We will not fight: the men and women of Scotland who made a stand against war
THREE little objects: a Christmas card from 1941, a letter stamped with a red mark that shows it has been read by the censor, and a metal tag with the prisoner’s number: 8171. The objects are about to go on show at a new exhibition at the National War Museum in Edinburgh but the exhibition isn’t about war in the traditional sense. It is about the battle against war. It is about the men and women who said: we will not fight.
The original owner of the card and letter and metal tag was Tom Burns, a sociologist at Edinburgh University and one of around 60,000 British men and women who became conscientious objectors during the Second World War. Twenty years before, 16,000 people did the same thing during the First World War and the new exhibition explores what it takes to be able to do that: to defy public opinion, pressure from friends and family, and the risk of prison. In the First World War, there was also the risk for young men in the street that they would be handed a symbol designed to shame them into killing for their country: the white feather.
The new exhibition at the war museum tells the story of just a few of the men and women who were willing to take on the risks and register as conscientious objectors (during the Second World War, there were about 6,000 Scots). People such as Edwin Lucas, an artist from Edinburgh, who was assigned to hospital work and worked as an orderly at Killearn Hospital in Stirlingshire. And Peter Tennant, who was from a wealthy Scottish family with a strong military background, but was a committed pacifist and worked for the Friends Ambulance Unit in China. And Connie Margaret Bull, a nurse and volunteer for the Friends Ambulance Unit who registered as a conscientious objector following the introduction of conscription for women in 1941.
And Tom Burns. His daughter Lucy Metcalfe, a 63-year-old retired primary school teacher, has come into the National Museum in Edinburgh to tell me more about her father and she talks movingly about the effect his stand had on her and her view of the world, although it took some time to piece the story together. Like many war veterans, Tom was reluctant to talk about his experiences, although there were letters that told some of the story and her mother Elizabeth told her bits of it too.
“My father was passionately pacifist and always was,” says Lucy. “He didn’t believe anybody had the right to kill anybody else. But at the same time he wasn’t going to sit back and do nothing when the war broke out. He was motivated by wanting to help people.”
Tom’s decision was to join the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was run by Quakers and was an obvious place to do something useful without having to kill anybody. Asserting your religious objection to fighting, as the Quakers did, was the most common reason for becoming a conscientious objector. Usually, if you refused to fight, you would have to appear before a tribunal to produce evidence about your honesty and commitment to your principles and you would be given either a total exemption from war service or a conditional one which required you to serve in a non-combatant capacity, by working in farming for example or by driving an ambulance. You were more likely to be given an unconditional exemption on religious grounds.
In Tom Burns’s case, his objection was not actually religious – he did not attend church and did not join the Quakers; he also did not appear before a tribunal because he volunteered as an ambulance driver before conscription was introduced. For those who did appear in front of tribunals, they could object on religious, moral or political grounds – it was common for socialists to object, for example, and some Scottish nationalists refused to join up because they did not want to fight for the British state. Socialists and nationalists were much more likely to only get a conditional exemption though, or no exemption at all. If you were unsuccessful in applying for an exemption, you were then required to join the armed forces and could be imprisoned if you refused to do so.
Lucy Metcalfe says her father was always willing to serve in some capacity and that his case against war was a moral one, although there may have been a political element too – he was a committed socialist. He was born one of 14 children in Bethnal Green in London and became a teacher before the war. Once war broke out and he volunteered for noncombatant duties, he left Newcastle for Finland to drive ambulances. It was not a safe option by any means.
“Oh my God no,” says Lucy. “In Finland, he was attacked by Russian planes and bombs were being dropped all around their ambulances. They had to keep leaping out and burying themselves in the snow. He saw full-on combat, but he played it down massively because he didn’t want people at home to worry.”
Later, Tom served in Norway and Africa and was in Greece when it was invaded by Germany and thousands of British soldiers were captured and sent to POW camps. Tom spent over two years in Stalag VIIIB, in what is now south-west Poland, but even there he was able to give expression to his moral philosophy. “He started a library,” says Lucy, “he kept asking for books to be sent to him, he was working towards an exam, he was teaching. He was also running a sort of counselling service to talk to people about what they could do when the war was finished.”
Lucy has read the letters that her father was able to send back from the camp and is proud of the man they portray. She also has no doubts about the stand he took as a conscientious objector.
