the men who said no


CO play DartmoorPreston WW1 Tribunal

A play by Gordon McKerrow
Originally transmitted on BBC Radio 4:on Saturday 21st November 1981
1 hour 29 mins

Teddy and Molly first met in September 1914 during a Women's Suffragette meeting and soon fell in love. Molly keeps their relationship a secret from her parents who would not understand Teddy's pacifism and the fact that he didn't sign up when World War One was declared. But then conscription is introduced and men begin to be called up.

On 14th March 1916, Teddy takes Molly to a Tribunal where Clifford Allen is presenting his grounds for exemption from military service. Teddy is impressed by Clifford's actions even though he would lose his claim. When Teddy is called up, he also refuses to be conscripted and becomes a conscientious objector, something that will cost him dearly. Molly soon joins the No-Conscription Fellowship which, in March 1916, begins a weekly newspaper called The Tribunal for the rights of conscientious objectors.





We Will Know Them.
by Gordon McKerrow
Or how a play that began as a story of men of conscience ended as a tale of a lonely woman.

In 1980 I was commissioned by BBC Radio Drama to write a play about the No-Conscription Fellowship, to be set in 1916. The result was first broadcast in November 1981. ‘The Winking Conchie’ was my working title until my script editor at Broadcasting House dissuaded me and we settled on ‘We Will Know Them’. Both were terms of abuse, the verbal equivalent of the white feather, while ‘We shall remember them’ was created post-war as a term of the highest praise to the fallen.

Way back when this play first grew, and plays grow very slowly, I had been researching topics from the early 20th century. The germ began with a different though parallel interest in the Pankhurst women and their fight for freedom of thought and action. Conscientious objection to military service was not immediately of interest to me. Instead, I had always been fascinated as to why people of identical origins might have diverse views and so I delved into how mother, Emmeline, and older sister, Christabel, fell out with Sylvia over conscription and the pursuit of the war. The more I read about Sylvia, I discovered more about the No-Conscription Fellowship. The two subjects melded. A play was born.

I was still thinking through my own attitude, exploring my emotions about pacifism and how I would react should I be alive during a time of war and conscription. The more I read and researched, and put my fictionalised characters into actual events, the more my view became concrete. I had no axe to grind; merely hoped I would refuse to kill another person, so my characters just refused to kill another person too.

Now embarked upon a whole new play about conscientious-objection and the newspaper called ‘The Tribunal’, I was off to research-land, to seek the library of the Imperial War museum and the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale and, of course, the book Objection Overruled by David Boulton, a brilliant summary of conscientious objection to war. Have you ever been to BL Colindale? Now sadly closed, but the service was wonderful. You filled out a card, sat at a desk, and lo and behold a quiet person wheeled a laden trolley over polished floors and knew exactly where you were, gently placing looms of newsprint and cans of microfiche in front of you.

Further rooting took me to the House of Lords to seek-out the late Fenner Brockway, at 91 still a vibrant, inspiring figure, so kind to let this anxious young man thrust a microphone up his nose. Later, over the fine Lords tea to which he treated me, he expanded upon how modern nuclear disarmament still carried all his pacifist energies forward. Conscription was over, but there were campaigns still to be won.

Campaigns still to be won? Now there is a riddle, showing how military terminology creeps in to our everyday life. My family, going back as long as you want, understood that there was an army and a navy and then an airforce who would go to war whenever our nation felt threatened. Nothing said, nor written, just sensed. And if needs be, to be done. My family were not military; there were no career soldiers amongst my precursors, but to take up arms when necessary was considered an unspoken duty. They took service in their stride. My grandfathers did their bit in WWI and my dad’s beloved brother fell in WWII.

Yet that 39-45 war was the making of my mother: an intelligent teenager, she rose swiftly through the ATS to discover adventure and achievement. Peacetime came as a dullen burden of the everyday. At school I went through cadets, hated the Blanco and the buttons, but found playing at war on the hillsides with thunder-flashes absolutely exhilarating. And nobody dies.

So to undertake a project about the uneasy subject of ‘conchies’ caused some raised eyebrows among the older members of my wider family: that the BBC should commission me to do so was a a source of both pride and concern to them. With my mum a true-blue, my dad a tory anarchist and me and my siblings veering to the left, I dashed, late but panicky-proud, up Regent’s Street with script in hand into Broadcasting House for the rehearsals. And what a studio. Studio B12, the home of radio drama bug so deep, that neither street noise nor tube trains nor Goering’s bombs could interrupt the flow of the nation’s entertainment. And there where my cast led by Francesca Annis and director, Penny Gold, already at hard at work, I crept into the back of the crowd and sat down. Was this my play?

May 2016





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