Thinking before the war:
the second word war started in 1939 I was aged 20 and a student at Oxford.
While at Oxford, and before that as a pupil at the Quaker school, Bootham
in York I had discussed with friends, both Quaker and non-Quaker, what we would
do if war came.
from a deeply convinced Quaker family, I don’t recall ever having had serious
doubts that I would become a conscientious objector, in line with Friends’
Testimony against war. But when
conscription came in and most of my non-Quaker friends joined the forces, it
wasn’t always easy.
accounts of the cruelties inflicted by the Germans on the Jews and others made
it natural for a young man to want to do something active to help. The fact that
Quakers, including some of my own relatives, had worked to help Jews and others
in Germany and Czechoslovakia, helped me to feel that there were other ways of
helping besides fighting.
question then was, “What to do?” I had no difficulty in deciding. My father
was largely responsible for restarting the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, so it
seemed right that I should apply to the tribunal for exemption from the armed
forces to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.
The Tribunal—Choosing to be a Conscientious Objector
was very privileged that this was granted fairly easily—Quakers in general had
an easier time at the tribunals than non-Quakers. It was recognised that
pacifism was a part of their religious beliefs. And throughout this I was, of
course, wholeheartedly supported by my family, which was not always the case
pacifists during the war were despised as cowards by many people. I remember
once I was hitching a ride in a car. When the people giving me a lift discovered
what I was doing and why I was not in the army, I was told to get out. On the
whole, however, we did not get too much stick. And in many cases the men in the
army understood our position better than those back at home.
there I was in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit which was reformed at the start of
the war in September 1939.
was lucky in being part of the first section to go abroad.
We went to drive ambulances for the Finns when Finland was invaded by
Russia. This did not last long, but gave me an introduction to what war was
like, seeing the injured and those displaced from their homes by the war.
of my war service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit for the next four years was
with a mobile hospital unit working with the Free French forces in north Africa,
Italy and France, We saw a lot of the horrors of war.
We also had many discussions with our French colleagues who could not
understand our pacifist position.
helped to look after many hundreds of wounded soldiers in those four years and
felt that we were able to do something to relieve the suffering of war. Two or
three of our members changed their views and decided that they had to join the
forces to help with the war, but
most of us, including me, kept to our view that we had to maintain our witness
the war ended, we were all very thankful and anxious to get home after being
away for four years. The last week before peace was declared was especially
painful as heavy fighting brought many wounded into our hospital, even though we
knew that the war was almost over.
worked for a further few months in Germany with a section of the unit helping
In retrospect…Would I do the same again?
was very lucky in my service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit which showed me a
lot of the world. I remained convinced of the tragedy and folly of war.
I do the same today? I don’t know, but I hope that I would. Contents