Edwin G. Lucas's Man with Bandaged Head, circa 1943–1944. (Art: Lucas Family Collection Photo: John McKenzie)
Edwin G. Lucas's Man with Bandaged Head, circa 1943–1944. (Art: Lucas Family Collection Photo: John McKenzie)

Conscientious objectors feature in new exhibition

A new exhibition, Conscience Matters, will open at the National War Museum in Edinburgh tomorrow, Friday 8 March.

It will explore the little-known story of British conscientious objectors of the Second World War.

The exhibition looks at some of the reasons people have refused to take up arms during war and how such refusals are perceived by society.

In the Second World War, the reintroduction of conscription meant that British citizens were expected to contribute directly to the war effort. Those who refused on the grounds of a ‘sincere and genuine’ opposition to military service could apply for an exemption. People objected for a variety of religious, political and humanitarian reasons, and were known as conscientious objectors.

To gain exemptions from conscription on the grounds of conscience, individuals were required to appear before a tribunal and produce evidence about their honesty and commitment to their principles.

Edwin G. Lucas’s Man with Bandaged Head, circa 1943–1944. (Art: Lucas Family Collection Photo: John McKenzie)

Conscience Matters will draw on the testimonies and experience of some of the 60,000 men and women who applied for exemption from military service in the name of conscience.

The material on display will illustrate the stories of those who objected by exploring their backgrounds, their moral dilemmas, and the difficult journeys they faced in trying to prove their convictions.

The exhibition will feature paintings, music, letters, diaries, poems and speeches made by conscientious objectors in Britain during the Second World War as they grappled with the meanings and implications of conscience in a time of war.

Following the stories of conscientious objectors including Scottish author, Fred Urquhart, and poet Edwin Morgan, the exhibition will examine the application process, the reasons people had for opposing conscription, and what happened to them as a result.

If successful in their application, conscientious objectors could be exempted from national service altogether, or more commonly assigned to other non-combatant roles such as bomb disposal, hospital work or agricultural labour. Some of those whose applications were unsuccessful were ultimately imprisoned.

A poster produced by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

The exhibition draws on a major research project led by the University of Edinburgh to study British conscientious objectors in the Second World War. The project examines the motivations and dilemmas of conscientious objectors, and the ways in which a decision not to take up arms affected both their close relationships and their rights and obligations as British citizens. The research is funded by the European Research Council.

Tobias Kelly, Professor of Political and Legal Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh said: ‘Britain was one of the first countries in the world to grant a legal right to conscientious objection to military service during war time. In the Second World War, over 60,000 people registered as conscientious objectors.

‘Although now largely forgotten, many of these people went onto become significant cultural and political figures in post-war Britain, founding Amnesty International and Oxfam, amongst other things. Their fascinating stories will invite visitors to think about the wider nature and implications of conscience and to ask how far we might go for a cause in which we believe.’

Conscience Matters will run at the National War Museum, Edinburgh Castle, and admission is free with entry to Edinburgh Castle. It will run until Sunday 26 January 2020.

Click HERE for more details.