Little sympathy shown for First World War’s conscientious objectors

Some didn't want to join the ranks of these recruits being drilled behind South Shields Town Hall.
Some didn't want to join the ranks of these recruits being drilled behind South Shields Town Hall.
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We don’t know his name but he was 38, married and an upholsterer.

In the summer of 1916, before a military tribunal in South Shields, chaired by the Mayor, Ald John Taylor, he asked to be exempted from call-up.

Members of South Shields Labour Party in 1929. Ernie Gompertz is on the extreme left.

Members of South Shields Labour Party in 1929. Ernie Gompertz is on the extreme left.

He was not, it was reported, “prepared to lift a little finger to help any country in the prosecution of war,” and asked that he should not be “insulted” by being given non-combatant service instead.

His claim, as it turned out, was disallowed and we can only speculate what became of him.

But he was seeking to be one of a First World War brotherhood whose existence long went unacknowledged after the Peace: those who refused to fight.

They even included one man who went on to become a Mayor of Shields, and whose health was almost broken by the years he spent in prison as a ‘conchie,’ as they were often called, with derision.

One South Shields barber claimed that his own family would suffer and, besides, he had the hair to cut of all those soldiers home on leave. His application was dismissed with the remark: “The excuses some people make.”

Currently, the records of more than 16,000 conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms during the First World War are being added to the Imperial War Museum’s online database of the conflict.

The records have been compiled by Cyril Pearce, a former lecturer at the University of Leeds and author of the book Comrades in Conscience.

Sittings of military tribunals were regularly reported by the Gazette during the war.

In 1916, there were more than 740,000 applications to tribunals across the country, mostly on the grounds that the applicant was carrying out work of national importance, that a business needed to be run or that military service would result in hardship for the family.

St John's Church in South Shields. Many conscience onjectors were non-conformists.

St John's Church in South Shields. Many conscience onjectors were non-conformists.

One South Shields barber claimed that his own family would suffer and, besides, he had the hair to cut of all those soldiers home on leave. His application was dismissed with the remark: “The excuses some people make.”

Only two per cent of applications came from those objecting out of conscience.

The tribunals were seldom sympathetic.

Again in 1916, the Rev WH Holmes Coates, of South Shields, placed a recommendation before the Northern Baptist Association that it should express its profound concern at the failure of many tribunals to grant exemption from military service to genuine conscientious objectors. They should also urge, he said, that the running of the tribunals should be transferred to the civil authorities.

Ernie Gompertz, left, with MP James Chuter Ede in 1955.

Ernie Gompertz, left, with MP James Chuter Ede in 1955.

In his study, Typical Conscientious Objectors – A Better Class of Conscience, Cyril Pearce cites a pamphlet that was distributed between 1916 and 1917, which drew attention to those conscientious objectors from South Shields who were than suffering imprisonment on account of their convictions. Some were listed as Sunday School teachers, others temperance workers, with a number being non-conformist Christians.

One was quoted as saying: “I have always maintained that warfare was opposed to Christianity.”

But one conscientious objector who would go on to become one of South Shields’ most prominent citizens wasn’t Christian at all – he was Jewish.

Aaron ‘Ernie’ Gompertz – Gompy, as he was known – was one of the founder members of the Labour Party in the town, and its first assistant secretary when it was formally constituted in 1912.

In his book We Do Not Want The Earth, a history of the Labour Party in Shields, former MP for the town Dr David Clark noted that the South Shields party reflected the divergence of opinion on the war, with some members becoming conscientious objectors. The majority, however, supported the war effort.

Ernie Gompertz, however, who was 24 when the war broke out, was not among them.

From a family of Dutch origin, he had been born in Middlesbrough and came to South Shields at the age of 12.

He became a conscientious objector and as a consequence spent three years in Armley Prison in Leeds.

Says Dr Clark: “When the war ended and he returned to South Shields, he could only walk with the aid of crutches for several months, due to the maltreatment he had received in prison.”

Gompertz went on to become a councillor, alderman and Mayor of South Shields, in 1953, as well as a close friend, and agent for, the town’s first Labour MP, James Chuter Ede.

In the 1930s, at the height of fascism, he had been briefly arrested for speaking out against it in South Shields Market Place.

He still had never given up on the principle of free speech, or thought.