Uncovering a hidden history of the First World War

Published: Thursday 28th September 2017 by Courtney Farrow

Comments (0)

Michael Mears’ This Evil Thing explores the lives of those who resisted conscription during WW1. We caught up with the actor-cum-playwright to find out more.

Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about This Evil Thing?

Just over one hundred years ago, there was this terrible thing called the First World War, and this show tells the story of the British Conscientious Objectors. Britain had a volunteer army at the beginning, unlike other countries such as France and Germany, and we were very proud of this.

But as the war dragged on and more and more men were killed, there weren’t enough volunteers coming forward. The government was forced to bring in military conscription in 1916. This is where all the problems began. I mean, if you volunteered, that was one thing, but forced, that’s another.

Quite a lot of people objected. For example, those who were religious. They argued that the Ten Commandments stated ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. But by this point, Britain had dug its heels in and we needed to win the war.

The Conscientious Objectors were those who claimed the right to refuse to perform military service, usually on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience or religion.

What made you focus on this particular group of people?

I’ve been a pacifist all of my life. I’ve never approved of war. It’s funny because my grandfather fought in and survived the First World War, where he was injured, and my dad fought and survived the Second World War. I apparently never inherited the soldierly gene.

I’ve been predominantly an actor my whole adult life and also write solo plays. As the commemoration of the First World War approached, I wanted to write something. I thought that there would be loads of material about the brave young men in the trenches and the awful things they endured. But I thought about the other side of the coin; what about those who resisted the war?

Before getting into this, I didn’t realise the real history of the Anti-War Movement in WW1. I found some amazing stuff during my research.

I had never heard of the No Conscription Fellowship – a group of young men who were against conscription and continued to fight the law when it came into force. They supported their members, who became known as conscientious objectors, and their families. It was an amazing organisation with a vast network of communications that kept detailed records of the men, where they were and what they were suffering.

The important thing to note is that these men weren’t deserters, as they often get confused with, and they had no bad word to say about those who did go and fight.

What kinds of stories did you find during your research?

It’s really interesting that I’m performing in Hull, actually, as two of the worst abuses of conscious objectors occurred not far from the city.

In Atwick, there was a military camp. A young man called Jack Gray was brutally treated by sergeants and soldiers. They tied a rope around his waist, dragged him around a field and dunked him in a sewage-riddled pond eight or nine times.

In Cleethorpes, which is where the opening scene of This Evil Thing is set, James Brightmore was left in a pit for a week after they ran out of cells to put him in. Incredibly, another soldier smuggled him a pen and paper and he wrote back to his family about what was happening. The letter was soon published in the Manchester Guardian and word quickly got out.

This was Britain, the land of the free, just one hundred years ago.

And lastly, why should people come along to see This Evil Thing?

In a nutshell, the play is compelling, shocking and inspiring. These men were struggling to preserve freedom of conscience in this country.

My play is about 75 minutes long; I’m the only actor and there are around 52 characters.

The main story focuses on a South Yorkshireman from the Richmond 16. There were sixteen conscientious objectors at Richmond, North Yorkshire. They were sent to France and came very close to being executed.

Another thing to add, having done a lot of research into this play, is that I use a lot of verbatim testimonies and use the actual words of the men.

You can catch Michael Mears in This Evil Thing at Hull Truck Theatre on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 September. To book, please call 01482 323638, or you can book online.  

Enjoy more Hull and East Yorkshire news on HEY Today

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

Published: Thursday 28th September 2017 by Courtney Farrow

Comments (0)

Local business search