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The Conscientious Objector’s Wife, Edited by Kate Macdonald 

Some years ago, before the Covid pandemic, I was walking on Dartmoor, following a route that would take me back to Princetown. My route was clear, partly because there is a very talk mast at Princetown, and I could walk towards it despite the rise and fall of the moorland. The other reason that my way was so clear was because I was walking on a straight track, a road created during the First World War by Conscientious Objectors (COs) who had been sent to the converted prison. The track, which runs east-west from Princetown, where Dartmoor prison is located, was never finished. It appears to just peter out. It earned the nickname ‘the road to nowhere’.

The encounter with the track on the moor fired my imagination and led to some research about the COs on Dartmoor. I wrote a short story about a young conchie who worked on the road to nowhere. The story was shortlisted in the Exeter Short Story Prize and led to some further connections, an article in Devon Life, and a post on this blog called The Story of the Conchie Road (see below). As a result, several people contacted me because their relatives had been COs in Princetown and requested copies of my short story collection mentioned in the post.

I have retained my interest in the COs, their cause, and their time on Dartmoor. It was against this background that I ordered from the publisher the book featured in this post. 

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1919

At the start of World War 1 in July 1914 patriotic enthusiasm led thousands of young men to volunteer for the British army and navy. The belief that the war would be over by Christmas was soon revealed to be wishful thinking, and the war settled into a stalemate along the land fronts, especially the Western Front. It began to look as though the country and allies with the greatest number of men would win.

The supply of men willing to serve dwindled. Conscription was introduced into Britain on 2nd March 1916 for unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. This still did not supply enough men, so in May it was extended to include married men. This new regulation also introduced a ‘conscience clause’, which granted exemption to those who objected to military service. Some of those were allowed to take non-combatant roles in the army, such as stretcher bearers. Others were required to do work of ’national importance’ at two work camps, one of which was at Princetown on Dartmoor. Some were absolutists, men who refused any activity that would assist the war effort.

In November 1916 Frank Sunderland took an absolutist stand. For this he was imprisoned until April 1919, five months after the Armistice had been signed. He served his sentences in Bedford Barracks, Wandsworth and mostly in Bedford Prison near his home in Letchworth. The book is a collection of letters between Frank and his wife Lucy over the 30 months they were apart.

The histories of wars are usually concerned with battles and political power. Since the middle of the 20thcentury women’s history has been recognised as providing important additional perspectives on such events. Before the First World War suffragettes had been demanding a political voice for women through the ballot box. Lucy Sunderland provides us with a detailed look at a working class mother’s life on the home front during the war. 

This is really Lucy’s story for she has to adjust to the demands of the war, and becoming a single mother of three young children. Her husband, while not in a happy situation in prison, was fed and housed and had leisure to read and fraternise and miss home life. Some things are not included; if she experienced any harassment or criticism for being the wife of a CO she did not report it to her husband. She was careful not to distress him in that way. Nor did they discuss anything to do with the progress of the war, battles, casualties and so forth, perhaps to avoid trouble with the censors.

When Frank began his imprisonment Lucy became responsible for providing for the four remaining family members, to pay the rent on the house in Letchworth where they lived, to buy food, clothes, boots, medicines, and to pay doctors’ fees and school fees. To begin with she took on Frank’s insurance round and continued her work as seamstress. She earned a little from the eggs her chickens laid from time to time, and from her lodgers. Food became more scarce as the German navy’s blockade increased in effectiveness, and rationing was introduced. There were shortages of fuel too, especially of coal which was needed for industry and transport. 

Lucy became a single mother of three small children. She writes to Frank about her concerns to keep them in touch with their father, their educational advances, and their illnesses. Scarlet fever attacked the household, but they managed to avoid the ‘flue’, that is the Spanish influenza that killed so many healthy people as it tore through the population from the spring of 1918. We read family news, about her sister who is waiting to marry and about her parents. When her mother dies during a visit to Lucy’s house, the shock is evident to Frank and us in her account.

Letchworth had a vibrant cultural life; lectures on many subjects, ‘Adult’ school, books discussed and exchanged, and networks of sympathisers to pacifism, conscientious objectors, the New Town movement, and socialist ideas. Many of the Sunderlands’ acquaintances were Friends (that is Quakers), who were especially prominent in the support of exemptions from conscription.

The war was long, and by the winter of 1917/18 Lucy was feeling the accumulated effects of her mother’s sudden death, bombardment of north London (audible in Letchworth), Frank’s continuing absence, illnesses and dental problems, and the ceaseless demands of the household. In the summer of 1918 she took a two-month holiday in Barnstable and was restored by the countryside and how well her children flourished there. The reader too takes pleasure in the family’s enjoyment of north Devon, the sea, the landscapes, and the new people they meet. Lucy’s letters from here reflect the improving health of mother and children and their increasing family bonds. 

As the end of their separation approached Frank and Lucy discussed how they would live in the future, pinning hopes on the New Town movement (such as plans that eventually materialised as Welwyn Garden City), having learned Esperanto to enable European travel, and looking forward to increased working-class influence in political matters.

The introduction by the editor (and publisher) Kate Macdonald is informative and a well written opening for this fascination account of life on the Home Front.

The Story of the Conchie Road on Bookword (November 2018)

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1918. Edited by Kate Macdonald and published in 2018 by the Handheld Press. 328pp

The ‘Road to Nowhere’ on Royal Hill, Dartmoor

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