightmare days. After the war they refused to talk about their experiences, even to their families. The fullest account of their suffering is in the 4 April 1918 edition of the clandestine paper, The Tribunal. That account talks about bullying, breaking men’s hearts, and that sergeants were authorised to use physical means to achieve their objectives.
On the first Friday afternoon of their imprisonment, the Adventists downed tools at 4 pm in preparation for Sabbath. The sergeants were ready, armed with sticks, revolvers and boots. Following severe beatings to every part of their body they were left in their cells, figures of eight irons tightly clamped on their wrists, digging into their flesh, their hands behind their backs.
Such mistreatment and worse continued the next day but it is actually a personal letter from W W Armstrong’s, written 40 years later that clearly shows the courage and faith of these young men, not much more than teenagers.
“When the Sabbath morning came, I remember hearing the door of the cell to my right being opened and the sergeant giving instructions to one of our young men to go to work. I could not hear his reply, but I did hear him leave the cell and the door was bolted.
The same thing happened to the youth on the other side, and I was left by myself. I heard other doors opened and bolted in the same way and finally the door to my cell was opened, and I was commanded to go to work. I refused to do this in a courteous way, explaining once more the reason for my refusal. I fully expected to be thrashed and beaten… but to my surprise the sergeant was quite affable. He told me not to be a fool; that all the other young men had come to their senses and they had all gone to work as good Britishers should, and that I would only get into further trouble if I was stubborn.
This news, of course, surprised me, and I could hardly believe it, but I remember making the statement that whatever my brethren might do, I must remain firm to the truth of God, and I endeavoured to get some sort of spiritual understanding into the mid of that gross sergeant. I learned later, however, that all our young men in the cells remained faithful.”
The sergeant’s attitude then changed and the inevitable beating came. But that was not the end of the story.
Armstrong writes, “A short while afterwards a little way down the corridor I heard somebody whistling one of our well-known hymns – although I cannot remember just which one it was. I was surprised to hear this because to whistle or sing was counted as gross insubordination, but to my surprise I heard a voice singing with the whistling, and it was only a question of seconds before many other voices were singing this hymn, and I found myself spontaneously joining in the singing of that good old hymn.”
Armstrong noted that “the singing of that hymn brought wonderful comfort and strength to us as we were there in that prison.” It had an effect on the sergeant and other non-commissioned officers who gathered in the corridor and didn’t know what to do. They became very subdued, and, Armstrong reports, “We finished that hymn in an atmosphere of absolute quiet.”
While much of the horrors of that time fell away over the years, that moment remained. Even forty years on he could state with clarity, “There was something in the hymn itself as well as the spirit in which it was sung which affected those brutal men, for brutal they were to the extreme, and although we did experience considerable persecution subsequently, I felt that these men had far more respect for us after they had heard our singing.”
The men were not allowed Bibles – they were confiscated on entering the prison. However, one of them managed to secrete a copy of the gospel of John, which they then divided up between them and hid in their caps.
A chaplain from a neighbouring army camp was passing the prison one day and heard shrieks from the cells. He entered the prison and asked to see the Adventists. He knew they were there – but his request was refused – and moreover, he wasn’t allowed inside the prison again even though he had held a service there once a week. It may possibly be him that raised the alarm with higher authorities back in Britain. By Christmas they were back in Britain. Their detention in Military Prison #3 lasted not much more than a month. Much longer and they might not have survived. They were released from the Army and sent to Knutsford Work Centre. By July all 14 were released to civilian life.
These were men of courage. Many of them went on to lead the Adventist Church both in Britain and overseas following the end of the war. H W Lowe, who became president of the Adventist church during the lead up to WWII. In 1937 he was invited to the legal department of the war office. A new Military Service act was in preparation. In an hour long meeting the government lawyer stated that he did not want the mistakes of WWI to be repeated.
“I think,” he said, “that military officers do not understand religious convictions such as your people hold sincerely, and that the best thing would be for us to make it possible for your men to serve the country in time of emergency in some capacity outside the armed forces.”
This set the rule for WWII where Adventist young men still had to attend tribunals but were then directed into work of National Importance on the land, in industry or in a medical capacity.
I believe that the 14 young men who stood by their principles in France have to be admired. Also the many more who served time in Dartmoor, Wakefield, Wormwood Scrubs or Knutsford prisons. The 130 who stood firm despite Lord Kitchener’s pressure that ‘Your country needs you’.
They inspired me so much that my research led me to make a documentary film exploring their experience and the issues of Adventists and war. During that research I discovered that one of those young men in France was my Great Uncle. I found that to be very moving. It strengthened my own pacifist roots. I talked to his son, Garth, and to the children of other NC’s. Those children all stand by their parent’s decision. For me, they are unsung heroes.
Their example, their positive choices, their determination to stand for the right, are perhaps the very lessons we do need to remember one hundred years later.
Pastor Victor Hulbert is Communication and Media director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UK and Ireland. His great uncle, Willie Till, was one of the 14 court martialled in France.