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Legacies of War: Conscientious objectors' records in digital memorial

Legacies of War: Conscientious objectors' records in digital memorial

A comprehensive record of those who did not want to fight in the First World War will from today be opened up to the public as part of Imperial War Museums' permanent digital memorial.

Cyril Pearce, Honorary Research Fellow in the University’s of Leeds’ School of History, has spent more than 20 years building up a database of thousands of conscientious objectors (COs). 

A former senior lecturer at the University and a member of its Legacies of War centenary project team, he has painstakingly compiled the Pearce Register from documents, letters, images, tribunal records and diaries. It is the world’s most comprehensive list of First World War COs.

He has now donated this data to Imperial War Museum's (IWM) Lives of the First World War digital memorial, in time for today’s International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. 

Since its launch last year on the centenary of the start of the war, more than 7.6 million life stories of the soldiers, nurses and airmen have been discovered, remembered and shared on Lives of the First World War. More than 67,000 people have already contributed, uploading more than 600,000 facts, photographs and personal stories. 

Previously, the majority of those included served in the Armed Forces, but from today, the Pearce Register – comprising more than 16,500 records of men who refused to go to war on religious, ethical, political or social grounds – will be added to the website. 

Now Lives of the First World War needs the public to help complete these records by adding more information – from attributing facts and uploading photographs through to actively remembering the individuals who opposed active service on moral, religious and political grounds. 

Cyril Pearce said: “I am delighted to be contributing the Pearce Register to IWM’s permanent digital memorial Lives of the First World War. Ahead of the centenary of conscription next year, I hope many more people will be able to contribute to the work I’ve already done and that thousands more will learn about this alternative history of the First World War.” 

Stories include those such as:

John Wilfred Harvey, a Quaker from Leeds who served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in both France and Corsica. He survived the war and went on to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds from 1932 to 1954.

William Harrison, from Bradford, who was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs; he was not freed until 1919. 

Joseph Alfred Pearson, from New Brighton in the North-West, gave up his stance after brutal treatment at Birkenhead barracks, was sent to France and killed outside Ypres in 1917. 

Diane Lees, IWM Director-General, said: “IWM launched Lives of the First World War a year ago and since then we have added over seven and half million records. Now with the inclusion of the Pearce Register we can realise our vision to create a memorial to every man and woman who contributed to society during this conflict. 

“We are grateful to Cyril for sharing his work with us and we hope many more people will contribute to the unique and fascinating life stories of the conscientious objectors who risked so much on principle, political or religious grounds.” 

Dan Snow, Lives of the First World War Ambassador, said: “The First World War touched the lives of so many millions of men, women and children stretching from the front line back to the coal mine. It shaped the lives of everyone. Sailors of the merchant navy, armament workers, horse wranglers, and countless other people played an enormous role. 

“So too did those who refused to fight. They made very brave decisions to stand up to the politicians and generals, and reject their call to arms. Now the IWM is quite rightly putting Conscientious Objectors on its fantastic and ambitious Lives of the First World War. Their inclusion is vital if we're to get a real snapshot of society as a whole.” 

Further information

For images and interviews, contact Charlotte Sluter, Press Officer, IWM. csluter@iwm.org.uk or 0207 416 5420 or Gareth Dant, University of Leeds press officer, g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk or 0113 343 3996.

Legacies of War was established five years ago as a research and public engagement venture in anticipation of the 1914-18 war’s centenary. The project team includes researchers from several Schools within the University’s Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts & Communications: Languages, Cultures and Societies; History; Classics; Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and Philosophy, Religion & the History of Science.

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