Friday, 26 February 2016

Johnny Conchie

When I was perhaps about twelve, I tried to describe to my grandmother a man I kept seeing in her street, who always smiled and said hello to me.  "Oh, that's Johnny Conchie," she eventually said, and laughed.  She told me that it wasn't his real name, but his nickname, because he had been a conscientious objector during the war.  I was old enough to understand that she meant the First World War, but I had never heard of a conscientious objector before.  It was explained to me that he had refused to fight during the war, "because he thought it was wrong".

So, in the mid-1960s, a man in his seventies was known by a nickname he had picked up about fifty years earlier.  My grandparents knew him well and appeared to think nothing of this.  They clearly felt no resentment against him for it.  

Perhaps they were not a typical family.  My grandfather just missed the Western Front, after sitting for several hours on a train in Pembrokeshire only to be returned to his training barracks because the Armistice was about to be signed. His four brothers were too young to be called up; his father was too old.  My grandmother's older brothers were the right age, but chose the navy and survived. So perhaps, unlike some, they had nothing to resent Johnny Conchie for.

The motives for Johnny Conchie's action, or inaction if you prefer, were never known to me.  Being from an industrial town in South Wales, he could well have been a socialist, or very religious, or both.  My family even seemed unsure what the punishment for his rebellion against authority had been; there was a vague idea that he had been to prison.

Contrary to the classification many give him, Siegfried Sassoon was not a conscientious objector, or at least not in the usual sense. He went willingly to war in 1914 and willingly back to war in 1917. Between those times, he did indeed suffer a crisis of conscience, but it was not caused by a religious experience, nor - I think - by a specific experience of any kind; it was more a reflection of the mental anguish brought about by the sight of so much human suffering and the deaths of so many of his friends and comrades.  Who could have blamed him if he had lost touch with reality as a result of such an environment?

Yet Siegfried, though suffering from hallucinations and having difficulty with civilian life, had not lost touch with his sense of what mattered.  It was being away from the war, in the comfort of convalescent accommodation, that enabled him to look more dispassionately at his situation and realise that, in order to be true to his dead comrades, he had to be true to himself.  I have always argued, and will continue to argue, that he acted of his own accord, that he was not bamboozled by the cleverness of Bertrand Russell or anyone else into doing their political dirty work for them. Seeing that Sassoon was desperate to do something constructive to help other soldiers, they showed him some possibilities that he might not have come up with by himself.  Although, after a few months in "Dottyville", he may have felt as though it had all been a waste of time, he never blamed others for encouraging him to make his protest.

It is true that Sassoon, had he merely been deemed a traitor rather than being branded as mentally ill, might have come before a court-martial and been shot if convicted, but that was never a likely outcome for one who had already served with distinction at the Western Front. In the First World War, the real conscientious objectors suffered punishments that were mostly less severe than those that could be imposed by a court-martial - which may be considered ironic.  If their consciences allowed them, they might be able to take up a non-combatant role, such as stretcher-bearer or transport duties. Some of the hard-liners, like the "Richmond Sixteen", had their death sentences commuted to penal servitude and did not complete their sentences until after the war.  Altogether, about eighty conscientious objectors died in the course of their imprisonment, in some cases because of their harsh treatment.

Deserters, on the other hand, or any serviceman convicted of cowardice, could be executed.  It was important, the authorities felt, to make an example of them, but the death sentence was carried out in only 10% of cases - around 300 men in all during the First World War.  That is another story, for another time.

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