by Barry Mills, Bolton
This is one of a series of pieces written by members and staff from NFPB, reflecting on how the second world war shaped them, their families, and thinking and action for peace
My views on World War 2 are very strongly influenced by conversations over the years with my late father Charles Mills, who survived a very rough time in the war – he always felt later in life that if he could cope with all that he could cope with anything. He arrived in Normandy not long after D Day and his group fought all the way across Western Europe eventually occupying Germany after a terrible time in the Arnhem campaign. He was always reminding us that he was camping out with the army in Netherlands in the coldest winter of the 20th century. He described how sharp your senses become – he and a colleague avoided a booby trap because he noticed the lintel looked too tidy in a bombed out building.
Legacy of wartime service
On holiday in Holland, we went as a family to a cemetery near Arnhem where there was a row of 8 tombstones, all his colleagues – there was a unit of 12 and 8 of them were killed the same day. He was only 19 years old at the time. His medical when he joined the army graded him as A1, but by the end of the war after shell shock, all the privations and glandular fever, he was very thin and in very poor condition. We always dreaded the Remembrance Sunday weekend, which Charles would spend weeping, grieving and working through the traumas – the rest of the year he just got on with his life.
A different way
My late mother Mollie was a life-long Pacifist, so we would have frequent debates about the rights and wrongs of war. Charles always believed he did the right thing in fighting the Nazis but in later life he was in Ex Servicemen’s CND and resigned from the Labour Party after 50 years membership, because he was convinced the Iraq War was immoral and unnecessary. He strongly supported the Geneva Conventions and had a clear moral sense that prisoners should be treated humanely. He would say that if you have a gun and the enemy soldier over there has a gun you will do everything you can to kill him before he kills you, but once he is captured and disarmed you offer him a cigarette or a mug of tea.
Charles told me many of his war experiences, some of which strengthened my strong anti-war beliefs, especially the way war brings out the very worst in many people – he described some appalling instances of this. On one occasion he had great difficulty in preventing a fellow British soldier from committing a violent rape. There was a nasty incident in a small German town, which was between the lines of the opposing armies for several days. A local man took the opportunity to murder his neighbour but he did not get away with it. The British army tried and executed him. Charles always became furious with Holocaust deniers, because although never at the death camps himself, he heard first-hand accounts from British soldiers who did have to go there.
After retirement, Charles and Mollie went with their Methodist Church group on a short visit to Paderborn, staying with a German family – a wonderful time of reconciliation 50 years after he had last been in Germany as an invading soldier. On our holidays in Holland, he occasionally had conversations with Dutch contemporaries and when they found out he had fought to liberate their country they would warmly shake his hand. Sadly, veterans from Britain’s recent wars are extremely unlikely to ever have such positive experiences. Charles was always disappointed that after I became a pacifist as a young adult, I would not agree he was right to be a soldier, but my view now would be that he made the right decision for him.
Researching conscientious objectors
In recent years I have undertaken extensive research on Conscientious Objectors in the First and Second World Wars, with very differing reactions between the two. My view that World War 1 was an appalling and avoidable crime has been strengthened. Far from being the ‘war to end all wars’ it would be truer to say it turned out to be ‘the war that ended all peace’. Reading what the WW1 COs had to say, I have consistently been very impressed by them – the points they make seem true and right and have stood the test of time. It is especially tragic that calls for a negotiated and just peace made by Quakers and others throughout WW1 were totally ignored and their warnings that a punitive peace would soon lead to another war proved horribly accurate.
My reactions to WW2 COs have been rather different. Calls for peace talks with Hitler, letting him have what he wants or even that non-resistance would somehow avoid invasion seem naive and unrealistic – especially when you read on another page in the same newspaper that the Nazis have invaded yet another country. The absolutist CO position to have nothing to do with the war and to refuse to help in anyway at all seems to me justifiable for WW1 but not for WW2. When COs refuse to grow food, help in civil hospitals or fire watch in WW2, I admire their courage but find their position questionable.
In the 1930’s, pacifism was very strong in Britain and there was a real reluctance to go to war but as the war developed more and more people felt they had to be involved in helping to defeat Hitler. This change is reflected in the percentage of COs – up to 2% of those called up in 1939, dropping to 1 % or less within the first year and falling to negligible numbers in the last 2 or 3 years of the war.
My WW2 research is helping to add to the CO database being compiled by Bill Hetherington for the Peace Pledge Union, which was the main organisation supporting COs in WW2. So far he has only 6,000 of an estimated 64,000 WW2 COs , so there is much searching to do and Bill would welcome more help. There are plenty of reports of COs in most local newspapers and 2 ways of accessing them. If the newspaper is included in the online British Newspaper Archive it is easy to conduct a search and bring up the relevant articles. There is a cost to this but not if you use it at a major library such as Manchester Central Library where access is free. For newspapers not in this online archive, it is a case of trawling through the microfilms in your local library. If anyone is interested in helping with this, please contact me. I can be emailed via firstname.lastname@example.org