A pacifist’s experience of WW2 and some reflections

by Donald Saunders, Colwyn Bay

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


I was almost 15 years old when the war commenced in 1939, still at school – a Quaker boarding school – Ackworth. My parents had been pacifists in WW1, my father spending over three years hard labour in prison as a Conscientious Objector and mother having a hard time, insulted and even spat on for being his fiancé. Because Quakers had given them much help during these hard times, after the war they attended and then joined the Society of Friends. My brother, born 1920, also a WW2 CO, was the first born, followed four years later myself. We were both brought up as birthright Friends.

The peace issue, whilst we were children, was one in which my parents were strongly involved. I was influenced by my parent’s expressed views from an early age. My early memories were of our support of relief action during the Spanish civil war and later, away at school, greeting a large number of German Jewish Kinder-transport children in 1938 who had been financed and were being given free education at Quaker schools.

It happened to be Christmas holidays at home in 1940-41, and living near Manchester, our family experienced the heaviest bombing blitzes, sleeping most nights under the stairs for safety. Going into the city early morning after a heavy raid to collect items for my father’s music business, I remember seeing and walking through the rubble, thinking how insane war is, and that no way could i give support to it with the possibility of doing this to other people.

Conscientious objection

When I reached 18 years of age I had developed strong pacifist views and registered as a conscientious objector (CO). I appeared before the CO tribunal early in 1943 and made a statement opposing the principle of conscription and requesting unconditional exemption. I was given conditional exemption, but this did not include working in the Friends Relief Service (FRS) which I had decided to join because of their excellent work giving relief to civilian war victims who had been made homeless by the bombing all around the country.

Over 80 establishments throughout the country had been set up by FRS to cater for homeless elderly people and mothers and children for whom insufficient national provision had been made. I was allocated to the group responsible for maintenance. I was not complying with the conditions imposed and was eligible for summons and likely imprisonment. However, because of the system used through labour exchanges then, I never received the summons because of continual travel required for work throughout the south of England, staying at different addresses.

Whilst working in London I had several interesting experiences with ‘doodlebugs’ which were coming over regularly then. The firebombing of German civilians e.g. Dresden in 1945, was an element of war I was strongly opposing in the later years of the war.

Challenge and commitment

I am asked “What was the approach people made to you as a CO during the war?” An interesting observation was that whilst most of the negative criticism was from people who were working in reserved jobs, when I met young soldiers stationed in our home town their comments were – “I wish I had the courage to do what you have done”- interesting.

My views against war have not weakened over the many years since my war experiences. As wars continue to be waged by our country, having been involved continually over the 75 years throughout the world. I find it incredible that we have not learned a lesson that war is not only immoral, destructive and wasteful but is unsuccessful in achieving peace and even encourages further war. Since before 1939 I have been opposed to war and the use of violence to solve conflict, I have talked and written opposing it and will continue as long as I can. The foundation of my beliefs have been Quaker principles expressed throughout it’s existence and I have never found any reason to doubt them.

Donald talks about his experiences
in this Fellowship of Reconciliation video
and in this one recorded for the BBC

Other pieces in this series of WW2 reflections

| Seventy five years on | A Complicated Relationship | A necessary war? | A lasting influence |
Personal histories and challenges | A pacifist’s experiences of WW2 and some reflections |

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