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A Pacifist at War

International Conscientious Objectors’ Day is marked around the world each year on 15 May.  On this day, we remember all those who have refused to bear arms and participate in war, throughout history and today.  For more information see the Peace Pledge Union

In the decades following the Napoleonic Wars the issue of peace was widely discussed and in 1816 the Peace Society was founded in London, England.  The issue of war was raised at an early stage in the Brethren movement.  The first recorded discussion occurring in Exeter, England, in 1827 during a conversation between Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853), one of the founders of the movement, and his friend, the schoolmaster William Hake (1795-1890).  Norris was training for the Anglican ministry in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.  According to Groves’ account, Hake “asked… if I did not hold war to be unlawful.  I replied ‘Yes’.  He then further asked, how I could subscribe that article which declares it is lawful for Christian men to take up arms at the command of the civil magistrate.  It had, till that moment, never occurred to me.  I read it; and replied, ‘I never would sign it’; and thus ended my connection with the Church of England, as one about to be ordained in her communion.” 


Memoir of the late Anthony Norris Groves, containing Extracts from His Letters and Journals. Compiled by His Widow, 2d ed., (London, 1857).

Groves’ spirituality had a profound effect on the German immigrant George Müller (1805-98). A Brethren member, and one of Groves’ circle, Müller’s views on the question of war crystallized during the first half of the 1830s and he first committed them to paper in 1836 when he began to compose his autobiography. Like other Brethren he based his pacifism on the Sermon of the Mount and other parts of the New Testament that preach a message of non-resistance.

John Nelson Darby (1800-82), another founder of the Brethren movement, exerted a powerful influence on Brethren organisation and doctrines at least until the division between the Open and Exclusive Brethren in 1848. Darby supported a rigid separation of Brethren from all worldly activities, including civil government and by that token war. A copious writer throughout his life, Darby makes no explicit references to a peace testimony until 1870, in a letter he wrote to Brethren in France just after the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War. Darby was by now a leader only of the Exclusives.

“…That a Christian should hesitate whether he ought to obey or not, I respect his conscience; but that he should allow himself what is called patriotism – that is what is not of heaven …As a man I have fought obstinately for my country and would never have given way. God knows; but as a Christian I believe and feel myself to be outside all; these things move me no more.”


J. N. Darby, Letters of J. N. D., various editions (n. d.). The letter is published in a translation from the French.

In the collection of the Christian Brethren Archive are two fascinating accounts that vividly describe the experiences of conscious objectors Donald McNair and William Coltman in the Great War, WWI (1914-18).

Donald McNair (1883-1975) was a member of the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a world renouncing sect whose members take no part in secular politics or wars.  He was working as a manager in his father-in-law’s tyre repair business, when conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916.  McNair’s application for exemption from military service was originally granted, then disallowed and he was conscripted into the British Army Infantry and sent overseas to reinforce the 8th Hampshires in Palestine.   

Rifleman McNair sees the Sphinx, Cairo, Egypt, 1918 © The McNair family

Rifleman McNair wrote 100 letters home to his wife Janie Grace McNair (née Jourdan 1890-1970).  After the War, McNair selected seven letters, which he typed out, bound and titled, Some memories of the Land of Canaan; the other 93 he buried in a field.  Those seven letters form the book, A Pacifist At War. Military Memoirs of a Conscious Objector in Palestine 1917-18 (Anastasia Press, 2008), edited by his son Philip.  The book charts Donald’s journey from his home in Tiverton, Devon, England to Alexandria, Egypt; details the military campaign around Gaza in 1917; and describes army life in the desert on the Front Line.

‘I asked to see the Captain [of the Company]… He was violently offensive and said that I was a coward at the bottom, and he had no sympathy whatever with conscious objectors; that I was enrolled as a soldier and would do as I was told.’

