To mark International Conscientious Objector Day on 15 May, the Pearce Register has been added as a free record set on Lives of the First World War. The Pearce Register of British World War One Conscientious Objectors includes over 16,500 records of men who refused to go to war on religious, ethical, political or social grounds.
The register has been collated by Cyril Pearce, former Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, over the past 20 years. In this guest blog post, Cyril explains the significance of the database.
2016 will be the centenary of the introduction of compulsory military service, conscription, in Britain. For the men and women who for personal, religious or political reasons had opposed the war from the beginning it presented a dramatic new challenge. Something like 20,000 young men of military service age took up that challenge by refusing to become soldiers or to take up arms. They were called Conscientious Objectors – ‘COs’, ‘Conchies’.
In my book, Comrades in Conscience: An English community’s opposition to the Great War, (Francis Boutle 2001 and 2014) I explored the history of Huddersfield’s anti-war community. It began as an investigation into local claims that Huddersfield had been a special place during the war because of the number of its COs and the extent to which they appear to have been supported. The research confirmed that the local claims were right. I should probably have left it at that but an intriguing question then hung in the air, ‘If this was so, were there other Huddersfields?’
Researching the histories of ordinary soldiers and their families is difficult enough; researching those of COs has other complications. Evidence is scattered, incomplete and fragmentary and some of it has been accidentally or intentionally destroyed. Nevertheless, it has been possible to gather fragments of evidence to create a database of CO histories. That database, the Pearce Register of British World War 1 Conscientious Objectors, now contains more than 16,500 individual stories.
I am delighted to be contributing The Pearce Register to IWM’s permanent digital memorial Lives of the First World War. I hope many more people learn about these men and the personal sacrifices they made during World War One.
- Uncovering personal stories
The database attempts to cover the whole range of CO experiences. At one extreme are those who, while refusing to carry arms, were prepared to ‘do their bit’ in Work of National Importance. Other COs were prepared to do hospital work in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit or the Royal Army Medical Corps. The men who agreed to serve in the specially created Non-Combatant Corps are there too. Over 600 of them served in France behind the lines. The database also includes the cases of the men who refused all service. Their Courts Martial have been recorded as have their prison sentences or time in Home Office work centres at Wakefield, Dartmoor, Warwick or Knutsford. Many of their stories have already been told. Others are less well-known. For example, what of the COs who gave up their objection and joined the army? The stories of nearly two hundred ‘Soldier COs’ have been recovered; and there are probably many more still to find. Other recovered stories concern the COs who went on the run to Ireland or the USA and were never captured.
Beyond these personal stories, the database has done what was intended. It has answered the question, ‘Were there other Huddersfields?’ The answer is that indeed there were. In fact there were a number of places, some of them rather unexpected, where the anti-war movement was much stronger. There appear to have been very few British counties which did not have significant anti-war hot-spots.
- Help us to discover more
While the Pearce Register has much to offer family historians and local groups, it is far from complete. Work is needed to extend it, correct its errors and create a richer story. Local knowledge supported by accounts in local newspapers, personal testimony, family stories and the histories of buildings and places is key to what is needed.
Now, using Lives of the First World War, anyone be able to draw on its resources while, at the same time, adding to them. As we approach the centenary of Conscription it is time to expand my process further and find out as much as we can about these individuals.