The painting, ‘The Conchie’, by the British painter, Arthur Gay (1901 – 1958), was first exhibited in 1931 to a sympathetic public reception. A decade earlier this would not have been the case.
In 1916, with the Great War raging unabated and the number of volunteers drying-up, the British Government introduced military conscription. The Military Service Act compelled men, aged 18 to 41 (later extended to 51 years) to serve in the British Army for the duration of the war, unless they were exempt for reasons including being widowed with children, medically unfit, or in work deemed essential to the survival of the country.
Most who received their call-up papers went straight into military service, compelled by a mix of patriotism, sense of communal duty – and fear of being accused of cowardice by their neighbours, or by the women who gave out white feathers publicly to men not in uniform. But many others appealed against their conscription.
Military Tribunals were established across Britain to decide on cases where men had applied for exemption from army service. Between 1916-18, over 90,000 men presented cases for exemption, mainly on the grounds of employment vital to the war effort, or because of their domestic responsibilities.
However, over 16,000 men in Britain also claimed exemption from military service on the grounds of conscientious objection. Their claims included Christian and other religious belief in pacifism, plus a range of social, moral and political objections to warfare.
But very few men presenting conscientious objections were granted full exemption and many accepted non-combatant roles in the services, or in vital war work.
However, over 6,000 men refused to accept any non-combatant role on the grounds that it would support a war effort they opposed. They were inevitably ordered into military service and their subsequent refusal to obey orders led to periods of imprisonment, usually with hard labour. Some were initially condemned to death, if they refused an order given at the front line, although all had their death sentences commuted to periods of imprisonment. Most conscientious objectors stayed in prison until well after the war had ended and lost their right to vote until 1929.
These men became known as ‘conchies’; a pejorative term first coined by soldiers, but quickly adopted by a public and British press largely hostile to them. The conscientious objectors experienced great hardship, sometimes brutality, in prison or the work camps, and over 70 died because of the harsh treatment they received.
The public hostility toward conscientious objectors was still raw in the early aftermath of war. But this began to abate from the late 1920s onward, largely because of the more open and considered public discussion on the causes and social impact of the war. ‘The Conchie’ is a reflection of this changing mood in the country at that time.
‘The Conchie’ is an oil painting, measuring 69 x 84 cm, on public display at The Peace Museum, Bradford, in West Yorkshire. It depicts three men: two uniformed soldiers and one other.
The fading light of the day falls on the face of the civilian as he looks at the passing town from the carriage window. The depiction of the rifle in the scene, the open bible on the man’s lap, and the title of the painting, suggests that the civilian is a conscientious objector on his way into the custody of the military.
The triangulation of form in the painting draws your eyes to the prisoner. The soldier on the right stares – rather fixedly and unnaturally – at his colleague, who in turn looks toward the captive. The prisoner looks away from the soldiers, his face highlighted by the last of the sun, contrasting with the soldiers in shadow. He has turned away from reading his bible to look at the receding buildings of the town.
The symbolism is writ large. The day – and the man’s freedom – are temporarily ending. The artist too, may be recalling the words of the poem, ‘For the Fallen ‘, written in 1914 by Robert Laurence Binyon: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”.
The stand taken by conscientious objectors against the war continues to raise moral questions today: were they the truly brave ones – by demonstrating their total commitment to peace, despite the hostility heaped on them by a society unhinged by war?
Or were their temporary experiences in custody as nothing compared to the eternity of death for young men on the battlefields? For as Binyon also wrote about the dead, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.”