‘We went out again last night, and strangely enough I almost liked it – so easy to get used to one’s circumstances. The moon had risen, so it was much more dangerous; we were also able to see the dead men better that we had to pass. One I stopped to examine closely, only a boy about 18: his shirt undone in the front, and there was a bullet hold clean through the very middle of his chest. Some were lying flat, some with their legs tucked up, some on their faces – just exactly as they had fallen. And yet it seemed, after the first moment, as though I had looked at killed men on battlefields by moonlight all my life’.

Donald avoided facing a Court Martial for his pacifist views and later a sympathetic Commanding Officer let him work as a non-combatant.  He survived the war and was demobbed in 1919.

Many young Brethren men were not as fortunate and as conscientious objectors they were imprisoned. George H. Lang, a leading Open Brethren teacher in the first half of the 20th century obtained a permit to visit men in prison. In his autobiography, An Ordered Life (Paternoster, 1959), he refers to ‘hundreds of young brethren that went through that ordeal’; there were ‘usually forty or fifty brethren from ‘Open’ assemblies’ in Dartmoor Prison at any one time.

The Story of the Two Crosses (Books Factory Press, 2008 & Decapolis Press, 2016) is the biography of Lance Corporal William Coltman, the most highly decorated non-commissioned officer of the British Army. Among the medals awarded to him were: Military Medal and Bar, Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, and the highest award of all, the Victoria Cross. Each medal being awarded as a result of outstanding bravery, a disregard for personal safety and an unquestioned devotion of duty. The most unusual aspect of these distinctions is that William never fired a shot and never used weapons.

Lance Corporal William Coltman wearing his medals © Coltman family

William (Bill) Harold Coltman (1891-1974) was a gardener from the village of Rangemore near Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.  Like many others he responded to the recruitment drive at the start of World War 1 but refused to fight because of his strong beliefs – he was a member of an Exclusive Brethren assembly.  Bill volunteered for the British Army in January 1915 and served in the 1st/6th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment.  As an infantryman, he was issued with a rifle.

After spending a night trapped under heavy fire in a shell-hole listening to the cries of wounded soldiers he vowed never again to shoulder a rifle.  The next morning, he submitted a request to retrain as a stretcher bearer.  After Bill’s medical training, his equipment was just a small first aid box.  Bill was 5′ 4” tall (163 cm), only slightly taller than the required height to join the army but was enormously strong – a strength which enabled him to to carry the wounded to safety on his back.  

Bill’s first award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was made for gallantry over a period of days in July 1917.  His second award of the DCM was made for his conduct in September 1918. The pinnacle of his heroism was in October 1918 and led to the award of the VC. The citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery, initiative and devotion to duty… on the 3rd and 4th of Oct. 1918, L.-Corp. Coltman, a stretcher bearer, hearing that wounded had been left behind during a retirement, went forward alone in the face of fierce enfilade fire, found the casualties, dressed them and on three successive occasions, carried comrades on his back to safety, thus saving their lives. This very gallant NCO tended the wounded unceasingly for 48 hours.

Bill Coltman was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22nd May 1919.  After his investiture, Bill found out that there was a welcome home party for him at Burton train station and deliberately got off a stop earlier to ‘avoid the fuss’!

All the above mentioned texts as well as the texts referenced below are available in the Christian Brethren Archive

For more on Brethren and pacifism, see: Elisabeth K. Wilson, ‘Brethren attitudes to authority and government, with particular reference to pacifism’ [dissertation presented for the] degree of Master of Humanities, University of Tasmania (1994); and Peter Brock, ‘The Peace Testimony of the Early Plymouth Brethren’, Church History, Vol. 53, No. 1 (March 1984), pp. 30-45, Cambridge University Press.

1 comment on “A Pacifist at War

  1. wilky23

    Thanks Jane, a very interesting blog. The artist and poet Bob Cobbing I believe came from a Brethren family and was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. During the war he was restricted in the work he was allowed to do so moved around the West Country in search of employment while also sparking artistic groups across the region.

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