By Nicoletta Peddis
Dr Alexandra Medcalfe, “Archives and Memory: Conscientious Objection in York during World War One”. York Explore Library, 18 October 2016
This year’s York Big City Read is Pat Barker’s best seller Regeneration. 2016 is an important year in terms of the centenary of the First World War and Regeneration has been chosen as a book that explores the impact of war on ordinary people’s lives.
On Tuesday 18 October, Dr. Alexandra Medcalfe from the Borthwick Institute gave a fascinating lecture at York Explore Library. Dr Alexandra Medcalfe specializes in history of York during the 19th century with a focus on history of mental health. On Tuesday, her lecture used a variety of yellowed archival sources to guide the audience through a discussion of conscientious objection during WWI.
The documents examined showed how in York, a military city with a strong religious identity and a politically active community, a wide debate on conscientious objection was raised as soon as war was declared against Germany. Many of the documents examined related to the figure of Arnold Rowntree, who as a Quaker and Liberal MP for the city championed the cause of the city’s conscientious objectors, young men who refused to take up arms. Dr Medcalfe also introduced newspapers articles and letters to newspapers to demonstrate how the issue of conscientious objection aroused strong and contrasting feelings across the city. One newspaper article from the Yorkshire Herald refers to a Quaker meeting as a hotbed of ‘shirkers and slackers’.
The criticism on newspaper also targeted Mr Rowntree accusing him of not representing his constituency and of being anti-patriotic. As with many other objectors, Arnold Rowntree simply believed that fighting was wrong. He suggested ideas that could provide opportunities for unarmed service because although they did not want to fight, many were willing to do something to show their support. So the Government set up the Non-Combatant Corps to accommodate those whose consciences forbade them from bearing arms, and Arnold was instrumental in forming the Friends Ambulance Unit, a volunteer group to ferry casualties from the front line.
The lecture was interesting, and especially lively in discussing contemporary feelings about conscientious objection. For the young men who objected during World War One the experience was difficult and traumatic and, while today conscientious objection is often viewed with more understanding and sympathy, public opinion remains divided. Recruitment techniques and nationalist narratives like those adopted in 1914 are still at use today.
York Big City Read events will take place during all October and November and a full list of upcoming events can be found here: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/introducing-the-big-city-read-programme/. For anyone who is interested in finding out more about conscientious objection in York, on 5 December Clements Hall History Group will host a workshop exploring the impact of WWI conscription at Priory Street Centre in York. More information is available on their website: www.clementshallhistorygroup.wordpress.com.