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The white feather

Pacifists, conscientious objectors and the First World War

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


The 4 August 2014 will mark the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. In order to introduce students to key themes and issues surrounding this event and the centenaries that will be marked over the following four years, we are providing a series of assembly scripts. These are not in a chronological sequence so can be used in any order.


To explore students’ understanding of pacifist ideas (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need three readers.

  • Have available the song ‘War’ by Edwin Starr and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader One hundred years ago this year the First World War began.


Would you volunteer to fight in a war?


There were many young men who willingly did so in 1914. They saw the war as an exciting adventure, an opportunity to travel abroad and defeat Kaiser Bill, the enemy of their King and country.

The young men who refused to volunteer, however, were called cowards and given the symbol of cowardice, a white feather, as well as becoming the objects of verbal abuse and vandalism.

Why did they refuse to volunteer?

Reader 1 Some people didn’t see Germany as the enemy in any way at all. Politically, they saw Germany as a valuable part of Europe with many similar aspirations to Britain. They felt that it would be more productive to negotiate with the German government to find a practical solution to a confused and messy problem.

Reader 2 Others had religious objections to fighting. Christians believed that God had told them not to kill in the Ten Commandments given to Moses and Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies and do good to those who tried to harm them. To volunteer to fight would clearly mean forsaking their religious beliefs, which they could not do.

Reader 3 Others saw war as an inefficient and destructive way to decide differences between countries. They were anti-war for philosophical reasons. War, to them, never solved anything and resulted in a worse situation after the fighting had finished than existed before it began.

Leader These people who refused to fight were known as pacifists.

If you could put up with the abuse, it was relatively easy to be a pacifist up to the end of 1915. Then things changed.

Because so many lives were lost in the early battles, it became necessary for the British Army to find other ways to recruit soldiers to replace the dead. In early 1916, conscription came into being. Conscription meant that active service was compulsory for every young man aged between 18 and 41, unless they were medically unfit, clergymen, teachers, did certain kinds of industrial jobs or were conscientious objectors. There was no longer any choice.

Pacifists were required to go before a tribunal panel as conscientious objectors. The panel decided how serious their objections were. The panel was often very unsympathetic and few pacifists were actually given the right to an exemption from conscription. Many were forced into the Army. If they then refused to obey orders, they were court-martialled and put in prison, where they often suffered very harsh treatment. It wasn’t an easy option, being a pacifist. It required courage for the men to stand up for what they believed in. This was a hidden side of the First World War.

Reader 1 Some pacifists, however, took a practical approach to their dilemma. A group of Quaker Christians formed the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, a medical team that went on to the battlefields and cared for the wounded on all sides. They believed that wounded German soldiers deserved the same care as wounded Allied soldiers. This attitude often made them very unpopular in the trenches.

Reader 2 Other pacifists accepted being called up to the Army, but insisted that they be involved only in non-combatant roles. They would not fight but would cook, drive, build, clean, transport – any job that didn’t require them to be trained to kill.

Time for reflection

Leader Let’s return to my original question: would you volunteer to fight in a war? Today, the British Army, Navy and Air Force are composed of only volunteers. There will be some of you who decide that this is a good career option.

For probably most of you it isn’t an option you would consider. It’s an easy decision for you to make in the world we live in today as there’s no pressure, no prejudice, no abuse, no white feather. Nevertheless, as we remember the pacifists of the First World War, who were willing to suffer for what they believed in, it’s a helpful exercise to work out what we believe and how we might act if the question was put to us and we felt we had no choice. 

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the freedom that exists in this country.
Thank you that we can make our own decisions based on what we believe.
May we do all we can to think through our attitudes to this and other important questions.


‘War’ by Edwin Starr

Publication date: February 2014   (Vol.16 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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