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International Conscientious Objectors' Day 15 May 2014 Tavistock Square, London

InternationalConcientious Objectors' Day

Tavistock Square, 15 May 2014, International Conscientious Objectors' Day

The sun shines on the just and the unjust alike. On Thursday 15 May 2014, more than 500 just individuals gathered in beautiful spring sunshine at the COs Memorial Stone in London's Tavistock Square to acknowledge those who refused to kill.

This year the numbers were greater than in previous years, no doubt due to the approaching anniversary of World War One and the day's significance and poignancy were certainly increased by the memories inspired by that dreadful conflict.

In contrast to the UK government efforts, organisers - The First World War Peace Forum and its constituent organisations - had worked hard to ensure that the message taken from 1914-1918 is one of peace and justice.

Beginning with the charming voices of the gospel choir of Maria Fidelis School in Camden, speaker after speaker gave testimony to that message. Sam Weston from Quaker Peace and Social Witness linked the experiences of the 20,000 British COs who refused to kill during those four years to the present imprisonment of war refusers worldwide. He stressed that the existence of alternatives to military service and the absence of conscription did not mean that a society was any less militaristic as a result.

Mary Dobbing, a peace activist from Bristol and the granddaughter of Alfred Herbert Dobbing, a CO from World War One, echoed this point, emphasising the continuity of struggle against war now seen with Afghanistan, Iraq and the ongoing secret drone warfare practised by NATO.

From Germany, Christine Schweitzer of War Resisters' International, spoke from the very different German experience and how an active peace movement there fell silent on the eve of war in 1914. There were those who refused, she told us, but this is largely a hidden history. Even more importantly, she drew attention to the distortions of language that result from military machine's attempts to legitimate war.

Finally, Lord John Maxton spoke eloquently of his father John and his uncle Jimmy, who had been inspired by Glasgow socialist John McLean. Both refused to fight seeing the war as an imperialist one and suffered for their acts of conscience. Ironically, Lord Maxton's uncle Jimmy Maxton was returned as an Independent Labour Party MP for Bridgeton in 1945 and was cheered by the descendants of those who had attacked him and even stoned his pet dog to death.

Then, in the most moving part of the event, 66 descendants of WWI COs who were present spoke briefly of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers and of their commitment to peace. These brave individuals had all acted as they did out of a deep-seated concern for humanity, sometimes born of religious faith, sometimes born of political belief and often of both.

Many continued in their own ways to serve their communities for the rest of their lives. And as their descendants remembered their sacrifices, the message of the morning's main speakers became clearer and clearer. It was that the opposite of war is not just peace but social and economic justice.

Conshies at Dartmoor

There were around 20,000 British conscientious objectors in the First World War. In 1917, 1,100 of them were imprisoned in Dartmoor after all its convicts were withdrawn to make room.