The common view of a nation’s men rushing full of patriotic enthusiasm to enlist in the heady days of autumn 1914 was ‘challenged’ as early as October, 1914.
It came when the words of a soldiers’ song were reported in a letter to The Times condemning the sentiments it portrayed of a less than over brimming enthusiasm in the ranks for the war.
Fearful of the use to which German propagandists might put the lyrics of the song, the very publication of the letter was seen as foolhardy and handing a ‘gift’ to the enemy of evidence of a less than stalwart attitude in the British Army.
Of course soldiers’ songs have always been anti-establishment, and the low regard in which the public was deemed to hold the common soldier was reflected in Kipling’s poem about Tommy Atkins.
‘For it’s Tommy this and Tommy that and chuck him out the brute. But it’s saviour of his country when the guns begin to shoot’.
So the regular soldiers of the BEF had little regard for the sensibilities of the general population when it came to improvising or bowdlerising popular songs of the day.
By 1917 the offending song had been adapted and recorded by Alfred Lester and titled ‘A conscientious objector’, which now reflected the sentiments of a nation scornful of those who wished to avoid service.
The first verse encapsulates the theme of men who are raising issues of conscience in their wish to avoid enforced conscription.
Scornful of them as lily-livered and effete, the song pulls few punches in its derision of their supposed lack of manly virtues and fighting spirit:
Perhaps you wonder what I am,
I will explain to you,
My conscience is the only thing,
That helps to pull me through.
Objection is a thing that I
Have studied thoroughly,
I don’t object to fighting Huns,
But should hate them fighting me.
The conscientious objectors who were ‘absolutists’ and refused to do any work in support of the military effort, whether in uniform as medical staffs or in factory work seen as supportive of the war effort, numbered around 16,000; and many were imprisoned for their views.
In fact, the Military Service Acts provided for objection to conscription on grounds of conscience, but the military tribunals were not always sympathetic or convinced by some men’s attempts to invoke the conscience clause as reason for refusal to be enlisted for service.
So the closing verse of the song now summed up the nation’s view of the ‘Conshie’ as desperate to avoid service and see someone else take his place at the front:
Send out the Army and The Navy,
Send out the rank and file,
Send out the brave old Territorials
They’ll face the danger with a smile.
Send out the boys of the Old Brigade
Who made Old England free
Send out me brother, his sister and his mother
But for Gawd’s sake don’t send me.
Over the next few weeks the project will look at the reasons advanced by men who believed they should be exempt from the call-up.
Many and varied were the reasons given, few of which cut any ice with the solid upper middle class panels of local worthies sitting as tribunals to hear appeals by local men anxious to avoid conscription.
Anyone with information about anyone who was killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.
The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.
The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.