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Viewpoint from Pastor Victor Hulbert for 25th July 2014 

Pastor Victor Hulbert
Communications Director
Seventh-day Adventist Church SEC Headquarters Watford

It was more than a shock when I discovered that a relative of mine was beaten, manacled, court martialled and sentenced to six-months hard labour.  His crime?  His desire for freedom to express his religious beliefs.
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Great Uncle Willie was a World War 1 conscientious objector.  As a Christian he strongly valued human life.  He was not prepared to pick up a gun and shoot another human, whatever the cause.  He was one of 14 teenagers conscripted into the 3rd Eastern Non Combatant Corps in May 1916. They shortly found themselves on a troop ship to France where the sergeant attempted to hand them rifles.  They refused.  This caused some initial difficulties but eventually a compromise was arrived at. They worked on the docks unloading ships. 

For eighteen months this worked fine.  As Seventh-day Adventists they were equally allowed to refrain from work and to worship on their holy day, the Saturday Sabbath.  Then in November 1917 there came an unwelcome change.  A new commander decided he was having none of this Sabbath nonsense.  When sunset arrived the next Friday and the men downed tools they received a beating and a court-martial.

That was just the beginning.  In military prison #3 in Le Harve the same scene was repeated the next Friday afternoon – except that six sergeants were ready with batons, revolvers and boots.  After such a severe beating that some of them were left unconscious and damaged for life, they were dumped in concrete floored cells in the middle of winter, with over-tightened manacles digging into their flesh.  Next morning they were individually ordered to work.  They courteously refused.  The result? Another beating.

I don't know who started it, but shortly after that beating, and fully against prison rules,Dove right someone began to whistle a hymn.  Within seconds another voice joined in, then more.  Soon all fourteen were singing a hymn. The guards didn't know what to do.

One of the group Worsley Armstrong later wrote that "the singing of that hymn brought wonderful comfort and strength to us as we were there in that prison."  It also had an effect on the sergeant and other non-commissioned officers who gathered in the corridor.  They became very subdued, and, Armstrong reports, "We finished that hymn in an atmosphere of absolute quiet."  A month later, after petitions to the government, they were moved back to England.

One hundred years on there are clearly a large variety of opinions on what happened between 1914 and 1918.  Did the death of two people in Sarajevo justify the killing of so many innocents in the trenches?  Is war ever the best way to solve disputes?  Yet equally, how do you deal with an aggressor?  There will be those who believe that my great uncle was wrong not to fight.  Maybe they are right. For me, I respect his courageous decision to stand for his strongly held if unpopular beliefs.

Freedom of belief. Freedom of conscience must surely be principles of a civilised democracy.  Difference should not lead to violence, but to an attempt at understand.
For more information on this fascinating story, visit

Uncle Willie is on the bottom right

WWI POW Till bottom right