Wilfred Ernest Littleboy
British civilian absolutist conscientious objector imprisoned in Warwick Barracks, Wormwood Scrubs and Dorchester Prisons, GB, 1917-1919
When the First World War began in 1914, it came as a shock to Wilfred Littleboy.
He was a member of the Religious Society of Friends – or Quakers – which had a long history of pacifism and resistance to military action. The outbreak of war led to many young men like Wilfred having to make a choice about what they would do.
Some joined the armed forces and others contributed to the war effort in a way that did not compromise their beliefs – for example, organising ambulance services.
‘But there were others of us who felt that - without any criticism of those activities, which were obvious ones - there was a place for a witness during war time to the Society of Friends’ conviction that all war was un-Christian,’ Wilfred remembered.
Military service was made compulsory for single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41 in March 1916. Exemptions were available under certain conditions and those wishing to get one had to go before a tribunal.
When Wilfred attended a tribunal to ask for an exemption on the grounds of his conscientious objection to war, he found the chair of the panel was Neville Chamberlain.
‘He was, within limits, entirely considerate - ‘Couldn’t you feel like doing something with the War Victims Relief?’ or ‘Wouldn’t you feel like something else that some other people are doing?’ and ‘Couldn’t you do so and so?’’
He remembered that Chamberlain, a future Prime Minister, treated him ‘completely as a gentleman’. The tribunal was adjourned to give Wilfred time to think about his options – but when he reappeared a month later, a new chairman was in charge and he was not so understanding.
‘He was much more rigid and started immediately rather telling me off because I’d not accepted the opportunity of finding a way out. And I discovered then which I expect a good many other people have discovered that it’s much easier to say no to a person who’s losing his temper, or getting fairly near to losing his temper, than to go on saying no to a person who‘s entirely considerate to you.’
Wilfred was referred to the Non-Combatant Corps but did not join – he was an absolutist conscientious objector which meant he would not accept any work connected to the war effort. That position put him at risk of being arrested.
‘One almost got used to the fact that you might go into town one day and be picked up without any warning. And then on the last day of 1916, which was a Sunday, I was at the ordinary meeting for worship in the morning, came home, found the police waiting. And they made an appointment for the next morning to turn up at the court at such and such a time — and so I did. And the magistrates at the court simply handed me over to the military authorities.’
Wilfred was taken first to Warwick Barracks where a soldier’s uniform was placed in front of him. When he refused to put it on, he was court martialed and sentenced to serve time at Wormwood Scrubs.
‘Wormwood Scrubs was of course — it was a prison, it was a fairly severe and the officers were used to commanding. One found one had to get used and possibly to be amused by being shouted at.'
It began a pattern of being ordered to wear a uniform and refusing – he would have more court martials for disobeying orders, his sentences increasing in length.
He was sent next to Dorchester Prison. Prisoners were able to read books from the library, attend services in the prison chapel and regular worship held by Quakers who visited the prison to support those held there.
A Home Office Scheme was offered to prisoners, giving them the opportunity to undertake work of national importance to the war effort.
'The really significant thing was as soon as you accepted an alternative you were in effect acquiescing under the Conscription Act which we had felt was part of our testimony against, and therefore we said no and we could not accept the Home Office Scheme and a good many felt the same way as we did.’
Wilfred did not want to cause himself additional trouble in prison or get junior officers who were considerate of him into trouble so he followed the routine of the place. And even in prison, he was able to find small mercies that helped him.
One day, an officer asked Wilfred to run upstairs to check if a window was open on the landing above as there was a draught. When Wilfred investigated, he found a window.
‘[I] suddenly realised that there was a gorgeous view out of it right out into the country right up the river valleys so I accepted that instruction to go up one day as meaning that I was to see every day that that window wasn’t left open and I went up in order to see that view every day — the way things worked out and it was an uncovenanted mercy that I enjoyed. very much indeed.’
But for some COs, prison was more of a hardship. Wilfred was in good health but others in his situation suffered from physical ill health and depression.
‘I can remember one person with whom I used to take exercise with now and again and I would feel most unhappy to go back to my cell and feel that so and so was being locked in at four o’clock with the knowledge that the door would not be opened again — nobody to speak to, no contact with anybody at all — until seven o’clock next morning and that he was very, very low in his mind.’
‘Now that particular chap fought it out and came out on top; and I had a very great respect for it. But there were some people who just did get lower and lower and get more and more depressed….I got through very well; no illness; no depression; kept on top of things right through to the end — some people didn’t and I’ll leave it at that.’
On November 11 1918, the war ended – a day that Wilfred never forgot.
'Now thank we all our God'
‘There was a German prisoners of war camp fairly near, near enough for us to hear pretty nearly every middle-day a band come out and play. And on Armistice Day the band turned out - or rather several members of the band turned out — played very slowly, obviously from memory, the hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’.’
There were hopes among many COs that they would be released from prison by Christmas. But Wilfred’s suspicions that it would take time were proved right – he wasn’t released until April 1919.
He married after his release from prison and went back to his work as an accountant. He found that people did not generally judge him for having being a conscientious objector – with the occasional exception.
‘One client said ‘I’d no idea you were a CO and [I’ll] never come to you again’ - but then one had to expect that.’
When the Second World War began, he was too old to be called up for active service. However, he did take on fire watching duties in his office building in Birmingham.
‘It seemed reasonable to take your share in the fire watching in the offices which you were using.’
Wilfred Littleboy was interviewed for the Imperial War Museum sound archive in 1974 and he died in died in 1979, aged 94.
You can hear his voice in I Was There: Room of Voices, an immersive sound installation at IWM London.