Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Somme and Stroud and Conscientious Objectors: Echo Chamber at the Brunel Goods Shed


SVA Goods Shed, Stroud Railway Station Saturday 19 March, 10am to 4pm
‘War...conscience...protest. How do we navigate all the stuff that’s happening today?
Forgotten voices resonate from an earlier time of turmoil. Artists Fiona Kam Meadley and Dominic Thomas invite you to help shape this sound installation in advance of an exhibition at Friends House in August.
Email for information.’

In this year of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and its shocking futility, it's salutary to hear the thoughts of conscientious objectors – religious, socialist, communist, pacifist et al. And the Brunel Goods Shed is a perfect setting – how many troops set off for the Western Front from here? And how many wounded returned here?

When wounded soldiers arrived at Stroud, ‘There was the usual uncertainty as to which railway station they would arrive at, and consequently the crowds were thickest at the top of Rowcroft, where the roads from the two stations meet. Here people lined the streets six or eight deep, and there was only a narrow way left for the passage of motor-cars and carriages, which had been kindly lent by residents to convey the wounded to hospital…’

Two years later:
‘The Somme pictures proved to be the greatest cinema attraction ever presented to the public of the Stroud district, and we congratulate the management of the Empire Theatre on securing the wonderful film for their patrons…The pictures gave us some little conception of the tremendous amount of energy expended in this one theatre of the war. They gave us, too, some faint inkling of the immense and tragic waste of war: the blasted land, the material wreckage, the broken men and the irrecoverable lives. Their effect was saddening and at the same time inspiring…The half-demented German prisoners aroused sentiments not of derision but of pity…But the dominant impression was that of the bouyancy of our own incomparable men. Surely in all the tragic history of war a more light-hearted, high-spirited and fearless army has never marched into the zone of death and pain? The incalculable debt we owe to these heroes can never be liquidated: for all time the race will be their debtor. No words could record so convincingly as these pictures of actual war scenes the splendid spirit of Britain’s fighting men.’

If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are
If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,
They're hanging on the old barbed wire,
I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

Conscientious Objectors and WW1: A few facts

1. NUMBERS: Conscription was introduced in 1916 and with a numerical symmetry, there were about 16,000 conscientious objectors in this country by the end of the war.
2. NUMBERS: Over 2,000 tribunals sat in judgment on men, deciding on their sincerity over conscientious objection. Members of the tribunals saw their role more to intimidate men into the armed forces rather than grant a fair hearing. But as Ann Kramer puts it in her book Conchies: Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: ‘After all, as many objectors commented; how does a man prove he has a conscience?’
3. NUMBERS: Tribunals could make 4 choices: absolute exemption; an alternative to military service; rule that an individual could take a non-combatant role within the army; reject the application totally and order combatant duties.
4. RESISTANCE: Conscientious objectors carried on resistance, however, in the face of tribunal decisions. For example: refusing medical examinations; refusing to wear uniforms; refusing to march; refusing to salute or stand up.
5. RESPONSES: Responses included the following: polite persuasion; forcible wearing of uniforms; wearing of straitjackets; exposure to extreme cold or heat; solitary confinement; prison; beatings up; field punishments, and then, in the weeks before the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 50 men were secretly transported to France to receive death sentences.
6. DEATH SENTENCES: The death sentences were announced to the men in groups – and then after a few seconds pause, the officer would announce that the death sentence was commuted to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
7. PRISON: Over 6,000 conscientious objectors received prison sentences: ‘Funny. You’re in for murder and I’m in here for refusing to.’
8. ABSOLUTISTS AND ALTERNATIVISTS: ‘Absolutists’ were not prepared to accept any military role, but ‘alternativists’ accepted ‘work of national importance’, such as working on the land, within hospital services, and so on. These numbered about 6,500.
9. AFTER THE WAR: The end of the war saw a variety of forms of vicitimisation, including the withdrawal of the right to vote for five years.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to the good people of Stroud who came and responded to the installation. We created Echo Chamber so that the stories of conscientious objectors are not forgotten. They resisted conscription in the name of the ideal of the brotherhood of man. After the war, one of their leaders, Clifford Allen, dedicated the liberty they regained to such service as could contribute to the healing of wounds inflicted by war, and to the building of a world rooted in freedom and enriched by labour that is shared by all. Ideals to inspire us still?