Saturday, 5 April 2014

Army's shock treatment for those who chose to say 'No'

Karyn Burnham's
new book
The shocking way in which some conscientious objectors were treated by the British Army during the First World War is told in a new book by Karyn Burnham called The Courage of Cowards.

Using unpublished archive material, Karyn, a fellow author of mine at Pen and Sword Books, tells of men like Jack Foister and George Beardsworth who refused to enlist when conscription was introduced 1916. When their appeals were turned down by local tribunals they found themselves conscripted anyway.

Many conscientious objectors were prepared to serve their country as long as they didn't have to fight, which meant they could be more easily accommodated (as stretcher-bearers or in factories, for example) than 'absolutists' like Foister and Beardsworth. But those who wanted nothing to do with the war effort would often find themselves subjected to brutal treatment by an army that wanted to break their resolve.

After being refused exemption, Beardsworth, a 21-year-old trade unionist from Blackburn, was sent to the Cheshire Regiment's barracks at Birkenhead. There he was forced on to the parade ground:

'George was expected to drill with the rest, but again he refused to follow any orders at all. When he failed to mark time, two soldiers kicked first one leg, then another repeatedly, effectively forcing him to mark time. When the order "eyes right" was given he was punched in the side of the head and his head twisted round to the right. Throughout the morning George was made to run round the field, and punched continually if he showed signs of stopping.'

Jack Foister was a young Socialist whose refusal to fight was for political reasons. He was secretly shipped to a camp in France in 1916 with others like him, and his punishment for disobeying orders involved:

'...being spreadeagled and roped onto a barbed wire fence on the perimeter of the site, in full view of all passers-by. The men were tied up so tight that they had to take great care not to cut their faces on the wire when tuning their heads.'

Worse was to come when Foister and his fellow COs were ordered to appear before a court martial. After their cases were heard (described by Foister as a 'rigged affair') the men were sentenced to death by shooting. A long pause ensued before the adjutant finally added that the sentence had been commuted to ten years' penal servitude.

Karyn Burnham uses her skill as a fiction writer (she's already completed a novel) to bring the COs' stories to life and her book is colourful and entertaining. It's also thought-provoking, with all sides of the 'to fight or not to fight' question are aired. The right not to fight might have been enshrined in law, but huge numbers still believed that duty to one's country had to come first.

  • The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors by Karyn Burnham, is published this month by Pen and Sword Books. Click here or to order a copy.

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