Watching trailers for Hacksaw Ridge I was reminded of two men whom I have met through my work as editor of Blind Veterans UK Review magazine. The first was a man, recently deceased, who came to the charity in his 90s suffering from age related sight loss. He was veteran of the Second World War, and like Desmond Doss he refused to carry weapons. He chose bomb disposal. The second is someone that I did not meet, as he was the father of Albert Southerden, a blind veteran who came to the charity with age related sight loss. As I interviewed Albert about his experiences fighting in France in WWII he told me of his father Harold, who had served in the RAMC during the First World War.
Speaking of his late father Albert said: “He was a conscientious objector, which could be taken as an admission of cowardice, but he simply didn’t want to take a life. He wanted to serve his country, but not to take the life of a fellow man. That’s why he joined the RAMC and he would go unarmed into No Man’s Land to treat the wounded. I think he showed extreme courage in his conviction and in his actions.”
Not to piggyback on Hacksaw Ridge I have placed an article below that was written by GJ Haines about the RAMC and conscientious objectors during WWI for a past edition of the Review.
The cloud of poison gas was advancing silently but relentlessly towards Harold Southerden of the Royal Army Medical Corps as he tended to the wounded soldier laying on the mud of Ypres as the fighting raged around them. Harold had been trained for moments like this, the whistles and shouts to put on the gas masks were all around him, mixed with the scream of his patient. He had heard and seen what gas could do, the blinding, the choking. He had even heard of one man who had lost all his skin due to the corrosive effects of the vapour. He knew that he had one choice though as the cloud rolled closer. He took the mask off his face and placed it on his patient. He was here to save lives, not to take them. The cloud embraced Harold.
Harold Southerden was a man of conviction and principle. He had not joined the army through the normal channels but as a conscientious objector.
Harold was one of over 16,000 (the exact figure varies from 16,000 — 16,600) conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms although the government ordered them to do so. The Military Service Act had been given Royal Assent on the 27th January 1916 and it came into effect from the 2nd March 1916.
Men aged between 18 – 41 were expected to enlist when called and join the army. The Act when first enacted did not apply to married men, those widowed with children to look after, the clergy, those working in a reserved occupation and those serving in the Royal Navy. Within three months the act had been altered and now extended to apply to those men who were married. By 1918 the Military Service Act now applied to men aged 18 – 51.
Before the Military Service Act came into law there had been demands from pacifist organisations, such as the No-Conscription Fellowship which was founded in 1914 and campaigned that there should be an exemption clause to enable those whose beliefs on moral or religious grounds to be exempted from military service. A clause was put into place and posters were displayed that advertised that you could apply by 2nd March 1916 to have your case heard by a Military Service tribunal.
The government recognised three categories of men who conscientiously objected, ‘Absolutists’ men who were opposed to war and did not wish to take
part in any activity that may in some regard aid the war effort. ‘Alternativists,’ men who were willing to work but not under military control and ‘Non-Combatants,’ men who were willing to join the army but would not bear arms against another. It was this category to which Harold Southerden belonged.
Three thousand and four hundred men accepted a call up into the Non-Combatant Corps or the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Non-Combatant Corps was set up in March 1916 and was part of the army. The C.O.s were ranked as army privates, wore army uniforms and were subject to army discipline. They did not carry weapons. Their duties mostly focused on labouring work, including building, loading and unloading but not handling munitions. The press called the Corps the ‘No Courage Corps’ or the Royal Army Medical Corps. Those who were sent by tribunal to the Non-Combatant Corps and refused to wear the army uniform were subject to army court-martial. Some 5,970 C. O.s were court-martialled and sent to prison, usually sentenced to hard labour. The last C.O. was released from prison in 1919.
Those, like Harold, who joined the RAMC, agreed to face the dangers of war, but were vehemently opposed to carrying a weapon. They were in the frontline as the opening of this poem ‘The RAMC,’ by Cpl W. Atkins of the A. Coy, 1/8th Worcs published in ‘The Southern Cross’ in 1917 testifies to:
We carry no rifle, bayonet nor bomb,
But follow behind in the rear
Of the steel fringed line that surges along
With a ringing British cheer.
Through the tangled wire of the blown-in trench,
Spite of shrapnel or bursting shell,
We make for the spots-Khaki-clad helpless blots-
That mark where our front rank fell.
We are the men who carry them back,
The wounded, the dying and dead.
It’s “Halt!” “Dressing here” – “Come, buck-up, old dear.”
You’re all right for “Blighty” so be good of good cheer -
Turn him gently, now bandage his head.”
The “stretcher-bearers” doing their bit,
Of V. C.s not many they score,
Yet are earned every day in a quiet sort of way
By the “Royal Army Medical Corps.”
The RAMC lost 470 Officers and 3,669 other ranks were killed in action or died of wounds in the First World War. During the war their men were awarded many medals for valour including 3,002 Military Medals, 395 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 1,484 Military Crosses, 499 Distinguished Conduct Medals and seven Victoria Crosses.
The popular press dubbed the C.O.s as cowardly. Pressure was placed on men to join up and those who did not were seen as being outside of society. This pressure was not just enforced by the eyes and pointing finger of Lord Kitchener on the recruiting posters. The Order of the White Feather was established in the United Kingdom to present men in the street with white feathers as a symbol of cowardice. Baroness Orczy (who wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel) took this act a step further and established a Women of England’s Active Service League. The membership of this league gave a solemn pledge never to be seen in public with a man who had refused to fight. The Government were eventually forced to issue men who were working on war work on the home front a badge to show that they were indeed doing their bit.
Those who chose not to take up arms but agreed to join the RAMC were anything but cowardly. Conscientious Objectors featured in the RAMC roll of honour. Like Harold Southerden they saw their role as saving lives and thought nothing of putting their own lives at risk to achieve this. Ernest Gregory of the 1/3 West Riding Field Ambulance was one of the recipients of the 3,002 Military medals won by the RAMC during the war. He served as a stretcher bearer and won his medal at Passchendaele. This was for bravery in the field for bringing in the wounded while under fire and wading up to his armpits in shell holes full of mud. A photo of Gregory shows him posing in his uniform, his belt is of an unusual military design, it has no ammunition pouches. His Conscience would not allow him to carry any. Like Harold Southerden he was a conscientious objector.
Gary Haines is an archivist by profession, and has worked with a diverse range of organisations from The Mercers’ Company to the Whitechapel Gallery. He is also a researcher and writer, both fiction and non-fiction. He has had two books published on the history of the East End, the place of his birth, Images of London: Bethnal Green, The History Press, 2002 and Bow & Bromley-By-Bow, The History Press, 2008 and is a regular contributor to the East London History Society newsletter and has also been published in Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association. Gary has a great passion for learning and for telling the stories of those whose history is never told. He is now into the second year of his PhD with the History of Art and Screen Media Department at Birkbeck College. The subject of his research is ‘The Visual and Cultural Representation of the Sightless British Soldier, 1915 -1939’. He has a long association with Blind Veterans UK and worked in 2008 as a Collections & Archives Assistant. Gary recently gave a paper at the ‘Commemorating the Disabled Soldier’ at an international conference held in Ypres and a journal article based on this talk will be published by the Journal of Great War Studies in 2014.
Hacksaw Ridge is released in the UK on January 27, 2017.