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The Fight of Conscience

In 2014 we commemorate the start of the First World War and begin a series of articles exploring how faith played a key role in peoples lives during this traumatic time. Never more so than in the thousands of men and women who for reasons of conscience became know as Conscientious Objectors. Faith Today examines their plight and their flight.

If you are a man of faith, nothing that you do is secret.’ These are the words of Hercule Poirot, interviewed by James Naughtie on Radio 4’s Today programme on 14 November last year, the morning after the screening Curtain – the last in the series of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories and in which Poirot dies. Reflecting on his life, Poirot told Naughtie, ‘I died with a feeling of great guilt, because of what I had done, and I died asking Mon Dieu for forgiveness because I had committed the ultimate crime of all: murder.’ David Suchet played the character of Poirot for 25 years, filming all 70 of the novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie.

Interviewed later in the Today programme as himself, Suchet spoke about the moment from Poirot’s life which will always remain with him, which was ‘the moment when Poirot was put into the biggest crisis of his life [in] The Orient Express, where he had to make this huge decision whether to send twelve people to their death because they’re all murderers, or whether to let them go because they were justified in what they did, and Poirot, he let them go because in his heart as a human being he knew he’d done the right thing, in his heart as a Catholic he’d done the wrong thing, and in his heart as a detective he had failed and betrayed his own calling. And I think for him that cost him so much that when I look back on him in a moment to remember, it will be that.’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that ‘Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths’ (CCC 1776). Murder on the Orient Express is an interesting meditation on conscience.

The screening of Curtain took place two days following Remembrance Day, when the issue of conscience was raised by the Quakers who are launching a campaign to highlight and remember the suffering of conscientious objectors. As we mark the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, isn’t it time we celebrated those who refused to take part in the First World War?

Jane Dawson, the public relations lead for the Quakers in Britain, explained that conscientious objectors ‘believed that every human life was valuable, and there was no way they could take another human life because the government told them to do so. It was really hard for them to take that decision. Imagine putting your family in danger because your faith led you not to take up arms.’ Those who refused to bow to the ‘jingoism’ of the day went before tribunals and were often thrown into prison because of their decisions. ‘People were given white feathers as a sign of cowardice, they were knocked down in the street, their hats were knocked off and people’s shops were smashed up.’ By the end of the war, 16,000 had appeared before Military Service Tribunals. Over 4,500 were sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 6,000 were handed over to the army, and then sentenced to severe penalties for disobeying orders. These included 35 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), and many others who spent up to three years in prison on repeated sentences. Conditions were very hard for conscientious objectors, and ten of them died in prison; more than sixty died afterwards as a result of the way they had been treated. A plaque to commemorate them hangs in the offices of the pacifist organisation the Peace Pledge Union.

The White Feather Diaries is an online Quaker storytelling project to mark the centenary of World War I. It is described on their website as a real-time story which follows five Quakers as the war unfolds. These stories explore the dilemmas and different choices of the individuals involved in a daily blog and Twitter feed. The project will run at incremental periods over three years (2014-2016) up to the anniversary of the 1916 Military Service Act which introduced conscription and recognised conscientious objection. According to the Quakers ‘The stories will chart the individuals’ journey of discovery as they find out that opposing war is never easy and being a pacifist is always a brave decision.’ By using digital media the project is designed to resonate with an audience who are the same age as those called up to fight in 1914. The interactive nature of The White Feathers Diaries will create opportunities for discussion and a deeper understanding about the causes of conflict and current peace making. The Quakers also hope that the project will raise challenging questions and ask why this is still as relevant now as it was 100 years ago. Jane Dawson has said the dilemmas that faced the so-called ‘conchies’ remain relevant, as countries including Austria, Israel and Turkey still have conscription laws, ‘It’s not that they were being cowards, simply that they were not being caught up in the jingoism and following the government at the time.’

Dawson has explained that ‘we want people to understand choosing to be a pacifist is never easy in a culture of war. It is always a brave and difficult decision.’ The tribunals which heard the cases of conscientious objectors were ‘not necessarily as fair as they could be’ she added. Lessons were learned from the First World War and when in April 1939 Neville Chamberlain announced a return to conscription, Conscientious Objection Tribunals were set up to deal with claims for exemption, but this time there were no military representatives acting as prosecutors. Most importantly, the Tribunals were willing to grant absolute exemption. Over the next six years a total of 59,192 people in Britain registered as Conscientious Objectors. But in 1940, with the British government expecting a German invasion at any time, public opinion turned against Conscientious Objectors. Over 70 local councils dismissed Conscientious Objectors who were working for them. Bertrand Russell, who supported the conscientious objectors of the First World War, called for everyone to fight the Nazis, as the French resistance writer Jean Dutourd put it: ‘War is less costly than servitude. In the end, the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.’

Ultimately we each, having examined our own conscience, must be guided by that voice within us. In this anniversary year we should be proud of and remember those who listened to their conscience and refused to fight, who were prepared to die rather than kill. Making conscientious decisions is not straightforward – as Poirot discovered on The Orient Express.

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