Cotteridge Quaker Meeting

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Michael Rowntree  

Thinking before the war:

For Pacifism--

Deciding Action

The Tribunal—Choosing to be a Conscientious Objector

My Experiences in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit  

Thinking before the war:

For Pacifism-

When 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.

Coming 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.

Deciding Action

The 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.

The 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

I 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 with non-Quakers.

Indeed, 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.

My Experiences in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit 

So there I was in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit which was reformed at the start of the war in September 1939.

I 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.

Most 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.

We 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 against war.

When the war ended…

When 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.

I worked for a further few months in Germany with a section of the unit helping refugees.

In retrospect…Would I do the same again?

I 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.

Would I do the same today? I don’t know, but I hope that I would.  Contents