Saturday, 2 December 2017

In and Out of the War: the Free Church and Conscription, 1914-1918

A search for 'Presbyterian' on the online database of First World War conscientious objectors yields well over 100 records, as previously noted. A few of these have already been looked at in some detail, notably those of Murdo Macleod from Cromore on the Isle of Lewis and Angus McIntyre from Portree on Skye; "Diviinity student" Donald Morrison, also from Lewis, is very likely to have been Presbyterian too. Although the Free Church (hereinafter FC) in Scotland did not as a body oppose the war, and many of those who belonged to it were among the casualties, there were several like Murdo, taking his stand on the testimony of the Reformed (Presbyterian) Church and the Revolution Settlement of 1688, and 'Covenanter' Angus (referring to the same history) who could not reconcile their beliefs with participation in the conflict.

The view of the Free Church (n.b. other brands of Presbyterianism were and are available, including the established Church of Scotland) on war is described by the editor of the published Diary of FC minister Kenneth A MacRae, already cited with reference to the 'Lewis Sabbath'. According to this, war, "however just" was (pp. 103-4) “a national calamity and divine judgment....” This was not one of the few Christian denominations which took a pacifist stance. A failure to condemn killing outright was not incompatible with the Sixth Commandment in the interpretation set out in the Shorter Catechism, inserting as it does the qualifications ‘lawful’ and ‘unjustly’ which crucially modify the four-word ‘law’:
Q67. Which is the sixth commandment? A. The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.
Q68. What is required…? A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others.
Q69. What is forbidden…? A. The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.
(The Westminster Confession of which this is part dates after all from 1647, in the context of the 'English Civil War', and was agreed by men strongly committed to a belief that their side was amply justified in fighting).

MacRae himself of course also professed the 'Reformed testimony' and honoured the Covenanters, and shared the general Free Church* view as outlined, while having no fundamental problem with militarism. Rather the contrary: Chapter 1 is titled “A son of the army”. He spent much of his boyhood at Fort George, where his father was a Recruiting Officer (RSM, albeit one who didn’t see action) in the Seaforth Highlanders, and he himself had joined the Royal Scots Territorials. When war was declared he was studying for the ministry at the Free Church (FC) College in Edinburgh, completing a simultaneous Arts degree at the university and spending a lot of time travelling as a preacher invited to address numerous FC congregations in Scotland.
*For an account of the origins and history of the FC in the Highlands and Islands, see The People of the Great Faith by Douglas Ansdell (Acair, 1998).

Believing he had been called to the ministry and the work of God, he did not join the rush to the colours, and from 1916 he was the FC minister at Lochgilphead, in Argyllshire. In August 1914 he noted: “Some of the hard things shown the Lord's people”, placing War at number 6 and commenting that while some "scourge" was inevitable, there might be some hope yet, since troops were having to say prayers - the hope being of a turn to God (23-8-1914). Two months later (4-10) he was bemoaning, not for the only time, the nation's “lack of repentance, provocation of the Most High.” There is no record in the book of him exhorting others to join the fighting, although he evidently accepted that many would do so, and had a certain admiration for those who did, as well as concern for their physical and especially spiritual welfare. 

On 30-5-1915 he found himself in Aberdeen, addressing in Gaelic, as a learner of the language, a hall full of soldiers of the Camerons and Seaforths, whose native tongue it was; he got on better than he had feared. On the 2nd of January 1916, a ‘Day set aside for national prayer’, his “discourse bore upon national sin and the need for national repentance.” Later that year he noted some of the side-effects of war on the home front: (22-7) the new permit* requisite to get beyond Inverness and (8-10) the difficulty of finding supply preachers owing to most of the students being away upon military service.  In March 1917 he reported that students were not now protected from military service. The Church did not accept the rationale for this where its own students were concerned, having its own set of priorities. The FC College was closed and the students posted to congregations as having there a better chance of claiming exemption at local tribunals – not as COs but as doing work where they could not be replaced.
* On 25 July 1916, the area north of the Great Glen was declared ‘The North of Scotland Special Military Area’, and access to non-residents was restricted. 

As the slaughter increased one may discern a tendency to dwell on the tragedy rather than the judgment, and even a hint that the divine chastisement may be excessive or misdirected. Chapter 5, 'The Shadow of Death, 1917-1918', has frequent expressions of sorrow over individuals known to him and records of condolence visits to bereaved families. His brother George was killed in action at Arras in April. On 21-6 he wrote about other deaths of young men: “Truly the Lord has a controversy when such lads of promise are being cut away... Who next? What awful times!” and on 14-9 “This is an awful world... One taken away after another.”

