One of the more remarkable acts of resistance to military conscription in the First World War came from a young Catholic man with good society connections.
Francis Meynell was the son of the poet Alice Meynell, and one of his ancestors, William Tuke, had been imprisoned for his opposition to the Militia Act of 1688, a fact of which Francis was proud.
Whilst studying at Trinity College, Dublin, Francis got to know Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly, both of whom were later executed for their roles in the 1916 Easter Rising. Back in London he became friendly with H.G. Wells and Ezra Pound.
Francis Meynell as a young man
In 1913 Francis met George Lansbury, one of the early leaders of the Labour Party and a pacifist, and became general manager of the Daily Herald newspaper. On the introduction of conscription in 1916 he helped to form the Guild of the Pope’s Peace, supporting Pope Benedict XV’s call for a negotiated peace.
Francis was sent to appear before a military tribunal, and argued his conscience was a material possession and he was standing in the tradition of Catholics who had refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. Whilst the chairman accepted the beliefs were sincere, he ordered Francis to undertake non-combatant work, something which, as an absolutist objector, he refused to do. He was therefore sent to Hounslow Barracks.
There he resolved to start a hunger and thirst strike, reckoning the authorities would either have to let him die or release him. To weaken his body’s strength, he would march vigorously during exercise periods and walk up and down the guardroom at other times. He wore no coat in a biting wind and rubbed snow on his head. On the ninth day of fasting he took two morphine tablets to allow him to sleep.
Francis took an ice-cold bath to shock his body and after twelve painful days he collapsed and was taken to a military hospital. He was too far gone to undergo the force-feeding that had been the lot of some suffragettes, and was promised that if he took food and drink he would be exempted from military service. He agreed.
Francis’ discharge papers commented that he was `unlikely to become an efficient soldier’! He received a further letter stating that he would not qualify for an army pension!
Francis Meynell had been prepared to sacrifice his life for his religious and political principles. His is one of twenty-three stories featured in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith From the First World War, published by Pen and Sword. A personalised copy can be purchased by sending an email to email@example.com