Updated on 20 January 2021
Don Sutherland (1919 – ), the oldest Friend at Lincoln Meeting House, is Lincolnshire’s last living WWII Conscientious Objector.
A Conscientious Objector (CO) is an individual who claims the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience and/or religion.
Don was born in Coventry on 18th June, 1919, and raised as a Presbyterian Christian. In 1927, he and his family moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne, as his father had gained employment with the engineering firm Vickers Armstrong.
In the early 1930s, as part of his job, Don’s father visited the Leipzig Trade Fairs in Germany and stayed with a local family. They were so warm and hospitable that Don’s father extended an invitation for them to visit England and stay with him and his family. They replied that they would like to visit but, due to the growing turmoil in their country, they would have to wait until things were calmer.
The family never visited.
The 1930s saw the rise of fascism and Hitler coming into power. As hostilities flared up across Europe, in 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Don was now 20 years-old and had a duty to register for army training under the Military Training Act, which required all eligible men aged between 20 – 22 to enlist for six months army service.
Don intended to sign up but found himself unable to do so when he witnessed young army recruits training in a local park. They were practicing with bayonets and stabbing human effigies. From his Memoir of a Conscientious Objector, he recalls “I could not do that,” as it went against his Christian beliefs of “loving thy neighbour.”
Anyone who wished to register as a Conscientious Objector had to appear before a tribunal to gain a certificate of exemption. Tribunals were in front of a judge and were purposely designed to be harsh and intimidating so to dissuade people from applying to become a CO.
The tribunals, which had begun earlier in World War I, reflected widespread public opinion that COs were lazy, degenerate, ungrateful ‘shirkers’ seeking to benefit from the sacrifices of others. Around 16,000 men were recorded as Conscientious Objectors during World War I, with pacifist Quakers forming a large proportion.
Once granted exemption by the tribunal, COs were given the option of Alternative Service. This mostly included serving in non-combat roles such as joining the medical corps. Many Quaker COs who chose Alternative Service joined the Friends Ambulance Unit.
Those COs who refused Alternative Service were known Absolutists, as they would not take part in war in any shape or form. Absolutist COs at this time faced hard labour in prison and in exceptional circumstances during World War I the death penalty.
During World War II, about 60,000 people applied to become a CO and only a third was successful. Although the death penalty was no longer used as deterrent, Absolutist COs often faced long prison terms and solitary confinement.
At his tribunal, Don gave his own testimony, stating that as a Christian it was his belief that “we should love one another” and that he would not participate in war-work of any kind. As an Absolutist, Don could have gone to prison but was offered the chance to become an apprentice farm labourer in Lincolnshire’s pacifist farming community.
The farm Don worked on was at Holton-cum-Beckering and one his first jobs to steer the wagon and horses as they ploughed the soil. Potatoes and sugar beet were the main vegetables on the farm.
The work was hard and the days long, but Don and the other COs grew to enjoy it and the community blossomed. In their spare time there was painting, singing and acting. After the war ended, the farming community carried on for several years but slowly broke up as many of its original members returned to their pre-war lives.
Don’s Quaker Service
In the 1950s, Don became a member of the Society of Friends and was later appointed as the Quaker chaplain to Lincoln prison. Inspired by the prison reform work of Elizabeth Fry, Don spent over 36 years helping prisoners develop skills to find a better life upon release. This included setting up a correspondence course for inmates with the Quaker-run Woodbrooke learning centre.
After his retirement in the 1990s, Don joined Amnesty International and became a school governor. In 1997, to mark the 50th anniversary of Quakers receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Don asked primary schools across Lincoln to create an exhibition themed around peace. In 2014, Don and other Quakers became involved in the annual drone protests at RAF Waddington.
When questioned about his life and what he would say to young people today, Don answers:
“I try hard not to have prejudices. Accept the positive from whatever source, even if a risk is involved. Try to act on your own initiative.”