From time to time he made observations on particular battles and on what he saw closer to home. On 3rd May 1917 Arran sailings were suspended due to “mines or submarines in the Clyde” and on the 7th he saw 12 minesweepers. In December he heard of his remaining brother Duncan's “amazing escapes” (which sadly did not mean survival in the longer term). The 1st of January 1918 was “appointed a Day of Humiliation and Prayer by our Church, and more resembled a Sabbath”, which he greatly approved, considering it a happy venture as it would test the people, to sacrifice their usual festivities.
In February 1918 he was (8-2) at West Loch Tarbert en route for Islay, and saw 100 American troops who had come ashore on the Islay coast from the torpedoed troopship Tuscania*. He learned that the death toll out of 2500 was about 210 missing, having feared it was worse. His hotel was “completely occupied by troops”. On 9-2 a “great funeral” of 48 American soldiers was held, and it was not over - on 13-2 another dead American soldier was found among rocks on the island. Also around this time, “heavy firing was heard [one] afternoon to the south” and he found that (1-3) in Glasgow the shortage of food was much more apparent than in Islay.
* The Tuscania has been referred to previously in her earlier role of transatlantic liner.
A commemorative service was held on the centenary of the tragedy 
(news item also available in Gaelic.)

In March he was astounded at “deplorable heresies” in a book God and the Soldier declaring we should pray for the dead including those in hell, and later wrote of a dreadful battle which led to much anxiety in the village about the lads in France: (3-4) “What fearful havoc! What devastation! How is it all going to end?”

It was in April 1918 that he and other ministers of the Free Church found themselves under threat of conscription: disturbed (10-4) at the appearance of Parliament's Military Service Bill calling upon ministers (among others) for military service, MacRae declared himself “prepared to resist to the utmost”, pointing out next day that no mention was made of consulting denominations. All under 51 [and over 18] were to be deemed enlisted on a certain date, with only the choice of non-combatant or combatant service. It was not that he ruled out service with the forces for himself; he had in fact offered to go out as a chaplain if a suitable replacement could be found to carry on what he saw as his main responsibility, the work of his ministry with the local congregation. But against the demands of the state, the “rights of the Redeemer” and the autonomy of the Church were paramount.

He was not alone. On 16-4 the Presbytery meeting passed a resolution “asserting the freedom of the Church of Christ from the control of the civil power in respect of things spiritual especially re military service”. As it happened (Note, p.134) the offending clause had been dropped the previous evening, so the staunchness of the resistance was not put to the test. MacRae did not think the protest had been a waste of time; he was “overjoyed that we were able to raise our testimony before this was known”. Before the war ended “some were suggesting that the Free Church minister should be away at the battlefront” (p.147), but this was only going to happen on his terms, and in the event he was not called to a chaplaincy with the forces. Left to carry on with the sad catalogue of casualties and bereavement, he recorded among others the death within a month (10-5) “of John Munro, the [probably FC College] student from Lewis, killed in action. Those to whom we looked are falling upon the field of battle.” (It is not unlikely that another student from Lewis, who was a CO, also studied at the FC College.)
The cover shows a view of Lochgilphead
What MacRae thought of non-clerical conscientious objectors (COs) to military service is not recorded, at least in the published extracts. There are two COs known to have had addresses in Lochgilphead and so virtually certain to have been known to the minister, so that their stories fit in here – Duncan McDonald and Duncan Campbell McTavish. The latter’s ‘motivation’ is even given as “Free Church”, along with subsequent affiliation to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Judged by Military Service Tribunal to be “unconvincing” as a CO, he was sentenced after Court Martial to detention with hard labour and served time in Stirling Military Prison and Edinburgh Civil Prison before accepting employment under the Home Office Scheme, which sent him to the Work Centres at Ballachulish, Wakefield and Dartmoor. (His record of “war service”, WO363, has not survived, but that of his brother Hugh in the Royal Garrison Artillery has, indicating that the family as a whole were not pacifists.)

