Objection and Execution

Influenced by a high-profile story of a local Conscientious Objector, Bertrand Russell, the Museum of Richmond looked for other stories.

white peace pledge union poppy

A few local residents staunchly upheld strong beliefs in the face of a tide of disapproval and ridicule and chose to become conscientious objectors. Their decisions were not to be underestimated and many of them paid dearly for their convictions. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, who grew up at Pembroke Lodge, was Richmond’s most famous anti-war activist and served a prison sentence for his beliefs, as did many others.

George Whitehead of Mortlake, a baker’s driver and ‘Socialist lecturer’ was an absolutist, which meant that he refused to do any work which would support the war effort and he spent much of the war in prison. While Eric Barry Chappelow from Barnes was a CO who agreed to work with the Society of Friends ambulance unit.

After the introduction of conscription in Britain in 1916, more than 16,000 men refused to fight. Although conscientious objection was legal, immense pressure was placed on anyone trying to exercise this right. Men who agreed to enlist were in danger of being court-martialled if they refused to follow any order. If found guilty, the sentence was death. 6000 COs were court-martialled, although the sentence was commuted to imprisonment with hard labour.

Some 306 British and commonwealth soldiers were not so fortunate. They were executed for crimes including desertion and cowardice, although later assessment make it likely that most were suffering from shellshock, what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

The deaths of these men are featured in a moving art project by the photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews: Shot At Dawn.

Mathews has visited sites in Northern Europe where soldiers from the British and other armies were shot by their own side. Her pictures of the sites where the men were executed record the absences, the empty spaces left by the killings.

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