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Moving and surprising stories of First World War conscientious objectors.

THE moving and powerful stories of conscientious objectors are to be brought to life in a new theatre project.

Theatres of Conscience is the third Heritage Lottery-funded project by Birmingham-based Women and Theatre, commemorating the First World War.

The result will be performed at the mac in Cannon Hill Park on March 12 and 13.

It's been partly put together by actress and writer Janice Connolly, who is also a stand-up comedian as Barbara Nice.

She says: "The subject is really fascinating. Doing the research has been deeply engrossing and rather overwhelming.

"We all think we know about it but we break some myths, such as the fact that actually no-one was shot for being a conscientious objector, rather than a deserter."

Conscription came into force in 1916 for all single men aged 18 to 41, exempting the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and some industrial workers.

Many men rushed to marry to avoid conscription although a second Military Service Act extended it to married men.

The government set up an appeals system with local tribunals to hear from men who had a formal objection to being sent to fight.

There were 16,000 registered conscientious objectors, compared to eight million men in the armed forces.

Some objected on moral and religious grounds while others had economic or deeply personal reasons.

Janice, Women and Theatre's artistic director, says: "Some men argued they had a large family to support.

"Others said that if they went off to fight it would leave only a woman to do your job and they couldn't expect a woman to, for example, measure the inside leg of a men's trouser at a tailor's.

"One case said his three brothers had died at the front, he was the only one left and his mother would have a nervous breakdown if he went too.

"Many conscientious objectors, such as Quakers, were given non-combatant service roles doing things like working on ambulances.

"Those like international socialists who said they didn't want anything to do with the war, if they refused to go they would be arrested, court martialled and usually sent to prison.

"Even those who were given a permanent exemption were often treated poorly by their communities who were unimpressed by their attitude.

"I have read some of the recently-opened tribunal transcripts from the Staffordshire Archives. The government told the tribunals to destroy the minutes after the war, perhaps because there was such personal information in them and because there was a stigma attached to those who did not serve. But sometimes they just didn't do it.

"I also talked to a woman whose great-grandfather was a conscientous objector in Birmingham and went to Woodbrooke Quaker College founded by George Cadbury. He was arrested on Christmas Eve and his tribunal was on Boxing Day.

"It made me question what I would have done. You think 'Oh I would be a conscientious objector' but now, thinking about and looking at the time it was and the pressure on people, I think it would be very difficult not to have gone to fight.

"The show is not a play so much as a piece of interactive theatre lasting about an hour. We'll be bringing cases to life by re-enacting a tribunal with members of the audience joining the panel to decide their fate.

"We're really interested in hearing people's stories and finding out what happened to people afterwards, for example was it difficult to get work?" Theatres of Conscience is at Birmingham's Mac on Saturday, March 12, at 5pm and 7.30pm and Sunday, March 13, at 11am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm and 6pm. There is also a Theatres of Conscience exhibition at Mac throughout March.


Janice Connolly

Transcipts from First World War tribunals for those appealling against conscription
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 25, 2016
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