March 1918

While the situation on the Western Front began to show signs of a change to the grinding deadlock that had settled over the war since 1914, March proved to be a nervous and cautious month in the pages of the Tribunal. With the threat of prosecution and further censorship hanging over the NCF after its brush with the law in February, the writers and editors took a step back from the controversial material published in the preceding months. Issues in March are dominated by leading and editorial articles that are informative, rather than inflammatory, or taken from Court Martial statements, pamphlets, newspapers or books - all of which were legal, and at times uncontroversial, to print.

7th of March: What the NCF stands for
“What the NCF stands for” appears as a reprint of a 1916 article by Bertrand Russell, that states the position and underlying philosophy of the NCF on war, peace and conscription. Though starting off with “The NCF is a pacifist body engaged in a fierce fight”, the article is as non-confrontational as it could possibly be; a statement of intent to be a positive force in the world.

News ClippingAccording to the article, the NCF stands for:
The end of militarism, but not through violent means - “our ultimate aim is not to smash anything; it is to build, not to destroy”
Bring war to an end, not in spite of those fighting, but for them - “to save men from the horrors which are now endured in Poland and Picardy”
A better world in the future - “where men are free to grow, where the dominion of greed is at an end”

Noble goals, but why reprint the article nearly two years after it’s original appearance? The positive tone and clear statement of undeniably admirable goals positions the NCF as a force for good in the social and political arena of 1918. It’s a pro-peace, pro-soldier and pro-justice article that avoids any mention of the opponents that the CO movement accrued in society, government and military. Where an “anti-something” position is stated, it’s in order to argue against it. Not anti-soldier, but pro-peace.

The timing of the reprint is important. With the Tribunal under increasing government scrutiny, and the February seizure of presses and issues being reported in the national press, there was a need to both reduce the combative nature of rhetoric and increase the public understanding of the “pro-peace” side of the anti-war movement.

The article will strike a chord with anyone working in a peace-related organisation today. Explaining that the anti-war position is a positive and constructive one that is not opposed to, or disrespectful towards the lives and sacrifice of serving soldiers is often difficult. Every November, accusations that the Peace Pledge Union is disrespectful or condescending towards the memory of War dead fly in the papers, but all miss an important point. In being against war, we are for a better and more positive world.

14th March: CO’s in Canada
Going unmentioned in the Tribunal until now, a Conscription crisis almost identical to those in Britain and New Zealand was building in Canada. A conscription act had been passed by the Canadian government in 1917, producing the same rigmarole of Tribunals, Exemptions and Conscientious Objectors, but enforcement, and the first signs of organised resistance, came in early 1918. The majority of men eligible for conscription applied for exemption, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Tribunals and the legal implications of conscription, and widespread rioting broke out in Quebec, leading to the imposition of martial law and the death of several civilians after the army fired on crowds gathered to protest the bill.

In the middle of this unrest came the now-familiar figures of Conscientious Objectors. As in Britain, socialist and religious COs opposed the government’s attempts to force them to kill. The Tribunal reports from the Winnipeg Evening Tribune of January 24th:

“Nine Conscientious Objectors, all members of the International Bible Students Association (now Jehovah’s Witnesses), who have been, or expect to be, drafted into the army. Two of these, Ralph Nash and Robert Clegg, and another man Charles Matheson... are stated to have been tortured by order”

The method of their torture was cruel; repeated immersion in ice-cold water until they fell unconscious from shock. This would have been a sadly familiar story for many British Conscientious Objectors, but the official Canadian response was swift; an inquiry and prosecution for those responsible. The Tribunal would continue to report the story as and when information became available.

March 21st: Mrs Besant on Conscientious Objectors
Another significant reprint was published in the March 21st issue, an extract from “Passive Resistance” by Annie Besant, originally printed in the New India journal. Annie Besant was a feminist and anti-imperialist theorist, writer and activist. Living and working in India, she was an early and outspoken proponent of Indian independence, favouring non-violent means of struggle.

Her view of Conscientious Objectors in Britain is shaped both by her personal beliefs on non-violent action, but also her anger at the “unpardonable errors” that the “Empire has made... in it’s treatment of those who know how to suffer for their conscience”. These errors have been to imperil the spiritual struggle passive resistance to militarism afforded to COs in accordance with her Theosophist beliefs:

“Each one of us must preserve in purity... our individual note, the rising cry of our unfolding Divinity”

Nes ClippingConscientious Objection and the principles behind it, meant many things to many people. For Besant, it meant holding on to spiritual principles of self-determination, and the “purity of spirit”. Unconquerable and persevering, the spirit of British Objectors would “never diminish even by so much as a single individual”.

Besant’s writing on COs should be taken in the context of both her faith and her continuing opposition to the British rule of India. As an independence campaign, this article serves two purposes; to highlight the oppressive nature of the British response to Conscientious Objectors, and to reinforce Besant’s own preferred technique of opposition, non-violent resistance. In keeping with this month’s cautious and careful Tribunal, it does not call for action, so much as it encourages persistence and the value of setting an example.

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