Friday, 13 March 2015

A conscientious volunteer

This week we have a post written by one of our Durham at War volunteers.

Darlington Local Tribunal, with thanks to the Local Studies Centre, Darlington Library
Darlington Local Tribunal, applications were made here for exemption from military service. Reproduced with thanks to the Local Studies Centre at Darlington Library
You know the old saying, ‘Never volunteer’, well I ignored it and, as my uncle was a conscientious objector [C.O.] during the Second World War, I put my name down to research C.O.s in the First World War. That’s when life as I knew it changed! My Durham at War volunteer co-ordinator, Jo, says I threw myself into it and I suppose she’s right.

Since those who would not fight had to appear before local, county and central Tribunals, I thought the only way I could find names was to plough through as many local newspapers as I could find for Tribunals. I thought I would contact the Working Class Movement Library just to ask for advice on where else to look as many C.O.s were Socialists and Labour Party members. They put me in touch with Cyril Pearce who, as a result of researching C.O.s in his native Huddersfield and getting carried away, has a large database of C.O.s for the whole country and he sent me a list of 260 men from County Durham!! Christmas and birthday presents all rolled into one! 

Since then I’ve spent hours trying to add information to this database using Ancestry. I had an e-mail from Jo to tell me that records from the Quaker organisation, The Friends Ambulance Unit, are now available online and they include photos! This will be a real bonus in helping to bring the stories alive. My husband is starving, the washing is piling up and he has just bought me a new vacuum cleaner in case the old one is broken!

Extract from services papers for the Non-Combatant Corps
Extract from services papers for the Non-Combatant Corps
I’m hooked on trying to understand the system then in place for deciding what to do with these men and I am getting emotionally involved with their stories. Some seemed to just turn up at a Tribunal and get total exemption while others were sent to the Non-Combatant Corps and others suffered worse by being sent to fighting units. As soon as they refused an order, they were on trial and served prison sentences where the punishments were tough. One man died in Wormwood Scrubs officially from pneumonia but an eyewitness said he died from the beating he received. His funeral seems to have been interesting so I hope to find that report.

I’m also re-evaluating how I feel about this subject all the time. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as ‘they were all cowards who refused to fight’ anymore. I suppose that’s another facet of this project. It’s a steep learning curve and I still have a lot to do. I’m ordering books from the library – something I very rarely do. I’m going to the Durham Miner’s Hall to see if they have anything on men who were part of the hierarchy. I’d like to find a grave for the man above who died. 

I find the subject fascinating but must close now as my husband has given up and gone to the fish and chip shop after putting the laundry in to wash! Bless him! Such are the joys of being a volunteer.

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