Object Lesson

The personal testimonies of conscientious objectors do not provide easy answers.

Rosemary Rich | Published in 01 Aug 2022

conscientious objector Sidney Spencer on his way to plead his case  at Liverpool tribunal,  25 March 1941.
Conscientious objector Sidney Spencer on his way to plead his case at Liverpool tribunal, 25 March 1941. Alamy.

On 6 April 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the Queen made a speech invoking the spirit of the Second World War. Asking the British public to ‘remain united and resolute’, she told them: ‘We will meet again.’ She was not the first, and will not be the last, to compare current events in Britain with the Second World War. The conflict has cast a long shadow and the wartime idea that we are ‘all in it together’ remains particularly durable. 

It is probably due to these images of national unity that those who refused to fight – conscientious objectors – have been largely omitted from public memory of the Second World War in Britain. They don’t fit the narrative. But that does not explain why there has been a noticeable lack of historical research on the topic, especially considering the effort in recent years to challenge traditional assumptions about the war. In Battles of Conscience, Tobias Kelly aims to remedy this.

The few existing monographs on conscientious objection have tended to focus on the mechanics of the process of seeking exemption from military service or assessing how well it worked. The system in Britain was unique; no other country showed such tolerance towards those who refused to perform military service. Even in the US, the country that most resembled Britain’s stance, individuals were only awarded exemption for religious reasons, whereas in Britain political motivations were accepted (in theory, if not always in practice). Kelly attributes this to the tradition of dissenting Christianity in Britain. He also reveals that prominent figures, including Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, went on record to support conscientious objectors’ rights, ‘occasionally going so far as to suggest that the war was worth fighting only so long as conscience was protected’.

Kelly is not an academic historian, but a political and legal anthropologist, with a particular interest in ‘conscience’ as a distinct cultural and historical ethical category. He focuses on five objectors with widely varying wartime experiences. It is not entirely clear why he singles out these individuals, but one suspects it is because a great deal of their personal testimony survives (which is rarely the case). He traces the lives of the five from before the war, through the conflict and into the postwar era, beginning with the different influences that propelled them towards conscientious objection, which include belief systems such as Christianity, socialism and Gandhism, as well as factors such as the legacy of the First World War and the interwar peace movement. Their wartime experiences included prison sentences, land work, medical and relief service (both on the Home Front and abroad), time spent as prisoners of war and even as test subjects for medical trials. This is a lot of ground to cover and the reader may wish for more detail on particular areas, but generally Kelly provides an artful sweep through the various activities in which pacifists found themselves engaged. There was not one ‘typical’ experience.

Many conscientious objectors experienced uncertainties and bouts of ‘intense introspection’. To refuse to fight was not an easy decision and maintaining resolve throughout the twists and turns of the war proved challenging. ‘Alone in their room at night’, Kelly writes, ‘the pacifists’ voices of conscience could act as uneasy reminders, asking uncomfortable questions, not necessarily telling them what to do, not providing answers, constantly querying.’

This a sympathetic and nuanced study that challenges the overly simplistic wartime narrative that pervades British culture. The Second World War is not a subject where nuance is generally welcome, but, as Kelly convincingly argues, ‘conscientious objectors are interesting not because they offer easy answers, but precisely because they do not’. 

Battles of Conscience: British Pacifists and the Second World War
Tobias Kelly
Chatto & Windus 384pp £22
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)



Rosemary Rich is an AHRC-funded postdoctoral researcher, working on the memory of Second World War conscientious objection at the University of Brighton.