Sentenced to death: The religious Sunderland footballer who refused to fight in World War One

Conscientious objectors were often made fun of - and sometimes villified - during World War One.
Conscientious objectors were often made fun of - and sometimes villified - during World War One.
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WEARSIDE’S footballers were heroes of both the sports field and battlefield during the Great War – winning a clutch of honours on and off the pitch.

Indeed, of the 29 professionals playing for Sunderland at the outbreak of war, 24 joined up to fight, with most of the others working in munitions.

But Norman Gaudie, who was on SAFC’s books but never played a first team game, refused to take up arms on the grounds it was against his religion.

Instead of following his team mates to Europe, the railway clerk ended up in prison. After repeatedly refusing to fight, he was sentenced to death.

“He was a lifelong member of the Society of Friends and believed it was wrong to kill. He stood by what he believed,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

“It takes courage to fight in battle, but it also takes courage to stand up for what you believe. Being a conscientious objector was no easy option.”

Norman, son of Quaker corn merchant’s clerk James Gaudie and his wife Elizabeth, was born in Sunderland in 1888, one of the youngest of seven children.

The youngster showed early promise as a sportsman, representing Thomas Street School in athletics, but developed a love for football and cricket too.

“The Gaudie family moved to East Boldon when Norman was 12, and in 1905 he helped set up Boldon Cricket Club,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“He then worked as an accounts clerk for North-Eastern Railway, playing football for Sunderland Reserves and cricket for Boldon in his free time.”

The declaration of war in 1914, however, was to change Norman’s life. As those around him signed up to fight, he refused to take up arms.

“Posters appeared across Wearside featuring Lord Kitchener, then Secretary of State for War, and the slogan ‘Your Country Needs YOU’,” said Norman.

“England expected every man to do their duty, and millions stepped forward. But there were around 16,000 conscientious objectors, many of them Quakers.

“As thousands died in battle, so resentment towards these ‘Conchies’, as they were known, grew rapidly, especially among those who lost loved ones.”

Norman’s army call-up finally brought matters to a head. Yet again he refused to fight, and instead asked to serve in a non-combatant corps.

His plea, however, fell on deaf ears. On April 20, 1916, he appeared at court, charged with “being an absentee” under the Military Service Act.

“The footballer, then living at Chirnside in East Boldon, was fined 40 shillings. He refused to pay and was remanded for military escort,” said Norman.

“He was then ordered to join the 2nd Northern Non-Combatant Corps, which was stationed at Richmond Corps, alongside 15 other conscientious objectors.

“But when the objectors – mainly Quakers, Methodists and Jehovah’s Witnesses -–refused to do the duties ordered, they were imprisoned in the castle.”

Norman was stripped naked and forced to don khaki before being thrown into a cell. He and his comrades, however, remained determined not to fight.

“The men became known as the Richmond 16 and today the defiant graffiti they plastered on their prison walls at the castle can still be seen,” said Norman.

“Their stay, however, was only short. In May 1916 they were shipped against their will to an army camp in France - where they could be regarded as being on active service.

“This meant the men were liable for execution if they refused orders. It was said that Kitchener was determined to have them shot, as an example to others.

“Apparently, they were forced to watch deserters being executed - and also given a punishment known as crucifixion, when they were tied to posts for hours.”

When the Richmond 16 were placed in field punishment camps, however, they still continued to defy military orders - prompting further severe chastisements.

And, when asked to assist with the unloading of war supplies, all but one refused to carry out the task - resulting in a Field General Court Martial.

Norman’s army record states he “disobeyed in such a manner as to show wilful defiance of authority a lawful command given personally by his superior officer.”

The court martial was held in Bolougne on June 12 and, two days later, Norman was sentenced to death “by being shot” for his actions - as were his comrades.

“By a stroke of luck, one of the Richmond 16 had managed to throw a letter out of their train window as they headed through York towards France,” said Norman.

“The letter was addressed to social reformer Arnold Rowntree, an MP for York, who alerted the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to the plight of the men.

“Just before the death sentence was 
carried out, Lord Kitchener was killed 
when his ship hit a mine. Mr Asquith commuted the sentence to ten years of hard labour.”

Norman was shipped back to Britain on June 20, 1916, to begin his sentence - spending several years breaking rocks at an Aberdeen prison camp for his beliefs.

“He was forced to work through rain, wind and snow - and slept in a tent during the harshest of Scottish winters. It all took a toll on his health,” said Norman.

“And, when he was finally allowed home, he wasn’t even allowed to play cricket for his local team any more. He ended up moving away and finding a new job.”

Norman carved out a new life for himself near Middlesbrough, eventually marrying and becoming a representative at the annual Society of Friends meeting.

But, despite ending up as a director of W&M Pumphrey, a well-known sugar miller and preserve manufacturer, he suffered 
from on-going health problems such as asthma.

“He was only 67 when he died in January 1955. He never even lived to see his son get married,” said Norman. “He really did pay a high price for his pacifist views.”