Sunderland councillors back conscientious objectors’ memorial plan

Sunderland City Council has backed the conscientious objectors' memorial motion.
Sunderland City Council has backed the conscientious objectors' memorial motion.

City councillors have backed a motion paying tribute to the “courage and contribution” of conscientious objectors during the First World War

The motion, presented at full council on November 21 by city Liberal Democrats, called on councillors to remember the people in Sunderland who refused to bear arms during wartime.

Liberal Democrat councillor Niall Hodson launched the motion.

Liberal Democrat councillor Niall Hodson launched the motion.

It also includes calls to host an event or memorial for the objectors who lost the right to vote throughout the war for their beliefs.

Leader of Sunderland City Council’s  Liberal Democrat and Others group, Coun Niall Hodson, launching the motion, noted recent remembrance services paying tribute to the Sunderland soldiers who died in the conflict.

“We all remember that there’s more than one side and story to any war and the stories of those who opposed the war and opposed service make the story of the First World War a little more complex,” he told councillors at Sunderland Civic Centre.

“These are people whose stories have historically been neglected and I think on the centenary of the armistice, it’s worth us remembering them as well.”

Conservative councillor William Blackett announced he would oppose the motion

Conservative councillor William Blackett announced he would oppose the motion

During the war, not all conscientious objectors stayed at home, the meeting heard.

Some served as frontline medics while others worked with relocated refugees or set up schemes to support nationals held in enemy internment camps.

To “bring the past closer to home,” Coun Hodson recounted the story of former Sunderland footballer Norman Gaudie, who was court martialed for objecting to the war on religious grounds.

After being sent to a military camp in France, Mr Gaudie escaped execution following government intervention.

Labour councillor Paul Stewart also backed the motion.

Labour councillor Paul Stewart also backed the motion.

He is also known as a member of the  ‘Richmond 16’,  a non-combatant group imprisoned in Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire for refusing to take on military duties.

Today, the group are remembered by the graffiti images, political slogans and portraits of loved ones they left behind on the walls of the former cell.

Coun Hodson added: “It’s of course essential that we remember soldiers from Wearside who were killed on the battlefields of the First World War.

“But those who opposed the war are also part of our story and I think it’s still a controversial subject for a lot of people and often misunderstood.

“As a council we can do something to deal with that troubled past because conscientious objectors like Norman Goudy had an important bearing on our history.”

Conservative councillor, William Blackett, while stressing his support for the work of conscientious objectors who served as ambulance drivers and with the Red Cross, announced he would oppose the motion.

“I also wonder why Sunderland? Yes it had a handful of objectors for example Walter Summerbell the son of Sunderland’s first Labour MP,” he said.

“However, this small number pales in comparison to the approximately 25,000 Sunderland residents who served in World War One.

“Many objectors undoubtedly suffered for their beliefs and this is wrong but surely at this time we should be focusing on the suffering of the approximately 7,000 Sunderland residents who gave their lives or were maimed in the mud of Flanders while serving their country.”

Cabinet secretary, Coun Paul Stewart, backing the motion, noted the links between the history of  conscientious objectors and the history of the Labour party.

This included many objectors doing so on political grounds with the majority being members of the independent Labour party, he explained.

“It’s a case that many of these ended up in jail, often for up to ten years because of their beliefs,” he added.

“Although there’s an opinion to say it’s important to serve your country it’s also important if you have strong beliefs, whether they’re religious or political, that you stand by those and that that should be respected.”

The motion was carried with 53 votes for and six against.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service