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Uncover the hidden stories of World War One

Conscientious objectors Walter Ayles, a former Bristol MP, and Frank Merrick National Portrait Gallery

The three Whiteford brothers lived with their parents in St George. During the war, Graham served in the army; Wilfred refused to fight but agreed to join the Non-Combatant Corps; Hubert refused to take any part in the war. Like other 'abolutists' he was repeatedly court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour. From August 1918, he served sentences in Wormwood Scrubs and Bristol. He was not released until May 1919. After his release, their father took all three brothers to a local photographer where this picture was taken.

Professor Lois Bibbings

Press release issued: 18 April 2019

A national festival exploring the hidden stories of the First World War is being held in Bristol later this month, timed to mark the 100-year anniversary of the release from prison of absolutist conscientious objectors - those who refused to assist the war in any way.

The Bristol area had one of the greatest numbers and greatest density of conscientious objectors in the country with nearly 580.

'Commemoration, Conflict & Conscience' is a free public event, being held on 27 and 28 April at M Shed and the SouthBank Club, featuring exhibitions, talks, performances, films, craft activities including print-making, a puppet show and walk, tours, workshops, music and song.

There's also an opportunity to hear Dr Who and Withnail and I star Paul McGann talking about his role in the BBC’s classic World War One drama The Monocled Mutineer, a fictionalised story based on a real mutiny. 

The festival is being organised by Professor Lois Bibbings from the University of Bristol, working with colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire and Bristol history group Remembering the Real WW1.

It brings together community groups, local historians, academics, campaigners, activists and performers from across the country and further afield to examine many of the lesser known aspects of the war, such as women’s peace activism, the treatment of war veterans, the experiences of conscientious objectors, colonial involvement, commemoration and peace-building then and now.

Around 20,000 men in Britain conscientiously objected to military service and they did so for political, moral and religious reasons. Some went into the military as non-combatants, some undertook civilian work of national importance or laboured at Home Office work camps, some went on the run and were chased by police and secret agents.

Around 1,500 refused to cooperate with the authorities and were handed over to the Army. When they were refused to obey orders, they were court-martialled and spent their war in prison. The majority of these absolutists were released in April 2019, long after the Armistice.

Bristol absolutists include men like Walter Ayles, an objector on political and religious grounds, who was a local councillor both before and after the war – and was elected as a Bristol MP in the early 1920s. Frank Merrick, who was born in Bristol but was a Professor of Music in Manchester by the time war broke out, objected on humanitarian grounds – he was a vegetarian and would not kill another being. Stone mason Alfred James was an atheist and his objection was political. All three spent their war in prison.

Bristol’s conscientious objectors, like others around the country, were supported by a network of people and organisations who, for various reasons, opposed the war.

In Bristol, important stories include the work of organiser Mabel Tothill and of the 'watchers' who collected and relayed information about the movements and treatment of conscientious objectors in the military, in work camps and in prison.

And there are stories of intrigue, including information about underground networks of resistance and secret agents – like that of George Barker, who was prosecuted for hiding men who were evading the military in a secret dug-out below his bicycle shop.

These local stories are told in a booklet being launched at the festival; Refusing to Kill: Bristol's World War I Conscientious Objectors by Remembering the Real World War 1 is in M Shed at 2pm on Saturday 27 April. They are also told in a puppet show and puppet walk by local puppet theatre company Otherstory.

The festival lead, Professor Lois Bibbings, from the University of Bristol Law School, is an expert on World War One conscientious objection to military service. She is currently writing a history of the Shot at Dawn campaign, which saw the Government pardon over 300 soldiers who were shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion by the British Army during World War One.

Professor Bibbings said: "This national festival presents a rich and complex picture of the First World War, by highlighting aspects which have been missed or barely touched upon by centenary activities to-date – including looking at internment, war resistance, mutinies, conscientious objection, miscarriages of justice, the British Caribbean experience of the war and its legacies, how the war shaped Gandhi’s rise to prominence in India and the path to independence.

"It also offers the opportunity to examine legacy and commemoration, to reflect on what has happened since in terms of the treatment of veterans and conscientious objectors, to focus on present day efforts at peacebuilding."

Throughout April and May there are exhibitions, performances, films in venues across the city. Some of these additional events are part of the festival; others are organised to coincide with the festival and with International Conscientious Objectors' Day on 15 May.

One of the first of these linked events will be two performances of the play 'This Evil Thing' in the crypt of St John The Baptist Church, St John On The Wall, on 21 April.

The exhibitions are:

  • 1 April to 3 May - 'A Colour Chart for Killing' in the Central Library; a series which explores the relationship between 'first world' domestic culture, epitomised by the aspirations of DIY home improvement, and the darker shadows of the United Kingdom’s counter terrorism measures, military economy and overseas wars. World War One, the ‘war to end all wars’, forms the backdrop to this exhibition.
  • 10 April to 7 May - 'The Poppy Retake' in M Shed; a documentary exhibition exploring how European powers brought colonies into World War 1, took resources from these countries and took the war to 'fronts' outside Europe.
  • 25 April to 20 May - 'The Lost Files' in the crypt of St John The Baptist church; an installation which looks at the experiences of World War One conscientious objectors.
  • 25 April – 31 May – 'The Art & Nature of Conscience' in Bristol Cathedral, focuses on texts and artwork by and about World War One conscientious objectors, encouraging the visitor to think about the meaning of conscience. The exhibition includes rare images from the autograph albums which some objectors kept as well as works by contemporary artists which reference or respond to the words and actions of World War One conscientious objectors.

The festival is overseen by the Everyday Lives in War project at the University of Hertfordshire and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is also supported by University of Bristol funding. Bristol's Remembering the Real WW1 group has been a key part of organising the festival.

Jeremy Clarke, of Remembering the Real WW1, said: "This festival is an unrivalled opportunity to see and hear the results of years of research done across the country into 'hidden stories' of World War One and get a wider perspective on responses to the war, both at the time and since."

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