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Harsh realities of the conscientious objectors

Harsh realities of the conscientious objectors

When she read a photographic appeal in The Press and Journal 20 years ago, Dr Joyce Walker had no idea it would set her on a path to writing a book on a lesser-known pocket of British history.

The faces that looked up at her from the newspaper belonged to exhausted-looking men, filthy with dirt and dust from the Dyce Quarry they had been sent to work in on August 23, 1916. But the appeal for information about the picture of this band of men came and went.

“As far as I could see, nobody responded. So I put it to the back of my mind,” the former history lecturer said.

But when she retired from her post at the University of Aberdeen in 2009, Joyce returned to the haunting image, and began to put her skills to work in an attempt to solve the mystery. Visits to local public libraries initially proved fruitless, but when she began sifting through newspaper cuttings from 1916, light began to be shed.

What they revealed was the curious tale of the short-lived Dyce Work Camp for conscientious objectors (CO).

By the middle of 1915, military recruitment levels had reached crisis point. The war was most definitely over by Christmas due to the massive losses British regiments sustained in the Battles of Ypres and Gallipoli, and the detrimental effect this had on people wanting to enlist voluntarily.

“Conscription became the only sensible option, though it went against the grain because it had never happened before in Britain,” she continued.

“The Liberals were worried about civil liberties. And so a clause, at the Liberals’ insistence, allowed for conscientious objection on moral, religious or political grounds.”

To prove a legitimate conscientious objection, however, proved very difficult, resulting in many men going to war simply because they couldn’t convince tribunal panels at local, city or national levels of their genuine moral standpoints. The non-military panel members, comprising “the great and good of every town” were often unforgiving in their verdicts.

“They weren’t necessarily the most sympathetic to anyone. If you were applying for exemption with medical grounds it was fine, but how could you display what your conscience held to be true?” said Joyce.

Additionally, the public opinion of COs, though divided, often sided with the negative depictions spewed out in military propaganda. Caricatures of the presumed effeminate and weedy conscientious objector were a regular sight, such as those displayed on postcards sent by soldiers on the frontline back home.

Any individual who failed to be granted CO status and who subsequently refused to enlist, was arrested and sent to prison for breach of the Military Service Act 1916. But when there was public outcry at the number of men – many of whom were well-respected academics – languishing in prison, a secondary option was hatched. Work camps for COs were established throughout the country, where men would be lifted from prison, and in return would be set manual-labour tasks for the good of the home front.

The Dyce Camp, on the site of the Dyce Quarries – where Aberdeen Airport’s long-stay car park is now – opened its doors to 250 men, largely from England. Local Scots, on the other hand, were sent to camps farther afield, keeping in line with the condition that COs were not allowed to visit families during their internment.

In Dyce, the men had to work with huge chunks of granite, initially breaking them into smaller pieces by hand, before hauling them into crushers. Some had digs in and around Dyce, but the majority camped on site. To say the back-breaking work and inhospitable living conditions were a rude awakening for the men would be an understatement, even after imprisonment.

“Many of these men were academics, school teachers and clerks who had never done a day’s manual labour in their lives. They reacted very badly
to it. And as we know, the Aberdeen climate is not always favourable,” said Joyce.

In fact, such were the harsh autumnal conditions, that within two weeks of the Dyce Camp’s opening, Walter Roberts – a 20-year-old Stockport Independent Labour Party member – had died of pneumonia he contracted in the camp. A slew of bitter letters written by Walter’s fellow men followed, informing politicians of the dire regime they were working under. They would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Dyce camp.

On September 19, the camp received two visitors – the first, a delegation from the Home Office in response to the workers’ complaints, who ultimately deemed the conditions satisfactory. The second visitor, Ramsay MacDonald – then a Labour MP, but a little over 10 years later, prime minister – took a different stance.

MacDonald was shocked by what
he saw, noting his sadness at seeing these noble and brilliant men breaking up rocks. He reported back to parliament to make a case for improvements at the camp. At a parliamentary
debate on October 19, the Home
Office announced that the camp
would close.

“It seems it was going to cost too much to get up to standard, and it was also considered an embarrassment,” she continued.

“Dyce camp was supposed to be the flagship camp, but that blew up in their faces. It only lasted eight weeks, after which the men were sent home, back to prison or on to other camps.”

After the war, the remaining COs were only released when the last soldier had returned to home soil. However, many weren’t able to settle back into their lives as they had been before the GreatWorld War I – the stigma of their position as COs still remained.

“An awful lot found their jobs were closed to them, or couldn’t find new work. A lot of employers didn’t want them back,” said Joyce.

On the research front, information about Britain’s COs who served in work camps is thin on the ground. The vast majority of tribunal records were destroyed, most likely as they would reveal the prejudices of tribunal members against any individuals who would forgo their patriotic duties.

Coincidentally, in the process of researching and writing her historical account of the Dyce Camp workers, Joyce came to learn that her own grandfather had been a CO, which made her quest all the more personal.

“I think it’s shocking, but I understand why it happened,” she said of her own thoughts on the treatment of COs.

“I think it was shocking treatment of men who had proper conscientious objections, but it wasn’t what the country wanted, so they made examples of them.”

Joyce Walker’s book, A Cloak of Conscience? is available from Waterstones and Amazon Kindle.