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Remembering and Researching the story of Conscientious Objectors to the First World War

A cartoon from the First World War period by Frank Holland “An Object Lesson: This Little Pig stayed at Home” depicting a lazy conscientious objector who stayed at home while the rest of his family contributes to the war effort. Holland, an artist, worked as a cartoonist for Lord Harmsworth from the 1890s until the First World War. His work appeared in various magazines and newspapers, including the Daily Mail. © IWM (Q 103334).

Men took the stance of Conscientious Objector (CO) and refused to participate in the First World War for a myriad of reasons. Indeed, the highly personal nature of an individual’s ‘conscience’ meant that there were almost as many reasons for objecting as there were objectors. Many COs belonged to religious groups such as the Quakers who held a traditional commitment to peace whilst others objected on political grounds, primarily on the basis of socialist beliefs. Yet, the distinction between religious and political objectors was not necessarily clear cut as many COs based their objection on a combination of religious and political reasons whilst others objected for reasons that bore little relation to religion or politics, making the study of COs as a homogenous group problematic.

In these centenary years when remembrance of the First World War has come to the forefront of the public domain, the men who objected to war and refused to bear arms occupy an uneasy position. They form little or no part in the various large-scale public remembrance activities and their stories remain vague and largely neglected.

Last Friday, the 15th May was Conscientious Objectors Day and despite a handful of a small local events there was very little state or public effort to engage in the remembrance of these men. Perhaps this can be viewed as evidence of the strength of the emotional connection that Britain has with the First World War and in particular the continued centrality of the figure of the ‘unknown soldier’ to First World War remembrance. Death and sacrifice form the overarching narrative of Britain’s centenary years. Yet, objection to war is a significant aspect of any war experience and neglecting to comprehend and remember it obscures our understanding of the effect of war on both individuals and a nation. The large numbers of soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War must undoubtedly occupy a prominent role in Britain’s remembrance but we must also allow for the consideration of other narratives.

The Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors, placed online by the IWM as part of their Lives of the First World War project, presents an opportunity for greater consideration of the stories of COs. This database allows us to search over 16,500 individual objectors, and consequently gives us access to the personal reasons behind a particular stance and individual experience. Furthermore, information about the location of COs reveals where particular pockets of resistance existed throughout the country.

Cyril Pearce, formerly a senior lecturer in History at Leeds University, has researched COs extensively and has published a study of the Huddersfield antiwar community during the First World War.[1]The details that make up the database have been collected by Pearce over a period of twenty years.

This source will bring undoubted benefits to those undertaking research into objectors but may also help facilitate a better public understanding of the experience of COs and broaden the narrative of remembrance during and after the centenary.


[1] Cyril Pearce, Comrades in Conscience: The Story of an English Community’s Opposition to the Great War  (2001).

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