One hundred years ago this fall two local men landed in France as volunteers to assist the civilian victims of that “War to End All Wars.” They were followed by 10 additional local men dedicated to the same cause, and their average stay there was just short of one year.
They were all Quakers — 10 of them were either graduates of Wilmington College or soon would be. They came from several local Quaker meetings (churches), but the largest groups were from Wilmington and Leesburg Meetings.
They had petitioned the U.S. government to become conscientious objectors (COs) and because of their Quaker (also known as the Religious Society of Friends) affiliation, this status was approved.
The letters from one such local man while at Camp Sherman indicated that they were treated with respect by officers even though they were not to become combatants. Unlike some conscientious objectors, they cooperated with military expectations and wore military uniforms and participated in marches like those who would become regular soldiers. (Our government had made a commitment to those whose religious beliefs would not permit them to take up arms.)
The 12 men joined the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) which was established in order to provide an alternative to regular army service for young Quaker men. (There are three religious denominations that are considered “Peace Churches” – the other two are Mennonites and Church of the Brethren.)
Ultimately, there were 600 members of the AFSC including 50 women who served in France.
There is a distinction between COs based on their attitude toward cooperation with the military. As mentioned above the local men cooperated with military expectations at Camp Sherman. Others did not!
Those who were unwilling to cooperate were called ‘”absolutists.” They would not wear the uniform or cooperate in any way with military rules. This resulted in a great deal of mistreatment of these men and several of them died from this abuse.
This situation is documented in a recent book, Chillicothe in the Great War: 1917-1918 written by an archivist at the Ross County Museum. Since these absolutists could not be broken at Camp Sherman they were ultimately sent to Fort Leavenworth in Missouri.
There was serious concern by the U.S. government that men permitted to avoid combat service as some Quakers did would encourage others to take the same path without the underlying religious conviction. These men were referred to as shirkers and/or cowards.
In large U.S. cities there were actually “shirker raids” where young men were made to show their registration cards or face prosecution.
Friends were well aware of this possibility and made a concerted effort to explain that their CO status was in complete cooperation with the government and that their expenses while in France were paid for by their church sponsors. These COs were also under the jurisdiction of the American Red Cross and on one shoulder was an ARC patch (American Red Cross).
As I read through the hundreds of letters sent home by these volunteers and looked at the hundreds of photos I have, I did not see any hint that there was conflict or anger between these men and the soldiers with whom they occasionally encountered.
In fact, one letter from a local man indicated that they had played a baseball game with a group of U.S. soldiers. Unfortunately, he did not indicate which team won.
Volunteers were generally some 20 miles behind the front lines and soldiers would occasionally seek R&R at the same location.
Aside from this encounter between soldiers and conscientious objectors there was another indication of military/civilian-volunteer cooperation.
After the armistice was signed and the military proceeded to leave France they offered to sell five large Engineer Corps dumps near Verdun full of usable material to the Quakers.
In turn the Quakers gave and sold the materials to the needy civilian population and with the money from the sales and British Quaker donations built a complete maternity hospital which they turned over to the French authorities.
After the COs completed their work in France they were presented with other possibilities of service in Europe by the AFSC and the Red Cross.
One local man chose to join the Red Cross and in order to do so he needed to join the military. (The Red Cross was divided into both civilian and military units). He was automatically given the rank of lieutenant, a salary, and sent to Romania.
His path to Romania involved living and working on a ship distributing supplies along a route from Marseilles, France, around the boot of Italy, along the coast of Greece, to the Black Sea and up the Danube River to Romania where dozens of villages were served.
In his diary he writes, “We were feeding the hungry and clothing the naked … we had quite a nice and orderly crowd. 200 people were on our list, small children and women. We ate our lunch here too, a table out in the yard with a pig and chickens and ducks at our feet … the gypsies are always the poorest people in the villages. Small boys and girls 10-15 years would come for clothing and all they had on was probably a dress full of holes or a sack on their back which on filling their arms with clothes they immediately dropped. Mothers would take their children out a short distance from the door and begin dressing them.”
I found these relationships between the military and those refusing to serve as combatants interesting and inspiring. Although I cannot generalize to other situations, in these cases mutual respect clearly reigned.
Quaker volunteer and CO Maynard McKay expressed his thoughts in a letter from France on August 18, 1918, “I feel that I am doing much more good for humanity in this work than fighting the Kaiser. If I did not think that I would enlist in the army today.”
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.