Conscientious Objection

Once mobilization began in 1914, the vast majority of the French population – including the political classes – rallied around the war effort.

The notion of ‘conscientious objection’ (l’objection de conscience) did not appear in the French language until after the First World War. The concept only really became known in France in the 1920s and 30s and the rights of conscientious objectors in both World Wars only gained legal recognition in 1963, largely thanks to Louis Lecoin’s campaign (an objector himself).

Pacifism

The word ‘pacifism’ (pacifisme) was coined in France in 1901 and gained a firm place in left-wing pre-war politics, as part of a cluster of interrelated movements such as anarchism, antimilitarism, syndicalism, socialism, communism, anticlericalism, Tolstoyism (le tolstoïsme) and libertarianism.

‘Pacifist’ factions were not categorically against all violence. Rather, they sought to promote peace within existing legal and diplomatic frameworks.[1] These groups (such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) were bourgeois in character and had some support from the political elite. Most of them ended up supporting the war as a legitimate act of self-defence and any remaining conscientious objectors were not really aligned with contemporary political pacifism.

Party support

The communist, syndicalist and socialist factions were not particularly supportive of wartime conscientious objection, however, the Socialist Party protested the 1913 extension of military service and warned of the dangers of a pan-European war.

Faced with what they perceived as German military aggression, most socialists came down on the side of ‘bourgeois pacifism’ and ‘national defense’ and supported the war. Eventually, even the French Section of the Workers’ International (Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière) threw its support behind the wartime government.

Changing views

Once the war started, staunch anti-militarists adopted a different view: Eugène Cotte’s autobiographical account of his experiences, Je n’irai pas! : mémoires d’un insoumis (I Won’t Go!: Memoirs of an Absentee without Leave),[2] led by his anarcho-syndicalist principles – documents him refusing to complete his military service (1910), being classed as a deserter, taking refuge in Switzerland and being sentenced to three months in prison by the French military court in 1912.

Public opinion varied over the course of the war: Galit Haddad’s paper – Ceux qui protestaient (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012) argues that recognition of the war’s increasing brutality led to a new wave of collective protests and anti-war sentiments from women as well as socialists and other left-wing groups.[3] 

Conscientious objectors: two broad groups?

Conscientious objectors who opposed the war from the outset had little mainstream support, even from the left. Writing in 1924, Marceline Hecquet confirms that only isolated cases are known; and that they were seen by society as ‘crazy or cowardly’.[4] French anarchist activist Han Ryner (1861-1938) suggested that young Frenchmen who were objecting largely out of cowardice would have fled France before mobilization came into force.

The conscientious objectors who remained in France at the outbreak of the First World War can be broadly delineated into two social groups:

1. Politically active, anarchist-leaning

This group was influenced by pre-war antimilitarist and anarchist movements, which did not believe in patriotism as a political force for good. Anarcho-pacifism opposed all military methods. French anarchists saw the army draft as yet another instrument of class-based oppression and degradation of young working-class men.They believed that patriotism was designed to distract workers from contributing to the international organization and uprising of the proletariat.[5] This movement lost steam before the war began, in the end even the main anarcho-syndicalist group, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail) supported the war. However, some small informal pockets (only dozens, probably) of resistance remained. Louis Lecoin and Eugène Bévant sit in this group, whose main centre was Paris. 

French conscientious objectors during the war aligned with this line of thinking more than with ‘bourgeois pacifism’. An old French expression meaning ‘crisis of conscience’ (cas de conscience) is used in anarchist materials in 1920, which is an early approximation of ‘conscientious objection’ as an idea – along with Gaston Rolland’s ‘I refuse the draft on principle’ (‘je suis insoumis par principe’).

2. Religiously active

The second group of objectors were devoutly Christian men, leading quiet lives, largely in the countryside. Removed from political concerns, they were driven by their religious beliefs to reject the call to arms and cited ‘Thou shalt not kill’ as their guiding principle.

One example is Théophile and Félix Berthalon, brothers from the Hautes-Alpes region in south east France, who joined their regional corps, with reservations, for training in August 1914, aged 33 and 31. After only weeks, the brothers jumped off the train heading for the Eastern Front and found their way back to their hometown. Devout Protestants, they knew whole passages of the Bible by heart and practiced its commandments.[6] They hid in the mountains for twelve years, occasionally given food and farm work by their sisters and network, until their capture in January 1927: ‘Twelve years of desertion – or rather, living in the wild – have only made these two mountain dwellers even more robust.[7] They were taken to the war council in 1927 and given a suspended sentence of three years.

John W. Graham’s summary of conscientious objection in France claims that men who refused to bear arms were mostly anarchists and libertarians.[8] Some were from Christian backgrounds, but this was less frequent than in other countries where religion had a more prominent cultural role.

