The Challenge of Military Camp Life for the Church of the Brethren during World War I

By Andrew Pankratz

Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

When the United States entered into World War I in April 1917, the Church of the Brethren faced a significant challenge to their peace witness. The traditional Brethren peace position placed them in opposition to American society’s definition of patriotism as doing everything possible to support the war (including fighting in Europe, buying war bonds, supporting the Red Cross, etc). How could they remain true to their peace position during a time of national war hysteria? Could they hold to their nonresistance while still demonstrating their loyalty to the United State? Nowhere was this challenge more prominent than for those Brethren in military camps following the beginning of the draft in June 1917.

With the declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the United State government needed to raise a large army. After a period of congressional debate, President Woodrow Wilson signed a national selective draft into law. This draft law, while giving provisions for conscientious objectors, did not exempt them from full military service. Conscientious objectors still had to register and report to military camps when called up. What to do with the conscientious objector once they were in the military camps, though, still had to be determined. In fact, the government did not come up with a suitable alternative service for conscientious objectors until March 1918, almost a year after the United States joined the war.

On June 5, 1917, every male in the United States between 21 and 31 had to register for the draft. The government called the first men up at the beginning of August 1917. With the beginning of the draft, the young men of the Church of the Brethren had to decide what forms of service they could perform while in the military. One route was to become a full on combatant and take up the gun. Another option was to serve as a noncombatant (engineer, hospital, or other form of work). A final option was to refuse to do either combatant or noncombatant work on the premise that either option ultimately led to the killing of a fellow man. While the majority of the Brethren served as noncombatants in some form, a sizeable amount of Brethren decided to reject both combatant and noncombatant service. It was these Brethren who experienced the harshest treatment during their period in the military camps. Often they faced mistreatment at the hands of other soldiers and officers, while the threat of court-martial and imprisonment loomed over their heads.

Photograph of Military Barracks for conscientious objectors during World War I. Courtesy of Brethren Historical LIbrary and Archives

Camp life for the several hundred Brethren who refused combatant and noncombatant service proved to be a challenging ordeal. Often the ordeal began when the young Brethren would refuse to wear a military uniform or do any military work. For many of these Brethren wearing the uniform or doing any work on base meant supporting the war effort and the killing of a fellow man. By refusing to wear uniforms or perform military camp duties, the Brethren underwent harsh treatment. Some Brethren were forced to stand at attention for hours on end with the sun beating down on them, to take ice cold showers while they were scrubbed down with brooms until their skin was rubbed raw, to take long hikes at bayonet point, to undergo beatings, to submit to submersion in fecal material in the latrine (mock baptisms), and to mock executions.1At least one Brethren was even tarred and feathered.2 On top of this, many young Brethren had to spend their first days living with the regular soldiers who did not look kindly on their refusal to carry arms. Numerous other Brethren were confined in guard barracks for days on end.

All of this, while not officially approved by the federal government, was allowed to occur to attempt to force the Brethren and other conscientious objectors to become combatants.3 By making the life of the conscientious objector so rough, the military hoped not only to persuade the conscientious objector to abandon their position but also keep others from taking the peace position. One of the major tools used by the military to do this beside physical abuse was the court-martial. In the end, many sincere conscientious objectors experienced abuse and imprisonment, just as if they had been disobedient soldiers.4

Fort Leavenworth, where court-martialed conscientious objectors were imprisoned during World War I. Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

By the end of the war 504 of the conscientious objectors (this number includes Mennonites, Quakers, Church of the Brethren, and other smaller groups) held in military camps were court-martialed. 17 of the conscientious objectors court-martialed were sentenced to death, 142 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the rest were sentenced anywhere from 5 to 99 years in jail (16 ½ years being the median).5 After the end of the war in November 1918, many of those imprisoned were freed in 1919. The rest of the conscientious objectors were released from prison during the first half of the 1920s.

While the harsh treatment of the Brethren and other conscientious objectors during World War I is a shameful episode in United States history, it did present a learning opportunity to both the government and the Church of the Brethren. The government found itself unprepared to deal with a group of dedicated conscientious objectors and failed to respect the Brethren’s religious convictions. As for the Church of the Brethren, it also found itself unprepared to deal with the draft or the harsh military camp life.6 By the advent of World War II the government and the Church of the Brethren had learned from these hardships to create a better alternative through the creation of the CPS camps.

1. Durnbaugh, Donald F. Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren, 1708-1995. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1997. Pg. 417.
2. Bowman, Rufus D. The Church of the Brethren and War: 1708-1941. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1944. Pg. 200.
3. Bowman, Pg. 223.
4. Bowman, Pg 224.
5. Durnbaugh, Pg 418.
6. Bowman, Pg. 232.

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