Saying NO to the Great War

[We are happy to offer today a contribution by Alessandra Scotto di Santolo that was previously published in the Italian blog site "La Balena Bianca". A special thanks to the author and to Lorenzo Cardilli, editor of the blog.]

Where do mosquitoes go when the wind blows hard?

On 17th July 2014 the first of 888,246 ceramic poppies was planted in the moat surrounding the Tower of London in memory of the lives of British and Colonial soldiers lost during the First World War.

Not a single one of those red poppies was however in remembrance of the 16,000 British men who stood firmly and disagreed. Some disagreed on religious grounds, some on political ones, others disagreed on moral grounds; they disagreed because they knew that war was not theirs to fight.
Yet, a century later, so many of us are still reluctant to recognise these people as worthy of mention, and we struggle with the notion that standing up to someone to say I respectfully refuse to obey your orders” took courage. They knew they would pay a price for it and that’s no cowards’ business.

Members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, formed in Britain in the autumn of 1914 by those same men and women who will be later referred to as Conscientious Objectors, were expected to present their arguments before a panel of judges which was nothing more nor different from the Tribunals that had been founded to recruit people for the army. No guidelines or rules were set up to be followed in order to determine who would make the cut and qualify as a recognised CO and be exempted from military service. Needn’t say most of them were easily dismissed and either ordered to take part in active combats or offered the alternative to do non-combatant work in the army or any civilian work that would serve the country at war. If these alternatives still didn’t sound acceptable for the COs, they would have to face court martial which would inevitably give them a prison sentence. This being the eventual fate of about 6,000 of these men, later referred to as the absolutists”.

Kate Clements, Digital Editor at Imperial War Museum, has produced a series of podcasts called Voices of the First World War, using original recordings from the Museums’ archives and has put together some of these men’s testimony to mark the centenary of 1914. Podcast37 is dedicated to Conscientious Objection and gives us the opportunity to listen to some extraordinary encounters of both those who accepted the alternative to take non-combatant jobs in the army and those who kept objecting and therefore ended up in prison.
«A favourite [question] was, what would you do if your sister was threatened with rape by some German soldier or something like that? And I can’t quite remember what I answered but it was to the effect that that had nothing to do with being a CO against the war. I think that I said that I didn’t know what I would do and that it didn’t matter in the present context in the least what I would do. The thing was this was a protest against the war, that the war was wrong», says Eric Dott when recalling his experience before the Tribunal. He wasn’t awarded the legal status of CO and was sentenced to prison after his martial court hearing.

Maltreatment in jail was most likely a given for the majority of the COs, and some of the warders reserved inhumane remedies for those objecting to their duties in prison. Harold Bing remembers witnessing one distressing occasion: «I’m referring to a CO whom I saw a couple of warders drag down several iron staircases head first, with his head banging on each iron step as he came down.»

In March 1916 the Non-Combatant Corps were formed for those who refused to handle weapons. The press kindly re-named them the No-Courage Corps” and they were often looked upon and seen as nothing more than shirkers by the rest of the soldiers in the camps.

When in July 1916 the ‘Home Office Scheme’ was introduced, COs were divided between those who absolutely refused to help the war effort and preferred to remain in the bad prison conditions, and those who accepted to take part in the work scheme and left prison to work at labour camps around the country. Things didn’t work much better for the latter ones either, as some of them discovered they were getting underpaid for the jobs taken, they organised a strike and were sent straight back to prison.
The whole process was unprecedented and hard to get around: it was the first time Britain had decided to implement a conscription law.

Things were different in the rest of Europe. In Italy, for example, conscription was merely the norm and objecting men couldn’t do so conscientiously. The only option they had was to resort to illegal measures.
Last May 2015, Roberto Bui (aka Wu Ming 1, of the Wu Ming Foundation, an Italian collective  of writers), published a book entirely dedicated to the North-East of Italy and to the geographical, social and political consequences of World War 1 in those territories, in occasion of the celebrated centenary. Cent’anni a Nordest ("A hundred years in the North-East") also reveals some disturbing realities about the dissenters of the Italian front.

Desertion and insubordination were punished with immediate execution and thanks to General Luigi Cadorna the ancient Roman practice of Decimation came back in fashion. One in ten soldiers was randomly picked for execution in the event of indiscipline in the military camps or at the front.
Insubordination was more of an excuse, also used when it came to soldiers expressing doubts about suicidal and useless missions. Soldiers like Silvio Gaetano Ortis, Basilio Matiz, Angelo Massaro and Giovanni Battista Corradazzi, executed for «rebellion in the face of the enemy», for suggesting a better and safer plan to attack the Austrian machine gun nests on Mount Cellon.
“During the war 162,563 court martial hearings for desertion took place. Of these, 101,685 men were held guilty. The death sentences resulted in 4,028 cases of which 2,967 were issued in contumacy. […] From April 1917 the death penalty was automatically held for all of those who were three days late returning from temporary leave. These are record numbers.” (pp. 174-175)
This isn’t the first time in a hundred years that someone tried to rehabilitate the memory of these lives; then why is this yet to successfully happen?
«Because desertion and disobedience are not ‘water under the bridge’, but questions to be asked to those who want the war today.» (p. 185) Wu Ming 1 quotes the pacifist Lorenza Erlicher from Trento, in Trentino-Alto Adige, who says:
“Reversing the archetypes that have until now awarded the honours to the obedient soldier and dictated the banishment of the ‘coward’, often without taking into account the merits of the historical situations (are those who obeyed to Nazis more deserving of honour than the few deserters?), not only seems legitimate but also necessary, especially when it comes to the changes to the modern military structures […] with the introduction of the element of professionalism.” (Ivi)
A necessity that seems to have also driven the Italian MP Gian Piero Scanu to propose a bill in April 2015 for the immediate recognition of innocence for the soldiers unjustly executed during the Great War. He also asked for the installation of a commemorating plaque in the Vittoriano Museum Complex in Rome, defining them as ‘war dead’. The military Tribunal will have until April 2016 to consider the individual cases and decide on whether to grant the bill or not.