“I’m incredibly proud,” she says. “I do understand why people would think ‘well, you know, it was the Nazis, it wasn’t like the First World War, it was something that had to be got rid of.’ But I also feel that the approach he took to it was brave. Would I go as far as to say it was right? I just never questioned that it was the right decision.”
I ask her if she understands some of the negative reaction that conscientious objectors faced, the accusations of cowardice and the like. “Yes, I do understand why people would feel that,” she says, “because it was the Nazis, we had to do something, but at the same time, my father didn’t do nothing. Maybe I would have felt differently if he’d gone to prison and stayed at home and not done anything.”
Some conscientious objectors did indeed go to prison – usually, the absolutists who refused to do anything at all to contribute to the war effort, but most of the objectors did some form of war work. Of the 60,000 registered conscientious objectors in the Second World War, including 1000 women, 2,868 men and 69 women were granted absolute exemption and about 6,500 objectors spent some time in prison. This compares with 16,300 conscientious objectors in the First World war of whom 200 were given absolute exemptions.
On the whole, the conscientious objectors of the Second World War were also treated considerably better than those of the First World War, some of whom were sent to a desolate quarry in Dyce near Aberdeen where they had to sleep in freezing tents during the night and break stones during the day. Many were also imprisoned and threatened with execution.
Dorothy Kidd, one of the organisers of the exhibition and senior curator in Scottish history and archaeology at National Museums Scotland, believes opinions had moved on to some extent by the time of the Second World War.
“I suppose politicians understood that there was no point in forcing people to fight who weren’t prepared to,” she says. She also thinks that, while there were many who thought conscientious objectors were cowards, some of the public had become much more sympathetic.
“What is interesting is how very different the position was in Britain to any other country in the world,” she says. “We were relatively open and fair to conscientious objectors. In some countries, it wouldn’t even have arisen as an option. In France, it wasn’t an option. And in Germany it wasn’t.”
The numbers of conscientious objectors had also grown considerably since the First World War, driven partly by the pacifist movement of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands joined peace organisations, such as the Peace Pledge Union. With the rise of fascism, however, large numbers of those who had been active in the peace movement eventually decided to participate in the war effort, although a small minority remained convinced that war was wrong under any circumstances.
“It was not really until people started to realise how bad Nazism and fascism was that a lot maybe started to change their view,” says Dorothy Kidd. “I think for some of them that was quite difficult. The poet Edwin Morgan started out wanting to make a claim of outright conscientious objection but in the end he worked for the army medical corps. Partly it was about the influences all about you, the pressure that you’re maybe getting from some of your family, your friends, to at least be seen to do something.”
The fact that this pressure could be so intense has only increased Dorothy Kidd’s admiration for the conscientious objectors. “You have to admire individuals who are prepared to go against what their families and friends and communities believed,” she says. “That takes a lot of courage. And also they were very young; these are men and women in their late teens and early twenties. And for a young person, it is much easier to go with the flow and do what all your friends are doing. So you must be a very strong person to be able to stand up to that pressure.”
Lucy Metcalfe feels exactly the same way and says her father and the stand he made during the Second World War has hugely influenced her view of war and peace. “If any of my children had said they wanted to join the armed forces, I would’ve felt as if I’d failed as a parent,” she says. “I was imbued with that sense that war is wrong from a very young age and I still feel that very, very strongly.” She also says that in a hypothetical situation in which conscription was reintroduced for women , she would have to do exactly what her father did 70 years ago. “I wouldn’t be able to kill anybody,” she says, “I definitely wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Lucy also believes it’s important that the story of her father and other conscientious objectors becomes more widely known. “I was blown away when I was told there was going to be an exhibition about conscientious objectors at the castle in the military museum,” she says. “It’s important that people know what they did, why they did it, what they felt and how they were treated.
“I would like people to understand the motivation that people had, how strongly they felt that they didn’t want to be involved in killing people. But also, certainly in my father’s case and I assume in the others, that they didn’t want to sit back. They wanted to be pro-active and positively useful in helping people who were suffering the effects of war.”
Conscience Matters opens at the National War Museum on March 8 and runs until January 2020.
We are grateful to Mark Smith of The Herald, and to Lucy Metcalfe, one of Tom’s daughters, for permission to put this on our website.