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Deep in Virginia

One evening I was to be found hunting through a Christadelphian graveyard for a certain headstone. It was in Southern Virginia, close to the North Carolina border, and dusk was falling, so it was difficult. But I did find what I was looking for, as you can see. It recorded the early death of “E. P. Wells” on Oct 18, 1918 at the age of 27, the month before the end of WW1. And his memory has almost completely vanished. Childless, none of his relatives remain in in our community, to my knowledge. So why was I there? Because this young brother symbolizes for me the struggle of our brethren to maintain their beliefs during WW1, a time of tremendous turmoil and patriotic fervor. In the battle between freedom of conscience and patriotism, patriotism was the clear winner.

Background

The conscription regulations in the American Civil War made some provisions for those who objected to military service in any form, as was the situation in Great Britain during WW11. The account of the Christadelphians in Great Britain during that period can be found in “Without the Camps”2. Christadelphians were by far the largest group being granted exemption if they performed civilian service: there were 1716 members so granted, out of 4,000 total, with The Brethren next at 145.

There was therefore hope among our community of similar regulations in the USA. However, by the time Woodrow Wilson enacted the regulations on May 18, 1917 such exemptions were limited to members of the Amish, Quakers and Church of the Brethren. Unlike in subsequent conflicts, and unlike the American Civil war, the authorities made no provision for those who objected to serving in the military in any capacity. The only provision was for “non-combatant” service, which as we all know does not prevent or exclude those so categorized as being called on to fight. It also involves swearing allegiance, which we also object to.

Despite vigorous attempts by the Christadelphian Exemption Committee, all those who were conscripted were sent to military camp, and for many the conditions and treatment were terrible. I have accounts passed down to me of those who were dragged behind horses, who were starved, subjected to physiological examinations, and otherwise made to endure immense pressure to wear uniforms and obey military orders.

Very few brethren yielded under the pressure, for which we must be grateful. The subsequent regulations in WW2 and later included provisions for conscientious objectors to serve in civilian camps: but that is another story.

Ernest Wells

As far as I can tell, only Brother Wells was sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence: of the 50 brethren for whom I have records, most were ultimately furloughed to work on farms, or similar occupations. All except Brother Packie survived, although many were harmed by their experiences.

We will let contemporary records speak about the experiences Brother Packie underwent.

“Ernest Packie Wells of the Berea Ecclesia, Mecklenburg, Virginia, was ordered to Camp in November [1917]. He went to his local board prior to the day for entrainment and explained that he could not go voluntarily to camp on account of his conscientious convictions against becoming a soldier. He left with this Board a written statement of his reasons for his stand. The boy returned home and fully expected to be arrested and sent to Camp right away. Days went by and it was not till January 15th [1918] that the Sheriff from Boydton, Virginia, came to Brother Wells’ house for the purpose of arresting him and taking him away to Camp. At Camp, Brother Wells immediately made known his position and refused to sign any papers. The officers were very rough with him and immediately placed him in a guard-house, where for two days he was given nothing but bread and water. At the end of the second day he was given regular meals and has had them ever since. The brother was charged with being a deserter and was supplied with a carbon copy of the official charge which the Army made against him. This charge, of course, meant a court-martial.

“Day after day dragged wearily by while the boy ate, drank and slept in the one small room of the guard house occupied by about a dozen other fellows of the usual guard-house character. It was not till February 11th that the court-martial was held. The result of the Court-martial proceedings in connection with Bro. Packie Wells as reported last month came to Bro. Wells in the guardhouse on Saturday morning, February 23rd. The original sentence of the court was twenty years at hard labor, but later this was cut to ten. so the news that came to Bro. Wells was ten years at hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas… Bro. Wells is to be admired by all the brethren for the firm, confident trust which he maintains toward God and toward the truth through all this terrible experience. It is admirable and the brethren from Richmond who have been visiting him from week to week praise him highly for his continued faith and trust.”3

His trial was recorded in local newspapers as well. The unusual nature of his treatment was also emphasized. I can find no explanation of why he was subject to such a harsh sentence, but Brother Wells did not agree to enter the army even so.

“Camp Lee, Va., March 28. — Ernest P. Wells, a conscientious objector who refused to report to Camp Lee for duty when ordered by his local board, has been sentenced to 10 years at hard labor and was taken to Fort Jay, K. Y., this afternoon, where he will begin his long term. His case is declared to be the most unusual that has yet arisen in connection with the induction of men into the Federal service by the draft method. Wells claims to be a conscientious objector of the Christadelphian faith.”4

The end of the matter

There is no contemporary mention of the death of Brother Wells that I can find. Perhaps this was because the end of the war came as his death became known, and it was believed that any mention would not be appropriate in the light of the countless deaths in Europe. Apart from a brief mention in John Botten’s book, his death and the associated background is not be found in our literature. Interestingly, however, his name is included among those whose death was due to religious convictions in WW1. It is recorded as:

“Ernest D. Wells, from Virginia, was a Christadelphian and objected to military service on religious grounds. He died at Fort Leavenworth.”5

Unfortunately, the records of the USA exemption committee of WW1, and the similar committee of WW2, have been lost. (Those of the committees in Canada do survive, fortunately.) So almost the only record of the one who died as a direct result of his firm stand against military service, is to be found in the mute words on Brothers Wells’ gravestone, now difficult to read after almost 100 years. (2Tim 4:7-8).

“EP. Wells. Aug 4 1891 – Oct 18, 1918.

I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.”

Peter Hemingray

Note: on page 397 is a list of those I know were conscripted in WWI. I would be grateful for any information on these brethren, particularly pictures and accounts. 

Notes:

1. There was some initial attempts to allow non-combatant service, as suggested by CC Walker and other in the USA, but the views of Frank Jannaway prevailed.

2. Without the Camp by Frank G. Jannaway, published privately in 1917.

3. Concerning Exemption, V & VI, The Christadelphian Advocate 1918.

4. The Daily Independent, Monessen, PA. Feb 1918.

5. American Political Prisoners: Stephen M. Kohn (1994).

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