As we approach remembrance day on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it reminded me of an account I read a few years ago of a horrifying incident which took place in the County Durham pit village in which I live, which I believe is worth sharing as a striking example of the unimaginable inhumanity of the 1914-1918 war.
J.G. Winter was a young miner, a talented footballer and a Methodist who was active in his local Independent Labour Party. When the war broke out, his Christian and socialist beliefs meant that he could not bring himself to play any part in the killing of others and so he became a conscientious objector.
As a result of this, he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs in London, where he was beaten to death by prison officers. But the horror did not end there. When he was buried in the local churchyard, his funeral procession was attacked by a violent mob who threw stones at the coffin and shouted abuse at the so-called ‘pro-German’ mourners. It’s hard to imagine a more grotesque and tragic scene.
So it’s vital that we also remember the individuals like J.G. Winter, who made up the equally brave minority of people who stood for peace and for the freedom of individuals not to be compelled to ‘kill or be killed’ by the government of the day – whatever the consequences would be for themselves. Many lost their jobs and reputations. Many lost their friends, family and relationships. Many lost their liberty, and were routinely subjected to mock executions and beatings during their time in prison. And some, like young J.G. Winter, even lost their lives.
Despite recent attempts by the government and their friends in the media to revive the old myths of ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, history has vindicated those who saw the war what it really was and decided that they would have no part in it. As the last surviving veteran, Harry Patch put it, the 1914-1918 war was: ‘organised murder and nothing else.’