Quantities

A panoramic picture of French conscientious objectors’ geographical spread is unknown. Strong evidence suggests Frenchmen who wanted to avoid war could evade the authorities by crossing the Pyrenees border to neutral Spain. Here, they received a warm welcome and returned only when the Spanish Civil War loomed.[9] 

Official figures do not reveal the scale of conscientious objection, which was undoubtedly small. Shared terminology plays a part in this confusion: A ‘deserter’ (déserteur) or ‘absentee without leave’ (insoumis) referred not only to an eligible man refusing military service, but to those who fled or abandoned their military service.

The categories of desertion and conscientious objection are hence blurred. The vocabulary fails to rigorously distinguish true deserters; mutineers; conscientious objectors; and people counted as missing for other reasons. Graham claims that the war courts deliberately avoided the term ‘objector’ when sentencing, instead issuing charges of insanity or placing them on sick leave[10] which further complicates attempts to estimate numbers.

Punishments

‘Our patriotic spirit, whose magnificence can be seen across all the social classes, allows us to hope that the number of people who attempt to avoid their obligations will be minimal; it is all the more important that they are carefully located and delivered to the military tribunals. Public consciousness will be soothed by the knowledge that no effort is being spared to ensure that everyone is involved in the measures to defend our country.’[11]

Once war was underway, ‘deserters’ and ‘absentees without leave’ had a short window to hand themselves in to a barracks, embassy or French consulate: four days if residing in France, six if hiding in neighbouring countries, twelve for those in other European or Mediterranean countries, and forty days for those in far-off destinations.

According to the Amnesty Law of 5 August 1914, this was to encourage ‘missing soldiers’ (soldats perdus) to rejoin the cause and to avoid bureaucratic court processes that would prevent them from immediately mobilizing.

Overstepping the grace period resulted in a summoning before the war council (conseil de guerre), with the military code (Chapter 5, Article 230) suggesting sentences of 2 to 5 years imprisonment for this crime, during wartime.

According to Graham, no conscientious objector was ever shot. Their sentences tended to involve forced labour or prison, often under terrible conditions.[12] 

By contrast, deserters – who defected to the enemy; deliberately wounded themselves in order to be sent home; abandoned their post in the presence of the enemy; or disobeyed orders in the midst of combat – faced harsh punishment. The French army shot over 600 soldiers for this type of crime between 1914 and 1918, referring to them as an example to others – ‘fusillés pour l’exemple’.[13]

 


[1] Rémi Faber, ‘Les pacifismes avant 1914’, Été 14 – Les derniers jours de l’ancien mondeExposition BnF, 2014 

[2] Eugène Cotte, Je n’irai pas ! : mémoires d’un insoumis written in 1916 and published in 2006 (Montreuil: La Ville Brûle, 2016)

[3] Galit Haddad, 1914-1919. Ceux qui protestaient (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012)

[4] Translation: Daisy Gudmunsen. Marceline Hecquet, ‘L’Objection de conscience devant le service militaire’, Brochure Mensuelle, No. 18, 1924, p.9, p.29.

[5] Rémi Faber, ‘Les Pacifismes avant 1914’, Été 14 – Les derniers jours de l’ancien mondeExposition BnF, 2014 

[6] Jean-Luc Charton, ‘La longue traque’, L’Alpe, No. 12 (2002), 55-58.

[7] Translation: Daisy Gudmunsen. Sylvie Dam, ‘Théophile et Félix Berthalon : les frères insoumis des « balmes »’, Nostre Ristouras, No. 10 (2016). Description on the brothers arrest: Jean Ramy, journalist, La Durance.

[8] John. W. Graham, ‘Objection de conscience dans les autres pays’, Conscription et Conscience (Paris: Librairie FischBacher, 1935).

[9]  See Miquèl Ruquet, Déserteurs et insoumis de la Grande Guerre (1914-1918) sur la frontière des Pyrénées-Orientales (Canet: Trabucaire, 2009).

[10] John. W. Graham, ‘Objection de conscience dans les autres pays’, Conscription et conscience (Paris: Librairie FischBacher, 1935).

[11]Translation: Daisy Gudmunsen. Hubert Tison, ‘Les « indésirables » de la mobilisation à la veille de la Grande Guerre’, in ed. Jean-Marc Delaunay, Aux vents des puissances (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008), p.183.

[12] John. W. Graham, ‘Objection de conscience dans les autres pays’, Conscription et conscience (Paris: Librairie FischBacher, 1935).

[13] André Bach, Fusillés pour l’exemple 1914-1915 (Paris: Tallandier, 2003).