On 24th November 2015 the Wu Ming collective published another book, this time dedicated to four different stories of the Great War, with the theme of desertion as a common denominator, L’invisibile ovunque ("The Invisible everywhere"). From the Italian front to the French one and back, L’invisibile ovunque explores the (not so much) alternatives to obey to the war demands.

In the first story, Adelmo, a 17 years old boy who decides to escape his unpromising future at home in the suburbs of Bologna, by secretly volunteering to the front, is faced with the brutal reality of war. He realises that the only way to escape the excruciating images that have by now made of his moves between the dust clouds of the bullets an automatic and naturally insensitive reaction to the enemy’s attacks, is to move up in military ranks and stay away from the trenches. «The corpse of the Habsburg soldier was seated, […]. Adelmo looked at him closely. He could have been about 25 years old. […] He had fine features, he looked Italian, he thought.» (p. 32)

He looked Italian: they all looked like they could have been brothers, distinguished only by the patches on their uniforms. Writer Vera Brittain shared the same sentiment in her Testament of Youth (1933), when recalling a dying Prussian lieutenant whilst serving the country as a volunteering nurse in Étaples:
“[he] held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: ‘I thank you, Sister’. After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims;” (p. 343)
And it was that madness Italian soldiers recurred to when it came to find a way to evade the war. Simulation of mental illness became a sort of obsession for military forces to detect, amongst those who were accepted in mental hospitals of war zones. Psychiatric research was far behind what was achieved years later the Great War and the methods used to test the authenticity of sick soldiers could easily amount to torture today.

People started physically hurting themselves so they would be exonerated from the call and studies show how this was at first instance considered a mental illness effect in itself. When the doctors started recognising psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare as a pathology (the shell shock), simulating soldiers tried to desert the front by preparing themselves to act according to the symptoms of such conditions. Life in mental hospitals was such an overwhelming and confusing experience though, that after a while, many of them couldn’t remember whether they were still faking it or not.
“even a war can cause inurement. […] At the beginning, I had to spend days trying to forget the battle. I had to force myself. I even invented a ritual for myself […] In the last months I no longer needed conventionalities. The wax of my memory had become as tough as granite, and the massacre didn’t leave any traces. The war, which was once a place, the front, and the images of corps, and the smell of burning and rottenness and roars of explosions, it’s now invisible, it’s everywhere, and no ceremony can root it out.” (L’invisibile ovunque, p. 56)
The founder of surrealism André Breton served in French psychiatric wards during the First World War and during his time in Nantes, he found himself psychoanalysing his shell-shocked war patients by way of questioning them with unusual methods. He would no longer start his sessions by asking questions such as «What year are we currently in?» or «Who is France in war with?», instead he would start the sessions by reading them poems and taking notes of the reactions they had to such readings. This was his way of escaping the reality around him and he would get lost in the stories these soldiers would make up for him.

The third story of L’invisibile ovunque, testifies the friendship between Breton and the writer Jacques Vaché. Wu Ming stages an encounter between Breton and Marie Louise Vaché, sister of the lost writer, years later the second world conflict, in which the surrealist was also involved. Breton explores the years of the Great War by recalling how important and influential his meeting with Vaché during those years had been in order for him to psychologically desert the war.
“Your brother, […] used to call the war «the de-braining machine». […] And what was it to me? A monster that camouflaged by licking itself, the more it licked itself the more it mingled with the world around it. Its eyes of the colour of an imprecise storm, eyes like vortices sucking in the worst of the world – rubbish, propaganda, patriotism – to then give it back multiplied in large fluorescent glances. […] It would be better to say that the last war (the Second World War, Ed.) has met more societies: more de-braining machines, more techniques to imprison and kill people. A bigger number of men, women and children has been slaughtered, but the first one… The first one will never have equals for the hypocrisy with which the carnage was carried out. […] Meeting your brother Jacques was a revelation: in the middle of the poisoning it became possible to self-inject the antidote and let it pulse in the arteries and the tissues. Jacques, his role, his humor, his writing, his drawings, were my antidote.” (pp. 115-116)
Desertion was a state of mind many conscientious objectors in the world courageously died for between 1914 and 1918. Some of them survived, like mosquitoes in the grass.

Where do mosquitoes go when the wind blows hard? Maybe they hide in the grass. Like an outlaw who finds shelter in a pagan temple. My dear friend, if I were a mosquito, I would do just that. I would be an outlaw, yessir!

[Here is the link to the Italian blog site "La Balena Bianca" where you can find also the Italian translation of this contribution]