CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS – by Duncan Harley

There were many, up and down the land, who objected to serving in the 1914 -1918 war. Some protesters were ardent socialists, who adhering to the principle that the working classes of the world should unite instead of setting out to kill each other, refused point blank to fight.
And of course, members of some religious groups were firmly against any taking of human life. Other objectors simply thought that the new war was a capitalist enterprise engineered for the sole purpose of enriching the industrial barons who, having made a fortune from previous wars, were now greedy for further profit on the backs of the ‘capitalist dominated masses.
Demonstrations were held around the country, including at London's Trafalgar Square. But in the big scheme of things war fever, backed by acts of parliament, meant that those who refused to fight due to conscientious objections were liable to be rounded up and imprisoned for the duration.
By the second year of the war the flow of patriotic volunteers had been reduced to a trickle, possibly due to the realisation that the European adventure generally risked a sentence of death. However, the advent of conscription meant that the right not to serve no longer existed. A Military Service Act was passed by parliament in early 1916 and although moral objectors were in theory excused from military service, in practice appeals against conscription were held before an often-unforgiving local military tribunal. As a result, some 16,000 men between the ages of 18 and 41 who were unwilling to kill for king and country were sent to work camps to carry out so called ‘work of national importance.’ Such duties included the quarrying of slate at Ballachulish, farm labouring in the Buchan fields and the breaking of stones in a dank quarry on the outskirts of Aberdeen.
Nowadays a long-stay car park catering for holidaymakers and off-shore workers heading abroad via Aberdeen Airport, the Dyce Conscientious Objectors Work Camp opened in late 1916. Initially it was to house some 200 so-called ‘Conchies’ who were tasked with breaking rocks for roadbuilding. Labelled as moral degenerates by the Aberdeen Journal the camp population was made up of objectors drawn from all walks of life including academics, tradesmen and shopworkers whose only crime was to have refused to don military uniform and stick a bayonet into the ‘hated Hun’.
Conditions in the camp were basic. Most inmates were unused to hard labour and lived in leaky ex-Boer War bell tents on-site. Proper sanitation was largely lacking. When it rained, the quarry sides ran with water which streamed through the campsite. When Walter Roberts, a committed Christian from Stockport, died of pneumonia just 5 days after admission, the press – who had previously vilified the prisoners as unpatriotic cowards, Dyce Humbugs and degenerates – suddenly took up their case. After some well-placed national publicity by the Peace Pledge Union, a Home Office committee headed by soon-to-be Labour PM Ramsay MacDonald visited the camp. As a result, and following a heated debate at Westminster the Dyce facility was closed down, ostensibly on cost grounds, and the inmates transferred to prisons across the UK to serve out the remainder of their sentences.
They had spent just a few months as forced labourers at Dyce but, in the true tradition of oppressed people all around the globe, the inmates had managed to set up and publish a camp newspaper – The Granite Echo.  In the very first edition dated October 1916 an inmate by the name of T.H. Ellison penned a leading article which included the immortal lines:
“Bonny Scotland! And as usual the windows of heaven are open. It appears as though the so called just and merciful God of the civilised nations of Europe – who I think must be taking a day off – is preparing once more to flood the earth, so disgusted is he with the madness of the human race.”

More in my two recent books: The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire’ and ‘The Little History of Aberdeenshire’.
Both available from Amazon.


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