> Skip to content
  • Published: 2 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9781784743949
  • Imprint: Chatto & Windus
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $48.00

Battles of Conscience

British Pacifists and the Second World War



Fascinating new history of WW2 from the world expert on conscience, Anthropology Professor Tobias Kelly.

A ground-breaking new study brings us a very different picture of the Second World War, asking fundamental questions about ethical commitments

Accounts of the Second World War usually involve tales of bravery in battle, or stoicism on the home front, as the British public stood together against Fascism. However, the war looks very different when seen through the eyes of the 60,000 conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms and whose stories, unlike those of the First World War, have been almost entirely forgotten.

Tobias Kelly invites us to spend the war five of these individuals: Roy Ridgway, a factory clerk from Liverpool; Tom Burns, a teacher from east London; Stella St John, who trained as a vet and ended up in jail; Ronald Duncan, who set up a collective farm; and Fred Urquhart, a working-class Scottish socialist and writer. We meet many more objectors along the way -- people both determined and torn -- and travel from Finland to Syria, India to rural England, Edinburgh to Trinidad.

Although conscientious objectors were often criticised and scorned, figures such as Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury supported their right to object, at least in principle, suggesting that liberty of conscience was one of the freedoms the nation was fighting for. And their rich cultural and moral legacy -- of humanitarianism and human rights, from Amnesty International and Oxfam to the US civil rights movement -- can still be felt all around us.

The personal and political struggles carefully and vividly collected in this book tell us a great deal about personal and collective freedom, conviction and faith, war and peace, and pose questions just as relevant today: Doesconscience make us free? Where does it take us? And what are the costs of going there?

'[An] excellent book' - DAILY TELEGRAPH

'A moving tribute' - SPECTATOR

  • Published: 2 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9781784743949
  • Imprint: Chatto & Windus
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $48.00

Praise for Battles of Conscience

[An] excellent book... [Kelly] sheds light on a little considered aspect of the war

Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph

[An] excellent book... [Kelly] sheds light on a little considered aspect of the war

Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph

A moving tribute to moral courage, and a scholarly memorial of more innocent times

Allan Mallinson, Spectator

A moving tribute to moral courage, and a scholarly memorial of more innocent times

Allan Mallinson, Spectator

[Battles of Conscience] takes five pacifists...and skilfully weaves their stories into a broader narrative about how claims of conscience ruled the lives of the 60,000 British citizens who stood apart as conscientious objectors through [WWII]

Times Literary Supplement

[Battles of Conscience] takes five pacifists...and skilfully weaves their stories into a broader narrative about how claims of conscience ruled the lives of the 60,000 British citizens who stood apart as conscientious objectors through [WWII]

Times Literary Supplement

[An] intriguing, original book... Kelly makes a fair case for...[the] importance in thinking through the collective and individual duties of citizens in a national public emergency

Literary Review

An intriguing, original book . . . Kelly is sympathetic towards but clear-eyed about his cast of characters . . . [and] their importance in thinking through the collective and individual duties of citizens in a national public emergency . . . questions which are hardly irrelevant in an age of pandemics, lockdowns and vaccine mandates

Alan Allport, Literary Review

Tobias Kelly's scholarly examination of British pacifism neatly addresses the gap between past reality and current historical narrative. Much more has been written about the (far fewer) conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the First World War than those in the Second . . . This says a great deal about how we remember the 1939-45 conflict. Widely regarded as the right war to fight, there seems to be little space for pacifists in discussions of the war against the Axis . . . The timing of this book seems to be particularly prescient, arriving in the middle of another conflict - sparked by Russian's invasion of -- in which freedom and oppression are clearly delineated. What do pacifists do in such circumstances? And how should the state treat them?

Tessa Dunlop, History Extra

Tobias Kelly's book takes five pacifists, four men and one woman, and skilfully weaves their stories into a broader narrative . . . A long and proud tradition of being permitted to act according to conscience is very much part of Britain's self-image . . . that there was space for pacifists to lay claim to the values of sacrifice and citizenship while not taking up weapons, ultimately played a not insignificant role in Britain's record of tolerance

Mark Bostridge, Times Literary Supplement

Related titles