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Play shines light on other type of bravery in war; A highly acclaimed oneman show about the fate of conscientious objectors in World War One comes to Cardiff 's Sherman Theatre tonight and tomorrow. Martin Shipton explains the show's links to the Western Mail's then chief reporter E Ellis Hughes.

IN July 1916 the philosopher Bertrand Russell gave 35 speeches in the communities of South Wales, during which he argued in favour of peace negotiations to end what was known at the time as the Great War.

The only record of what he said at any of the meetings was an extensive shorthand note taken by E Ellis Hughes, the chief reporter of the Western Mail.

South Wales was one of the centres of conscientious objection, partly as a result of the strength of the Independent Labour Party and other left-wing groups in mining areas.

Hughes heard Russell speak at the Quaker movement's Friends Hall in Charles Street, Cardiff, where it is located to this day.

Russell's call for an immediate end to the war was seen by the Government as subversive, and resulted in his being banned from speaking in areas regarded especially "sensitive" - around one third of Britain.

Later the philosopher received a six-month jail sentence for his antiwar campaigning.

Actor and playwright Michael Mears has written This Evil Thing, a powerful theatrical piece of work in which he plays all 52 characters - although some have only one line. Russell's speech was an inspiration to the more than 16,000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war on a variety of ethical and religious grounds.

Mears explained why he has written the play: "There is a lot of material around the centenary of the war which focuses on those who joined the military and fought bravely. That's fine.

"But there was another kind of bravery involved in refusing to fight out of strong ethical principles. Such people were prepared to die for their principles and many of them suffered very badly as a consequence of their decision not to fight."

The play's central character is Bert Brocklesbury, a real 25-year-old teacher and Methodist lay preacher from Yorkshire, who belonged to the most extreme group of pacifists called absolutists, who refused to do anythen thing at all to help the war effort - including peeling potatoes for troops to eat because that gave them the strength to kill Germans.

Army officers generally had no sympathy for conscientious objectors, and punishments meted out on an ad hoc basis could be severe. There were instances where methods of torture were used, including forcing a prisoner to stand on narrow planks of wood in a ditch filled with water for an extended period.

The play's tension stems from speculation about what will be the fate of the "conchies". When they were transferred to the front line in France, they were at risk of being court martialled for disobeying orders, and faced the possibility of being shot. In an essay written to accompany the play, Mears states: "To read some of the accounts of conscientious objectors being grilled and investigated by their Local Tribunals (once conscription had been brought in, in 1916), to assess whether their conscientious objection was genuine and whether therefore they might be exempted from military service, would provoke laughter and derision were the accounts not true.

"An 18-year-old being denied exemption because he was considered too young to have a conscience; a declared atheist being told he couldn't possibly have a conscience; a conscientious objector who was a piano tuner by trade being denied exemption because how could he know what use the pianos he tuned might be put to? They might be used to play patriotic songs or military marches, so how could he possibly claim to be a conscientious objector? And so it went on "Arrests would then follow, being forcibly escorted to barracks, orders given to put on uniform, do drill, carry out other tasks, all of which, politely refused, would result in punishments, bread and water diets, solitary confinement, or worse.

"One conscientious objector, Jack Gray, was subjected to a regime of cruelty culminating in his having a rope tied round his stomach and being pushed into a pond eight or nine times, and dragged out each time by the rope. The pond contained sewage."

Mears wonders whether he would have had the strength of character to be a conscientious objector: "How would I have responded if I'd been a young man in 1914? Would I have had the courage to endure the bullying, the abuse, the solitary confinement, the imprisonment in a ten-foot deep pit, the very real threat of execution? "In many ways, the writing and performing of the play feels like a challenge to myself, and of course to those watching it - 'Well, what would I have done? What would you have done?' I fervently hope that I would have had the courage to stand up for my peaceful beliefs - but the fact is that there's no way of knowing, is there?" In some ways surprisingly, there were more conscientious objectors in World War Two: a total of around 62,000. Mears said: "In retrospect, not fighting against Hitler might seem like a more difficult decision to make. But at the time people made their decision on the same ethical principles. In a sense, the experience of World War One made it easier for the authorities to deal with conscientious objectors, with prison sentences being imposed."

He concludes: "It is my hope that performing this play will help shine a little extra light and peace into the world - perhaps making some rethink entrenched beliefs about how nations should resolve their disputes - while giving strength and encouragement to others (and to myself every time I perform the piece) in our belief that war never has been and never can be a true and just solution to anything."


Poster from the play This Evil Thing

Welsh philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell at his home in Plas Penrhyn in 1957
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 25, 2017

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