The 16 000 conscientious objectors at the beginning of World War One were largely ignored
because they were numerically insignificant and because the hostilities were expected to be
over by Christmas. By 1915, the growing resentment towards conscientious objectors due to
heavy battle losses and the realization that the war would be longer than expected made
pacifism increasingly problematical and controversial. With the introduction of conscription
in 1916 and the enlistment of many conscientious objectors in the Non-Combatant Corps –
where they served as stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers, canteen workers and road makers
– pacifism became increasingly identified with cowardice, as exemplified in the nickname
My paper explores the different attitudes of pacifists to war and how these were
perceived by both fighting soldiers and civilians. I argue that novels have a special ability to
demonstrate the different views, their origins and effect on the individual concerned. The
wide range of attitudes is clearly illustrated in Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991), Sebastian
Faulks’s Birdsong (1994), Mackenzie Ford’s Gifts of War (2008), Janet Macleod Trotter’s A
Crimson Dawn (2006), Anne Perry’s At Some Disputed Barricade (2006), and Chris Ryan’s
One Good Turn (2008). My focus is on A Crimson Dawn and the characters of Rab MacCrae,
who is arrested as a conscientious objector and pays the ultimate price, and Emmie Kelso,
who is married to a soldier who volunteers in 1914 and is deeply opposed to pacifism.
What can novels tell us about conscientious objectors that history books cannot? Why
do so many modern British novels feature conscientious objectors? Why do we continue to be
fascinated by their stories? These questions form the basis of my paper.
2015. Vol. August, 72-79 p.
World War One International Conference Held at Queen Mary, University of London August 1st – 4th 2014