‘Individuals paid a painful price, shunned by their communities’

Henry Alty shortly before his death in 1959
Henry Alty shortly before his death in 1959
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The stance of conscientious objectors (COs) in war time remains controversial and volunteers from the charity Global Link have launched a website dedicated to telling the stories of Lancashire men who took this step, reports TONY COPPIN. Already they have brought to light the shocking tale of Henry Alty, a joiner who felt the full wrath of the state

They were ordinary working men leading ordinary lives, until the First World War propelled them into a crisis of conscience that would dramatically change their lives.

First World War  conscientious objectors Huddersfield COs at Wakefield Work Centre 1918

First World War conscientious objectors Huddersfield COs at Wakefield Work Centre 1918

The decision to resist the call to arms and become a Conscientious Objector was not an easy one.

Individuals paid a painful price for their beliefs, shunned by their communities as shirkers and cowards.

Many of those who were imprisoned suffered appalling brutality and near starvation at the hands of the authorities.

Now the stories of local COs have been brought to life in the Documenting Dissent website launched by Lancaster charity, Global Link.

Volunteer researchers were recruited during the Heritage Lottery-funded project to uncover the case histories of men and women from Lancashire prepared to stand up for their convictions.

Estimates show more than 1,600 people from across the county turned to conscientious objection during World War One, though these figures could be higher due to military tribunal records being destroyed.

Twenty volunteers were involved, including history students from Lancaster Royal Grammar School, who gathered stories of former pupils who became COs.

Following the introduction of compulsory military service in 1916, all conscripted men who claimed conscientious objection faced a tribunal by a local panel.

Depending on the tribunal decision, a CO could be offered an exemption on the condition they undertook “alternative” civilian service.

Or they could be given an exemption from duties involving weapons as long as they undertook other non-combative war-related work.

Many COs were “absolutists”, committed pacifists who refused to undertake any form of alternative or non-combatant service.

They included Alwynne Walmsley, a Lancaster teacher, who was imprisoned twice.

Alwynne was a Quaker whose faith meant he rejected any form of violence.

He was court-martialled and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. Following his release in 1918, he was re-arrested shortly afterwards for refusing to do military service.

Becoming a CO took its toll on Preston market gardener and fitness instructor Joseph Garstang.

As a committed socialist and member of the No Conscription Fellowship, he took an absolutist stance and refused to have anything to do with the conflict.

As a result, he spent several years in prison, during which time he went on hunger strike and was force-fed. He was released from prison for the last time in 1919 and was unable to return to his previous work due to poor health. He died less than 10 years later, aged only 38.

Other COs , while refusing to fight, agreed to undertake alternative service. Among these were Quaker brothers John Lamb Howson and William Giles Howson, and Robert Waites, all former pupils of Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

Their stories were researched by current pupils who discovered the trio joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and each worked on Ambulance Train 16, transporting soldiers from the Front to Boulogne.

Other COs included marble carver Albert Tomlinson, who worked at his father’s business, in Penny Street, Lancaster, who served in France as a driver with the FAU after a military service tribunal exempted him from combatant role due to his religious beliefs and Cyril Walmsley of Lancaster – brother to Alwynne – who took a different stance from his brother.

Rather than face imprisonment, as his brother had done, he opted to work for the Friends War Victims Relief Committee alleviating the suffering of people in war-torn France.

Alison Lloyd Williams, Global Education Worker at Global Link, said the stories highlight the dilemmas faced by individuals when faced with issues of conscience.

“I think what’s really striking is how diverse the experiences of COs were and the different moral choices they made,” she said.

“It makes you appreciate how brave a decision it was to become a CO.

“Some of the stories we have discovered are very shocking indeed.

“However, it is also inspiring to learn more about individuals who held to their beliefs and continued to show resistance to war, even in the face of enormous pressure.”

The Documenting Dissent website is being launched to coincide with International Conscientious Objectors’ Day on Friday May 15. Visit: www.documentingdissent.org.uk

A launch event is being held at Lancaster YMCA, Fleet Square, on Thursday May 21, at 7.30pm.

There will be a talk by retired Leeds University lecturer Cyril Pearce, who has compiled a data base of WW1 COs.

This will be followed by presentations from project volunteers. Anyone wishing to attend the free event is asked to contact info@globallink.org.uk or ring 01524 36201.