The Bible and World War One

Conscientious Objectors

Howard Cruttenden Marten grew up in North London where he attended the Methodist Church.

He later went on to become a Quaker. His faith led him to be a conscientious objector. So, when he was conscripted in 1916, he refused to join up. More than this, he became what is known as ‘an absolutist’. He refused to do any war-related work, such as working on farms, or even digging ditches.

As a consequence in June 1916 he was held in a rat-infested cell in France awaiting trial with 11 other men.

Initially he was sentenced to death by firing squad, though his sentence was later commuted to 10 years in prison.

Howard later recalled hearing the sentence. ‘Standing there on the parade ground, I had a sense of representing something outside my own self, supported by a strength stronger than frail humanity,’ Howard said.

‘However in a few moments it was evident that this whole had not been said and the officer went on to tell that “this sentence had been confirmed by the Commander in Chief but afterwards commuted by him to one of penal servitude for 10 years”.’

Later that month, his case was raised during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Here he received personal support from a number of leading politicians, including the future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

During the course of the war he was held in Rouen, Le Havre, Winchester, Wormwood Scrubs, Wakefield, Aberdeen and finally Dartmoor.

At one stage he was handcuffed with five others and made to face a wall. He was also held in solitary confinement for three days with just bread and water.

He said, ‘The walls were of stone, while the concrete floor, without bed boards made the place cold at night and even during the daytime.

‘There was no stool or chair of any kind, while at night my overcoat and blanket were taken outside.

‘The best device I could adopt was to take off my tunic and sit on it…I was permitted to have my Bible and read and re-read the Gospel of John and several of the epistles.’

Once in France, he was warned that any act of disobedience would result in his death.

‘During the afternoon, those of us in the Guard Room held a Meeting for Worship after the manner of Friends and never perhaps had we experienced a time when the need of divine help and guidance was more felt.’

The Bible, he said, ‘proved a solace’ during his two years of imprisonment.

Howard Cruttenden Marten was finally released in April 1919, after the end of the war. He went on to be a successful businessman and helped to lead the Conscientious Objection movement of the 1930s and 40s. He died in 1981 at the grand old age of 96.

John Broom

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