Wednesday, 5 February 2014

I will not fight - Harold Bing conscientious objector WW1

Battles such as Ypres and the Somme had cost Britain a vast number of casualties. By 1916, volunteers to join the British Army were starting to dry up. In response to this, the government introduced conscription in 1916 - where the law stated that you had to serve your country in the military for a certain period of time. A 'conscience clause' was added whereby those who had a "conscientious objection to bearing arms" were freed from military service.

On top of this unbelievable needless saluter troops returning home many wondered or either just on home leave began to spill the beans and tell many of the real horrors that was life in the trench warfare of 1914 - 1918.

This in turn began to harden up many who had enthusiastically embraced what had been considered to be a glorious war, an execution of loyalty to King and Country up until then that is, however, attitudes did begin to change a little, albeit too late, but many learning of what had happened to many family members and friends decided that war was not for them, this was a problem for the ruling class and they in turn started to call up older men and those who had enjoyed an exemption of one kind or another.  

By the end of 1915, the British Army had lost 528,227 killed, wounded or missing presumed dead. Volunteers to 'Kitchener's Army' had dried up and conscription was introduced. The whole issue of conscription was a thorny issue even in the army. The British Army commander in South Africa - Lord Roberts - wrote about conscription:  

"Compulsory service is, I believe, as distasteful to the nation as it is incompatible with the conditions of an Army like ours, which has such a large proportion of its units on foreign service. I hold moreover, that the man who voluntarily serves his country is more to be relied upon as a good fighting soldier than is he who is compelled to bear arms."

The No-Conscription Fellowship was an organisation made up by members of the Socialist Independent Labour Party and the Quakers. Such men who signed up were Clifford Allen, Edward Grubb, A Fenner Brockway, W J Chamberlain, W H Ayles, Morgan Jones, A Barratt Brown, John Fletcher, C H Norman and Rev. Leyton Richards. All charged under the Defence of the Realm Act. They were all fined; those who decided not to pay the fine were sent to prison.

This is the story of one of its members one HAROLD BING like all conscientious objectors, a very curious strong young man.

I will not fight - Harold Bing conscientious objector WW1   

There were plenty of protests against war in 1914. Some of the protesters were socialists, who believed that the working men of the world should unite, not obey orders to kill each other. Some belonged to religious groups which forbade taking human life. Some thought this particular war was wrong, some thought all war was wrong. Thousands of these varied protesters gathered in London's Trafalgar Square on August 2 to make their anti-war voices heard.

A 16-year old called Harold Bing was there. He had walked the 11 miles from Croydon (and walked back again afterwards). 'It was thrilling,' he said. Harold and his father were both pacifists (his father had opposed the Boer War as well), and they both joined the No-Conscription Fellowship. Harold helped to distribute NCF leaflets from house to house; on one occasion he was chased by a hostile householder wielding a heavy stick.

After conscription was introduced in 1916, Harold, an 'absolutist' CO, went before his tribunal. He was not thought to qualify for exemption. '18? - you're too young to have a conscience,' said the chairman. But not, apparently, too young to be sent to war. A policeman came to his home to arrest him, and he was taken to Kingston Barracks. When he refused to regard himself as a soldier, or obey military orders, he was court-martialled. The sentence: 6 months hard labour. In the end Harold spent nearly 3 years in prison.

Many COs were given what was called the 'cat and mouse' treatment: at the end of their sentences in civilian prisons, they were released, taken back to barracks, arrested again for disobeying orders, and imprisoned once more. The good thing, as Harold observed, was that each time someone was released, they had enough time before re-arrest to get hold of newspapers and information which they could then pass on covertly to fellow inmates. 'I remember there was great excitement when news of the Russian revolution came through. People thought this would make a great difference to the war.'

Harold made a difference himself. He helped to get vegetarian food provided by the prison kitchen, and additional nourishment (a mug of cocoa) supplied for men who worked overtime. He also made friends with a few of the kinder warders - helping the daughter of one of them with her maths homework; that particular warder died soon after the war, and Harold and some other ex-prisoners set up a fund to pay for the girl's secondary education.

Harold was also one of the men who together created a prison magazine: written on thin brown sheets of toilet paper using the blunt end of a needle and the ink supplied for monthly letters home. Just the one copy ('different people writing little essays or poems or humorous remarks, sometimes little cartoons or sketches') was passed secretly from one prisoner to another. In Harold's prison this unique publication was called 'The Winchester Whisperer'.

The idea was widely copied. Wandsworth COs, for example, produced their 'Old Lags Hansard', once with an apology for late publication 'owing to an official raid on our offices', the editor's cell. A work camp attached to a stone-breaking quarry published 'The Granite Echo', with copies printed by a supporter in London.

Harold Bing left prison with his sight damaged by years of stitching mailbags in dim light, but also having taught himself German and French. He wanted to teach, but he quickly found that many advertisements for teachers said 'No CO need apply'. 'And if you did apply, you got turned down as soon as they knew you were a pacifist.' But at last he found a sympathetic headmaster who was willing to employ him. As well as teaching, Harold worked as a peace campaigner (often travelling abroad) for the rest of his life. He died in 1975.  

Source obtain from : P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N


Chris H said...

Harold Bing was also one of the chairs of the War Resisters' International, as was George Lansbury!

Chris H said...

Ha, just seen George's pic down on the right!

The Socialist Way said...

Thank Chris H for all the information much appreciated!"

The Socialist Way

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