Next year, 2017, is the centenary not just of the Somme but of conscription. This November, remember not just those who fought, but those who refused, says Susan Dowell
Two and a half years ago, as people across Britain prepared to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914, my own small community in rural south Shropshire mounted an exhibition. It consisted of memorabilia, letters and photographs, provided by local families, and offered a unique opportunity to gather together to salute the high-hearted bravery of the local boys and men who went off to that war and to bow our heads in sorrow for what they were to endure in the trenches.
A further exhibition this past spring took up their story two years on in a world that had changed utterly, a world in which the Somme was to become a byword for the cruel fate that befell so many of them. By nightfall on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916, nearly 20,000 British soldiers lay dead and nearly 40,000 were wounded, making this the worst day in British military history. The battle raged on till 18 November, by which time more than a million men from both sides had been killed or wounded.
The horror of the Somme looms large over this year’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations and rightly so. But it should not overshadow the significance of another world-changing centenary being marked this year. In January 1916 the first bill to introduce conscription in Britain received royal assent. This meant that those men who had resisted the call to fight for King and country in 1914 now found themselves compelled to do so. The bill also established the concept of conscientious objection. Thus the state could claim the right to compel men to die for their country while also renouncing the right to force anyone to kill for it. The idea that liberty of conscience was a sine qua non in the civilised world we were fighting for was established for the first time in British legal history…
Susan Dowell is co-author with Colin Kelsey of Combat Stress (Movement against War, 2016)
This is an extract from the November 2016 edition of Reform.