Duncan Campbell McTavish
Age        25
Birth year            1891
Year       1916
Soldier Number                -
Address               Castleton Cottage
Address 2            Lochgilphead
Local authority  Lochgilphead Burgh
County Argyllshire
Country                Scotland
Latitude               56.03
Longitude            -5.43
Ordnance Survey reference        NR860880
Motivation          FOR-Dartmoor Branch; Free Church of Scotland;
Military Service Tribunal                MST (Military Service Tribunal) Central Tribunal at Calton CP (Civil Prison), Edinburgh, 1.9.16 - CO class B
Central Tribunal                Central Tribunal Nos. W.1096 Class: B - unconvincing
War Service        Depot A and S Highlanders; CM (Court Martial) Glasgow 31.5.16 - 2yrs detention 1 yr. Stirling Detention Barracks; CM (Court Martial) Perth 30.6.16 - 18 months HL (With hard labour) com.6 months, Edinburgh CP (Civil Prison)
Prison   Stirling MP (Military Prison)*; Edinburgh CP (Civil Prison) July 1916;
Work Centre      HOS (The Home Office Scheme, administered by the Brace Committee) 19.10.16 to Ballachulish; 7.8.17 at Wakefield; Dartmoor 1917
WO363 false
Sources                Tribunal 15.6.16; FOR Dartmoor Branch in Liddle CO 044; NA/WO86/70/65, 70/173; *Reference to his time in Stirling MP (Military Prison) in FH/FSC(1916/20)/SER2 - R. Barclay Murdoch, Scottish Quaker Chaplain's Report 26.6.16 ; Not found in NA/WO363; NAS/HH31/29/1 - COs in Scottish Prisons July 1916; NAS/HH31/29/6 - Central Appeal Tribunal 1.9.16; NA/MH47/1 Central Tribunal Minutes; FH/SER/VOPC/Cases/5(937)
Record set          Conscientious Objectors' Register 1914-1918

The case of Duncan McDonald is a tragic one, since he had the sad distinction of being, according to the Register, the first member of the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) to die in France, reportedly of accidental injuries. Aged 28, he had been granted exemption from combatant service only (ECS) in March 1916; he died in early June, a few days after being sent abroad. He and his father were both tailors, so that the family would have been well known in the small town.

Duncan McDonald
Marital status    Single
Occupation         Tailor
Age        28
Birth year            -
Year       -
Soldier Number                1471
Address               Daill Cairnbaan
Address 2            Lochgilphead
Local authority  Lochgilphead Burgh
County Argyllshire
Country                Scotland
Latitude               56.03
Longitude            -5.43
Ordnance Survey reference        NR860880
France  Yes
Motivation          -
Military Service Tribunal                MST (Military Service Tribunal) Mid-Argyll 9.3.16 ECS (Exemption from Combatant Service)/NCC (Non-Combatant Corps)
War Service        NCC (Non-Combatant Corps)(1 Scottish) Stirling Castle 23.5.16; To France 30.5.16 Died of accidental injuries in France 4.6.16 - found dead on the railway in France - the first NCC (Non-Combatant Corps) casualty
WO363 true
Sources                CD-Rom Soldiers died in the Great War; See also; Daily News and Leader 27.7.16; NA/WO363 - on line;
Record set          Conscientious Objectors' Register 1914-1918

His WO363 service record is available, including a Ministry of Pensions form stating that he died or was killed on active service.
Duncan McDonald
Birth year            1888
Age        28
Death year          1916
Death date         04 Jun 1916
Number               1471
Rank      Private
Unit       No. 1 Scottish Coy.
Regiment            Non Combatant Corps
Grave reference              Plot C. Row 1A. Grave 8.
Cemetery or memorial  Calais Southern Cemetery
Burial country    France
Additional information  Son of Donald and Margaret McDonald, of Daill Cairnbaan, Lochgilphead, Argyll.
War        First World War, 1914-1918
Record set          Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt Of Honour
Category              Military, armed forces & conflict

Duncan Mcdonald
Age        28
Birth year            1888
Service number                1471
Regiment            Non Combatant Corps
Unit / Battalion 1st Company
Year       1916
Residence county            Argyllshire
Residence country          Scotland
Series    WO 363
Series description            WO 363 - First World War Service Records 'Burnt Documents'
Archive The National Archives
Record set          British Army Service Records
Category              Military, armed forces & conflict

McDonald’s family may have been among those to whom MacRae made visits of condolence. There were many, including one which had lost six members, and "a woman with a brother in the asylum as a result of the war”. In August 1918 he heard of the death of his own brother-in-law, wondering again: “When will this horror of war cease?” Not that he expected peace to be without its problems, fearing “a very black day to come” after the war. By now he had found that the "preaching of consolation was becoming sweeter than warming" of the wrath of God.

On November 11 1918 there was no note of victorious triumph in his reaction: “At midday news came that peace had come at last… The first we heard was church bells in the early afternoon.” He found himself ”strangely unmoved, sad and pensive...” indeed "crushed", and fearing the future...

Note on surnames: In the Highlands generally the Mac form, with no capital letter after the prefix, was until recently the spelling most commonly used when writing in English.
Previously on this blog:

Already linked in text above - [Lewis] [Skye]

Other posts on COs in Scotland and elsewhere (Ealing) and what happened to them include -
Scots Against War, 1914-18 style (Scotland - book review)
Conscription Comes to Britain, 1916 (General - with more links)

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