Sean Bean World on Fire: What happened to Conscientious Objectors during the war?


SEAN BEAN stars as pacifist and Conscientious Objector (CO) Douglas Bennett in BBC’s World on Fire but what happened to men like him during the Second World War?

The final episode of World on Fire airs tonight at 9pm on BBC One. Game of Thrones star Sean Bean plays pacifist and Conscientious Objector (CO) Douglas Bennett in the series. Not only is Douglas a CO but he is also suffering terribly from PTSD from his experience of the First World War. Pacifists chose not to participate in combat for a number of reasons: their faith, non-religious belief in the sanctity of life and a practical belief that war is ineffective.

What happened to Conscientious Objectors during the war?

As seen in World on Fire, CO’s faced hostility from members of the public as patriotism swept across the United Kingdom between 1939 and 1945.

In reality, many CO’s in World War Two, still served in the war effort, signing up to work of national importance instead.

The Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) composed of CO’s who had been conscripted but had been registered as non-combatants.

There were also enlisted members of the NCC who had been deemed not physically fit for combatant service in the military, which lessened the stigma around the NCC.

Objectors could serve in the military non-combatant roles such as medics and ambulance drivers.

Those who objected to serving in the military altogether served on the home front as air raid wardens, in agriculture, forestry and cared for the mentally unwell.

Pacifist options during World War Two were limited in Britain, in comparison to the levels of the First World War.

A few organisations were operating such as the Peace Pledge Union, Society of Friends and The Fellowship of Reconciliation, which continues to operate.

Many CO’s from the First World War had changed their minds by the outbreak of World War Two, viewing the fight against fascism as necessary.

Historian Richard A Rempel explained in his article, The Dilemmas of British Pacifists During World War II: “World War Two raised difficult moral issues for British pacifists.

“By 1939, Nazi totalitarianism had made many pacifist convictions appear untenable and particularly in 1940, after the fall of France, many leading pacifists and thousands of the rank and file disavowed former principles and supported the war.”

The political party in Britain that was opposed to the war was Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, who believed a war with Germany was not in Britain’s national interest.

Speaking to, Sean Bean said: “I read about it [CO’s] and I kind of know what it is and I read about the kind of isolation and the pacifist conscientious objector who is being ostracised by his community.

“It takes a hybrid of madness. He [Douglas Bennett] is a man of strong belief and the First World War coloured his view of the second impending war, and that’s not a surprise in hindsight.

“I did some research into the issue. I guess we’ll watch soldiers suffer when they’ve been through Iraq in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in a kind of more extreme version of that.

“I mean, he was a victim in my case. He was a victim of a mustard gas attack, which is pretty horrific and it left him with dreadful memories and flashbacks and left him anxious, depressed and manic in some cases, and he would it would very much influence his view of future wars.

“So that was why he is a pacifist, a conscientious objector. Because he saw his mates around him being blown to pieces. He didn’t see war as a solution to the political conflict in Europe.”

In World on Fire, Douglas is a pacifist and hands out Peace News, a pacifist magazine, to passers-by on the street.

He even visits army recruitment centres to try and persuade young boys from joining the war effort.

However, when his son Tom (played by Ewan Mitchell) said he has become a pacifist and doesn’t want to return to the navy, Douglas insisted he go back.

Douglas told his son to return as deep down, he believed the war is a war worth fighting in but he is too old to join the forces himself.

However, when his son went missing at Dunkirk, Douglas was consumed by guilt for sending his son back to the battlefield.

Bean explained: “Unfortunately for him, in hindsight, it was not the best war to be a pacifist because there was such a common enemy.

“I mean the German Nazi’s were such a threat that there was no alternative as there is today.

“There’s always an alternative today, dialogue and diplomacy but in that particular one here we didn’t know what was going to happen, the difficult parts and brutality that was to come.

“And [WW1] is a war that young men went to as cannon fodder and they didn’t know what they were fighting or understand what he was fighting. So, you can’t blame him for how he reacted [to WW2]. “

What happened to Conscientious Objectors during the war?


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