The Courage of the Conchies
It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends – Albus Dumbledore
Hi, I’m JL Merrow, and today I’d like to talk about a type of courage that’s often not acknowledged when we think of the World Wars—the courage of those who refused to fight.
Of course, the soldiers who fought in the Great War of 1914-18 showed tremendous bravery, both those who signed up voluntarily and those who were later drafted.
But what about those who chose to exercise the option of declaring themselves Conscientious Objectors to the war, and refused to fight?
For some, the position was clear: “Conchies” were cowards, through and through, choosing the soft option with their selfish refusal to serve. But in fact it must have taken extraordinary courage to stand up for their convictions, whether religious, political or simply humanitarian, at a time when all able-bodied British men were expected to defend King and country. How many of us, I wonder, could have faced quarrelling with our friends and even our families, sometimes irreconcilably? Or being arrested by the local policeman we’d grown up with? Being looked down on as a coward by people we’d known all our lives?
Moreover, the armed forces, desperate for men, did not treat COs well. The first hurdle a man would face, once conscription was brought in, was the tribunal to determine whether his conscientious objection was genuine. Many claims were dismissed on spurious grounds—at least one man was told he was “too young to have a conscience!” (But not, obviously, too young to die for his country.)
Even if they passed the tribunal, thousands of COs were ordered to accept non-combatant military service, such as in the medical corps. For the “absolutists”, who believed any service in aid of the war effort would simply perpetuate the struggle and the killing, life then became very hard indeed as the authorities simply refused to accept their stance.
Many COs were sent to army barracks and imprisoned for refusing to follow orders, often under conditions of solitary confinement, inadequate food and hard labour. When they had served their sentence, they would be promptly returned to barracks, where they might be beaten or given field punishments, and the whole process would begin again.
A group of fifty of the “worst” COs were even sent to France, where they were threatened with the firing squad for refusing to fight. It’s worth noting that many ordinary soldiers made what gestures of encouragement and support they could to the COs, visibly admiring their bravery in being willing to face death for their beliefs.
Ten COs are reported to have died in prison, and another sixty as a result of their maltreatment. Over thirty are known to have gone insane. Many others suffered lasting ill-effects to their physical health. A soft option? I don’t think so.
JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.
She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and mysteries, and is frequently accused of humour. Her novel Slam! won the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best LGBT Romantic Comedy, and her novella Muscling Through and novel Relief Valve were both EPIC Awards finalists.
JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.
Wounds of the heart take the longest to heal.
When solicitor’s clerk George Johnson moves into a rented London room in the winter of 1920, it’s with a secret goal: to find out if his fellow lodger, Matthew Connaught, is the wartime traitor who cost George’s adored older brother his life.
Yet as he gets to know Matthew—an irrepressibly cheerful ad man whose missing arm hasn’t dimmed his smile—George begins to lose sight of his mission.
As Matthew’s advances become ever harder to resist, George tries to convince himself his brother’s death was just the luck of the draw, and to forget he’s hiding a secret of his own. His true identity—and an act of conscience that shamed his family.
But as their mutual attraction grows, so does George’s desperation to know the truth about what happened that day in Ypres. If only to prove Matthew innocent—even if it means losing the man he’s come to love.
Warning: Contains larks in the snow, stiff upper lips, shadows of the Great War, and one man working undercover while another tries to lure him under the covers.