A VISIT TO THE C.O’S IN FRANCE

From The Tribunal June 15th 1916

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

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Dr. F.B. Meyer and Mr. Hubert Peel have just returned from a visit to some the companies of the Non-Combatant Corps now in France, the journey having been undertaken as the result of a suggestion made just before his departure from Russia by Lord Kitchener during the discussion of the Conscientious Objector with some well-known Free Church ministers.

In an interview with a London News Agency representative, Dr Meyer explained that it was not sufficiently realised that the 450 men who had been drafted abroad were to be divided into two categories, namely those who had accepted the non-combatant certificates granted by the Tribunal, their conscientious objection being met by release from actual combatant service, and those who felt it inconsistent for them as Conscientious Objectors to do any work of a military nature.

“We found two companies of the men in the former category,” said Dr. Meyer. “hard at work in a quarry where they are relieving royal Engineers from the task of providing the metal for the French roads for which the British authorities are responsible. Many of the men are Plymouth Brethren, and they have been allotted the use of a kiln for their religious worship, which they conduct themselves. Their religious scruples arising out of the Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ are met, and they seemed to be working well and contentedly.”

The chief problem of the authorities, however, is regarding the men, amongst whom are several Quakers, shoolmasters, and University men, who, though they have been recognised as Conscientious Objectors, have only been granted exemption from combatant service by their Tribunals.

“This does not meet their case,” said Dr. Meyer, “and since their arrest thy have refused to obey any military orders, with the consequence that on arrival in France, they have become liable to various severe penalties, which in ordinary cases might include the death penalty, though I think we take it for granted that it will not be inflicted in any of these cases.”

“Fourteen of these men we were allowed to visit in No. 1 Field Punishment Barracks, where most of them were finishing a period of 28 days’ detention, while several were also awaiting the results of the Courts-Martial that had been held on them. By the courtesy of the Commandant I addressed the men and also spoke to them individually.

The men stated that they had not been subjected to rough treatment, that they were prepared to take their punishment, and that their treatment was decidedly better than much they had experienced in England.

In the Guardroom of another camp liberty was given to Dr. Meyer to speak to a party of 21 men who were awaiting Court-martial for a refusal to obey orders.

“It is a great pity from the point of view of military efficiency that these men should have been sent to France,” he said. “They have received no training, and their detention in the camp only interferes with the smooth running of arrangements. Would it not be wiser, therefore, to hand over these men to the civil authorities, which, at the expiry of the sentence inflicted by the military, might set to work of national importance, under a kind of ticket-of-leave system, until the end of the war? If a man would not accept the latter, he could, of course, be kept in custody.”

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