How a century of war gave rise to conscientious objection.
BURIED not far beneath the commemoration of the Anzac Day centenary is a silence into which few voices will respectfully speak.
I join those few not to disrespect the First World War fallen and those who remember them – the slaughter and waste of war is too indelible to play word games with – but to fill a few silences alongside an international movement on a trajectory to one day rival Anzac.
My journey of discovery started where the Anzac legend was handed over by the last servicemen who carried the baton – with Britain and Australia’s oldest living First World War diggers.
“This Anzac centenary, it’s probable we will not hear the words ‘conscientious objector’.”
Both Claude Choules, and Harry Patch lived to within a few years of the Gallipoli centenary, long enough to share potent memories and deeply felt convictions about something which barely rates a mention on the day we have loaded with a century of war – they came to make no secret of their pacifism.
For half the time Australians have been rising early on Anzac Day for dawn services, followed by marches, church services and games of two-up at the pub, Claude ‘Chuckles’ Choules refused to join the remembrance.
If anyone had a right to march, it was Claude. After lying about his age to get into the armed forces, he served in Britain’s Royal Navy in the wake of two brothers’ service at, and survival of, Gallipoli.
He subsequently served with the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, settled here, and, after fifty years of service, took up fishing and ballroom dancing.
It was left to his children to articulate his feelings about armed conflict, not long before his death in 2011.
“He used to say that while he was serving in the war he was trained to hate the enemy, but later he really grew to understand that they were just young blokes who were the same as him,” Claude’s son, Adrian Choules, said.
“He said wars were planned by old men and fought by young men and that they were a stupid waste of time and energy.”
Harry Patch used much stronger language. “War is organised murder, and nothing else” this British tommy (or ‘digger’) asserted to former British prime minister Tony Blair in a BBC television documentary.
In the thick of the Western Front for months, Lance Corporal Patch saw his comrades torn apart, times he waited almost a century to recount when working on his book The Last Fighting Tommy, published shortly before his death in 2009.
Both Patch and Choules broke ranks publicly about the realities of combat only when enough time had passed that they must have wondered what the point of their service had been in a world still intent on waging war.
But there were many others who did not stay silent so long.
This Anzac centenary, it’s probable we will not hear the words ‘conscientious objector’ uttered much in the mainstream coverage.
Those who declared their disagreement with government war policy – often known as ‘C.Os’ or ‘conchies’ – faced imprisonment, torture, hard labour, capital punishment, and widespread public shaming throughout the wars of the twentieth century.
Often refusing active service on religious grounds, conchie stories are often limited to shadowy characters in war dramas, opening anonymous envelopes to white feathers, labelling the recipient a coward.
The mythmaking masked a variety of reasons men would not willingly succumb to war recruitment. Many went to war but bore stretchers instead of arms, or worked in field hospitals, where it was not always possible to escape the labels.
Governments with conscription legislation during the First World War, such as Britain and New Zealand, pilloried conchies with a level of desperation. The limp-wristed charicatures in the propaganda made little secret of the homosexual aspersions cast on men who refused to fight.
This, despite the many gay men who willingly served in theatres of war.
For those who agreed to fight but eventually abandoned their posts, the death penalty was a stronger disincentive, although Australia’s anti-conscription stance (despite two closely fought referenda under Prime Minister Billy Hughes) meant Australia’s voluntary forces were not subject to being shot for desertion, like hundreds of British and five New Zealanders.
Instead, Australian deserters’ names were published in the newspapers.
Despite the efforts to stamp out the conscientious objection movement, it became so potent after another war that the world slowly started to wake up to the concept of pacifism as a choice.
It took the definition of what constituted a war crime. At the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-6, carried out by the International Law Commission of the United Nations, a much firmer legal entity was defined for the refusal to participate in conscripted killing.
By the Vietnam War, conchies began a serious coming out process. The most famous of this era was Muhammad Ali, who said of his resistance to being drafted: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
Australian teacher and conscientious objector William White made a stand in Sydney in 1966 when he refused to report for military service under Australian conscription laws.
“I am opposed to a state’s right to conscript a person,” White said. “I believe very strongly in democracy and democratic ideals, and I believe that it is in the area of the state’s right over the life of the individual that the difference lies between totalitarian and democratic government.
“My opposition to conscription, of course, is intensified greatly when the conscription is for military purposes. In fact the National Service Act is the embodiment of what I consider to be morally wrong and, no matter what the consequences, I will never fulfill the terms of the act.”
White’s voice added fuel to the Moratorium Protests that swept across Australia in May 1970, when an estimated 200,000 people marched to end the Vietnam War.
His image, being dragged by a pack of police from his home, caused embarrassment to authorities but embedded a greater sense of resistance in ‘the conchie’ than the cartoons disseminated fifty years prior.
Thirty years after White’s imprisonment, conscientious objection was ratified in a United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution, which was subsequently extended to include those already serving in military forces who “may develop conscientious objections.”
On May 15, the annual commemoration of the world’s conscientious objectors will take place. It’s an international grassroots movement allied to other twentieth century groundswells in racial, gender and gay rights.
Many Australians have a conchie in the family, and it is fitting we remember them too.
But it’s Anzac Day first, a day on which it’s only fair to leave the last word to someone who was able to join the dots between fighting and objecting – Harry Patch.
“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves.”
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.