WWI: ‘Don’t Forget the COs,’ say Peace Groups

A group of peace organisations have called for the courage and commitment of conscientious objectors and peace activists to be “given proper attention” during this year’s First World War centenary commemorations.

The five groups argue that local and national events to mark the centenary should also honour those whose convictions led them to oppose it. They have prepared a briefing – Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience – and are looking for public events, exhibitions,  and TV and radio programmes to include the forgotten stories of COs and and women peace activists who opposed the war.

PPU COs picThey have prepared the briefing, they say, “because of their impression that plans for commemorative events announced so far by the government will focus only on military heroism. The old lie, identified by war poet Wilfred Owen – that it is patriotic and glorious to die for one’s country in battle – is in danger of being repeated.”

More than 16,000 men registered as COs after the Military Service Act became law in 1916. Many ‘absolutists’ were imprisoned repeatedly and more than 80 COs died as a result of their treatment, the groups point out. There was also a strong women’s peace movement which grew out of contacts made before the war through the international suffrage movement.

Some of the stories of these peace activists are dramatic and powerful, and need to be told, the organisations say. For example, one group of COs, imprisoned in Yorkshire’s Richmond Castle, believed they were going to be executed and left “heart-rending” messages on their cell walls, which are still visible today.

Also, in 1915, some 1200 determined women from 12 countries overcame “multiple obstacles” to meet in The Hague while the war was raging. They drew up 20 proposals for stopping the war by a negotiated peace and took these to world leaders.

“How can we make sure that the courage of men and women who campaigned to prevent the First World War, who resisted the jingoism, and who, as conscientious objectors, refused conscription, is given proper attention?” ask the groups.

The briefing document, Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience, will be available on the websites of all five organisations. They are:

It can be accessed directly here.


See also: ‘Remember Those Who refused to Fight’