Conscientious Objectors on trial – the lessons of history

Full length play dramatizing legal persecution of conscientious objectors during the First World War. Image: Goldsmiths & US Library of Congress Public Domain

What are we to learn from the persecution of conscientious objectors during the Great War between 1914-18?

The power of war talk is seductive and exciting. The rhetoric of peace has been problematized.

In 2017 it seems leading politicians such as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn would rather say he was not a pacifist when in truth he and all leading politicians remain pacifists until they resort to violence.

I have been humbled by the courage and fortitude of largely unsung conscientious objectors in Deptford during the First World War and the struggle of like-minded people all over Britain.

At Deptford Town Hall the tribunal hearings were heard in secret – no other local authority did this.

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   Deptford Old Town Hall where conscientious objectors were tried in secret between 1916-18.

Local researcher Ann O’Brien and Goldsmiths College public engagement specialist Will Cenci inspired me and colleagues from Goldsmiths History Department to dig deeper.

My colleague Sarah Jackson wrote an award-winning dissertation on second world war conscientious objectors for her degree at Essex University.

This further inspired me to make connections with the fate of people who again wished to say no to killing other human beings in the face of a transformation of total war that included the Final Solution and atomic bombs.

During the Second World War around a thousand women between 18 and 30 years of age sought conscientious objector exemption and many were jailed for their absolutist position.

I’ve written the full length play devised and produced by the brilliant Goldsmiths Acting and Film Making Society to be performed in the very place where peace rather than war was tried in secret 100 years ago.

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          Rehearsals of ‘Devils on Horseback’ devised and produced by Goldsmiths Acting and Film Making Society May 2017

Writing the play has also made me confront my own attitudes to the moral dilemma of war and peace.

Growing up with a father who would howl in horror in the middle of the night from night terrors had always been a little out of the ordinary.

Not quite the bedtime solace of being read Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

His regular ritual of going out on drunken benders on one day in July and another in August which usually ended in blazing rows with police officers and a night in the cells was also perplexing.

He’d been a front-line infantry officer during the Battle of Normandy in 1944 and would never speak of it apart from the occasional joke about breaking his leg in a motorcycle collision with a tree assisted by an excessive consumption of Calvados.

John H. Crook as an infantry officer during the Second World War. Image: Tim Crook family archives.

He’d go to British Legion Remembrance Day events on his own, and leave the living room when his young sons gawped at silly war films on the television.

When he died a file of war-time photographs of men in uniform, a sweat-stained blue army officer’s record of service, and crumpled pocket prayer book were filed away with his army boots – the only bit of uniform he’d held onto.

The drink, the chain-smoking of cigarettes and cigars, and flinty hard living meant he died when I was young.

I investigated his war fifteen years later just in time to speak to some of the men who served with him.

His infantry company had been virtually wiped out by casualties two times over between June and September 1944.

A surviving officer who’d been invalided out by shrapnel by 1st of July said he’d only pity for my father having to carry on until September 11th.

There was a haunting look of understanding and recollection. For a moment, I thought I saw my father’s face after waking him up out of his nightmare.

Another veteran said: ‘Your father hated it when his men died. Took it very badly’.

And so I had before me a true witness who wanted to help, but preferred anonymity.

He would only share the truth with somebody who’d been there: ‘To do otherwise would be degrading.’

So he said very little and stared into the distance a lot. I pulled out the pocket prayer book. ‘Ah yes, I remember that,’ he said. ‘Very useful when the Padre wasn’t around.’

The prayer book always opened on pages worn out with thumb-prints and stains I assumed had been caused by red wine.

I was quickly rebuked by the former NCO: ‘That’s not wine son, it’s blood.’

Captain John Crook’s blood-stained prayer book he had with him during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Image: Tim Crook family archive.

The 16th July 1944 was significant for the Battle of Vendes – ‘A bloody massacre. Running up two fields through Spandau fire, mortar and artillery shells with no tank or gun support.’

And there was a day in August when headquarters company took a direct hit: ‘I’m not going to tell you what that looked like,’ said the veteran who served with him.

Captain John H Crook’s Officer’s Record of Service he would have had on him during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Image: Tim Crook family archives.

The interview didn’t last long. He returned to Rotherham and passed away a year or two later.

So war for me was a mentally damaged father with dreadful flashback memories who couldn’t bear his summer anniversaries of carnage and tragedy, so he raged with gin and mayhem.

And would certainly not approve of sharing this private family business in public. Much less would he be happy about one of his sons turning it into an inspiration for pacifism.

Fast forwarding thirty years later I’m in the Council Chamber of Deptford old Town Hall.

And the connections begin to crackle. On the wall – lots of historical commemorations. The Reverend Edward Noel Mellish who got a VC in 1916 for saving over 20 men as an Army chaplain in No Man’s Land- His weapons were a pocket bible and prayer book.

And it all dawned on me. The prayer book can be a weapon of peace.

This was where the Tory Mayor William Wayland decided to kybosh local conscientious objectors in secret trials with the press and public locked out.

Sir William Wayland, Mayor of Deptford 1914-18. Image: Portrait in Deptford Old Town Hall. Copyright Goldsmiths College

Wayland stares down from an extraordinary portrait in plush robes and sparkling municipal jewels and lieutenant-colonel’s uniform. He was knighted for recruiting more men into Khaki than any other local authority.

There’s a Pathé newsreel of Wayland parading the local hero curate in uniform and dog collar on the steps of the Town Hall. But Padre Mellish has the look my father had waking from his nightmares.

And so in memory of my father John Crook who hated pompous and jingoistic commanding officers and his men dying, I’ve written an angry play for peace called ‘Devils on Horseback: The Secret Trials of Conscientious Objectors in Deptford.’

It’s being produced by students who sincerely want to avoid the Armageddon of another World War and it honours the courage of those who said no. Father wouldn’t approve.  Neither would the men he served with.

But it’s the argument that has to be won before future generations harbour memories they would rather forget and can’t bring themselves to share with people who were not there.

Written by Tim Crook.

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