‘This Evil Thing’: Exploring the story of England’s conscientious objectors during WWI

This Evil Thing

Iowa Mennonite School, Kalona — Sunday, April 15 at 7 p.m.

Two British conscientious objectors serving their prison sentences in Dartmoor Prison during WWI. — photo courtesy of HM Prison Dartmoor

One hundred years ago, as the First World War was grinding through its fourth and final year, the British government considered its country’s leading philosopher such a menace to society it imprisoned him and refused to let him write letters to anyone in the outside world. The government wasn’t worried about the book Bertrand Russell was writing — he was working on Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy while he sat in London’s notorious Brixton Prison — it sent Russell to prison for six months because he was an outspoken advocate for those who refused to engage in combat because they had a philosophic or religious objection to killing.

Conscientious objectors, or COs, as they were known, had been a problem for the government since it introduced military conscription in 1916. Threatened with execution by firing squad (the Ministry of War backed down, in part, because of pressure from a group led by Russell), imprisoned, physically abused and denounced as traitors and cowards, few of the COs abandoned their beliefs. A new play at the Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona tells their story.

This Evil Thing is a one-man play, written and performed by Michael Mears. An English actor well-known for his stage work, he based his play on the real life struggles of First World War British COs. Mears portrays characters from generals to prisoners facing possible execution, but the play primarily focuses on Russell and a young school teacher, Bert Brockelsby.

Mears has already performed the play throughout the United Kingdom and an American tour of This Evil Thing was arranged by the Center on Conscience & War in Washington D.C. The sponsor for the Kalona performance is the Just Peace Outreach Group.

“Just Peace Outreach Group is an informal group. We gather every now and then to consider issues of peace and justice from a Christian point of view,” the group’s Roger Farmer told Little Village. “Most of us are Mennonites, but not all of us.”

Many of the COs in Britain — and later in the United States, after the country introduced conscription following its entry into World War I — were Mennonites.

“There’s a 400-year tradition of believing that war and violence are not a part of the gospel, and so the Mennonite church, in general, believes we should live in peace with our enemies,” Farmer said. “And a part of that is it to be conscientious objectors in wartime.”

Being a CO, in most cases, doesn’t involve refusing all military service, just active combat roles. In the U.S., COs have serviced in noncombat positions during conflicts going back to the American Revolution, even volunteering to be human guinea pigs in medical experiments during World War II. But that didn’t spare them from facing the same sort of hostility and punishment their British counterparts faced.

There will be one performance of This Evil Thing at 7 p.m. at the Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona, before the play moves on. There is no cost for admission, but Just Peace Outreach Group will be collecting a “freewill offering” to help cover expenses.