Much has been written about the large numbers of men who volunteered to join the British Armed Forces on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the thousands that never returned home. But what about those who found it impossible to take any combatant role in the First World War and who were collectively referred to as the ‘conchies’ – the conscientious objectors? What motivated these individuals and how can you judge a man’s conscience?
Andy Ward’s book ‘Conchies’ examines a case study of Leonard and Roland Payne, two brothers from Lutterworth in Leicestershire who steadfastly refused to respond to military orders when conscription was introduced into Britain in 1916. The secret of this book is that it blends a specific localized study of the brothers, their family, friends, supporters and opponents into the wider context of the Home Front and how the war was being waged on the Western Front, especially between 1916 and 1918.
Based on contemporary letters and documents, Andy Ward examines the process by which the Payne brothers were dealt with through the Tribunals, the military authorities, civilian prisons and then the reaction of the Lutterworth community when the two brothers returned home before the Armistice in 1918. The narrative is able to examine this process utilizing real detail based on primary sources but fused into a wider commentary using extensive references to secondary material and informed comment.
This chemistry is well illustrated in the examination of the attack on the Payne family’s property in Lutterworth in March 1918. Ward analyses the rising tension and anxiety in the local area when Leonard and Roland return home within the context of the considerable gains concurrently being made on the Western Front by the German forces in the Spring Offensive. At this particular juncture it appeared that there was a real possibility that the Allied Forces might lose the war: had all the sacrifices in lost lives from the Lutterworth area been in vain and what contribution had the Payne brothers made to the struggle? This potent mixture of emotions in turn led to physical assaults on the Payne family property.
Maybe the book will present challenges to the general reader, as there are 459 pages to consider; sometimes the analysis strays away from the central focus of ‘conscientious objection’ to other facets of the Payne family. But ‘Conchies’ is a meticulous piece of research, analysis and comment with extensive footnotes and detailed bibliographies covering both the wider context of conscientious objectors and the local history of the Lutterworth area; Andy Ward expresses a real passion and command of his material. For the historian this is a valuable addition to our understanding of those particular individuals who found it impossible to become part of the military machine in the First World War and the reaction that they faced.
Highly recommended for those interested in the motivation of individuals who oppose personal involvement in war and especially those who faced the challenges of their conscience in the First World War.