When the Military Service Act of 1916 introduced conscription to Britain, Albert Tomlinson, aged 25, was working as a marble carver for his father’s business, producing tombstones at their workshop and home on Penny Street, Lancaster’s busy commercial main road. As a Congregationalist, Albert objected to military service on religious grounds and, after attending a tribunal in March 1916, was granted leave to join the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). He served in France as a driver with the FAU and later as a hospital sous-chef, before being demobilised in early 1919. This is Bella’s creative response to Albert’s story.
Letter to Albert Tomlinson: a creative writing response to research gathered on the life and war experience of a Lancaster conscientious objector.
I’ve just been given your Friends Ambulance Unit personnel records and seen your photograph for the first time. You look a lot like my friend, Connor! I often think about the lads I went to school with and what they might have done in that war, if we’d been born as you were, late Victorians. I worry about how I might have treated you, if we’d met. Would I have gone along with cruel stereotypes? And been at peace with the harsh treatment many COs endured? Tried to humiliate you for your belief that to kill any man is against God’s teachings and so morally wrong?
Some people will certainly have been awful to you. Maybe they gossiped. Maybe they directed you towards the recruitment office. Maybe they asked why you were there, after three years of the war, still carving headstones on Penny Street for war-wounded men to lie under. Maybe people made life difficult for your parents, or stopped speaking to your wife, hoping to push you into enlisting.
I often think about the lads I went to school with and what they might have done in that war, if we’d been born as you were, late Victorians.
We learnt in school that a lot of the German atrocities reported were made up or exaggerated to influence public opinion in Britain against Germany. But I also saw photographs and read survivors’ testimonies of massacres in Belgium and the burning of a library with its medieval manuscripts inside. I have to say it Albert, when I read those things, I doubted how such atrocities could ever be stopped without military strength, without further deaths and casualties resulting.
I understood and felt the anger, fear and duty so many men joined up to express. And yet no soldier might have needed enter Belgium at all, if an alternative to war had been found. I feel that same anger, and fear, the same duty towards democracy, when I read of the terrible beatings carried out by enlisted men in Britain towards absolutist COs who refused to have a part in the war.
Some people will certainly have been awful to you. Maybe they gossiped. Maybe they directed you towards the recruitment office. Maybe they asked why you were there, after three years of the war, still carving headstones on Penny Street for war-wounded men to lie under.
On my bedroom wall, I have a photograph of a young soldier, a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery – my nanny’s uncle, Henry. In the FAU you might have tended to him when he was gassed, driven him to a field hospital, organised the kitchen which made his meals or helped load him onto the hospital ship which evacuated him home. Albert, did you ever feel conflicted, that your FAU work wasn’t in alignment with your beliefs and the teachings of Christ, of ‘thou shalt not kill’, when men were sent back into the conflict once recovered? You must have seen such a lot of suffering. Compassion too, and great efficiency. The ingenuity of new medical techniques and vaccines. I used to look at the photograph of Henry and think of him as a victim, an innocent, but I see now that he and I and you are all manner of things, all manner of conflicts within our own mind and body and person.
You must have stood out, Albert! In 1916, with so many men in military uniform passing through Lancaster, or on war work. You are physically fit enough to make marble yield. Recruitment posters demanding your presence, threaten and invite. Even adverts for soap in the newspapers are war themed! You continue in your job. You never volunteer and you object to your military service when it arrives. Granted leave to join the Friends Ambulance Unit, your dad pays for the kit and equipment and you are trained in a non-combatant role. I wish I could sit and talk with you about all you believed in, Albert. Your relationship with God, what shaped your views on military service, your experiences on the Western Front, how they differ from the experiences of my own family. When you returned to Lancaster from France, to Penny Street from Petite Synthe, to your dad’s shop from your field ambulance, to carving headstones from tending the dying: what did you think of the war?
Albert, did you ever feel conflicted, that your FAU work wasn’t in alignment with your beliefs and the teachings of Christ, of ‘thou shalt not kill’, when men were sent back into the conflict once recovered?
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
On the Congregational Church, beliefs and practice:Congregational Federation [Accessed 17th March, 2015]Inglis. D., 1916. Lancashire Congregational Union: Rev D. Inglis’ address as chairman. Lancaster Guardian, 11th March 1916.
For trade directory and map of Lancaster:Godfrey, A., 1993. Old Ordnance Survey Maps. Lancaster (South) 1910. First edition. Leadgate, Consett: Alan Godfrey Maps.