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News > OP updates > The Soldier and the Pacifist

The Soldier and the Pacifist

The contrasting experiences of two young Old Portmuthians in wartime
6 Nov 2023
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
James Yates and Cecil Proctor
James Yates and Cecil Proctor

James Yates joined PGS in 1898 and soon proved to be academically bright. He was regularly ranked second or third in his class and won academic prizes every year at Prizegiving. In 1902 the family relocated and James completed his education at King’s School Canterbury and from there went up to Hertford College, Oxford to read Classics. James was very creative, and started appreciating and writing poetry from a very young age.  

In 1912, James chose teaching as a career and took a post at St Bees School on the Cumbrian coast. He was a popular and effective Master but, following the outbreak of war in 1914, many of his pupils went off, one by one, to Sandhurst and then to the trenches in France and Belgium.   

James’s conscience was conflicted – deeply religious, he was drawn to take Holy Orders – to become a priest - but he also felt the patriotic pull of military duty. The only thing he was sure about was that he could no longer carry on teaching while the world was at war. He agonised over his dilemma.   

In January 1915, one of James’s former pupils, Stanley Hawkesworth, was killed in action, prompting him to write a poem titled "Nailer" – Stanley's nickname. This later appeared in his published collection, “War Lyrics”.   

Shortly after Stanley’s death, James Yates applied for a commission as a Second Lieutenant and joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. He resolved that if he survived the war he would join the Church – his dilemma, he figured, would be resolved by God.   

On the 28 July 1915 James was sent to France. Fourteen weeks later, in October 1915, his unit was ordered to attack an artillery trench occupied by the Germans. The open ground was raked by machine gun fire and James was “shot through the head while leading his platoon in a bayonet charge”.  This was a standard description sent to casualties’ next of kin implying a quick death which was often untrue.  

James Yates’ death was, in turn, the subject of a published poem, “An Englishman”, written by a friend, Joseph Courtney who was serving as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.   

The great Call came – his country’s call –  

He answered it, and leaving all  

He went to fight for his country’s name,  

For his country’s right, and honour and fame,  

Which are always one, and just the same  

       To an Englishman.  

He led his men – his country’s sons –  

Up and on, to the enemy’s guns.  

It was always a cheering word he cried,  

As they fought, and fell, and were sorely tried.  

He led them on and was struck, and died  

       As an Englishman.  

When the last trump sounds – the call of God –  

He will answer through the sweat and the blood;  

He will rise up then, from his nameless bed,  

And answer the roll of his country’s dead:  

And God will be proud that ‘twas so he bled  

       As an Englishman.  


So, a simple, patriotic poem to mark the death of a brave soldier and friend. James’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Loos memorial in France.   

The school war memorials and books of remembrance testify to the courage and sacrifice of Old Portmuthians like James who served in the armed services as sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen.   

On the outbreak of the First World War, Old Portmuthians were not slow to "rally around the flag" - to join up. By December 1914, it was known that 513 former pupils were fighting for King and Country, “acquitting themselves in a way which reflects credit on themselves and their school”. Hundreds more followed.  

But were there any Old Portmuthians who were deaf to the call? Whose inaction, whose reluctance to fight, reflected not credit but shame on themselves and their old school? Who were, in the language of the time, “slackers”?  

In the first two years of war it was possible for young men to avoid military service provided they had a thick skin and were blind to the frosty stare and pointed finger of Lord Kitchener. On the streets, female vigilantes dispensed white feathers – the symbol of cowardice. They were handed out indiscriminately to men in civilian clothes of fighting age who they perceived to be lazy, cowardly or pacifist.  Some men and youths received them by post.  

It is not known if Cecil Proctor was decorated or received a white feather. He was an actor, writer and manager of a touring theatrical company. With his actress wife Amy he travelled around the country in self-penned plays that were advertised as making “No Reference to the War”. Cecil reckoned, with some justification, that people wanted escapism.  

He was born in 1878, the son of Fred who ran a local printing business. His mother, Emily, had three children and sent Cecil, their only son, to the grammar school.   

 Like James Yates, Cecil was a good student, coming top of the class in English and Scripture. He enjoyed drama, playing a role in a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1894. Cecil’s academic success earned him a scholarship in 1892 and three years later he got a job in commerce in London. But, by the age of 22, Cecil recognised that there was no business like show business. He loved the theatre.   

After marrying Amy, they toured the country in different theatrical companies, but always together. By 1909 Cecil was writing his own comedy dramas and by 1913 was successfully running his own company. All was well with the world.   

World War came and, as the death toll mounted it was realised that there were not enough volunteers to fill their place of those who had been killed, like James Yates. The Government introduced conscription in 1916 and Cecil could no longer keep his head down.   

He applied for absolute exemption from military service, claiming to be a conscientious objector on the ground of his deep religious beliefs. He had been a member of the Unity Society of Practical Christianity since 1912, and regularly attended Quaker meetings. This church, he said, “opposes the attainment of ideals of any system by force”. He also stated that he had been a vegetarian since 1913 on the principle that “it is wrong to take life or shed blood”.   

The Military Service Tribunal in Potters Bar, where Cecil made his case, ruled that Cecil should carry out non-combatant duties – so he didn’t have to fight, but was required to join the army and support the fighting.   

Cecil had claimed absolute exemption and immediately appealed. His case was supported by letters from the Vicar of St Mark’s Church and a well-known theatrical actor of the time, both of whom vouched that he was “a conscientious objector of absolute sincerity” and that his views had been consistent all the time they had known him.   

Cecil’s appeal, held in Westminster Guildhall in August 1916, fell on deaf ears. He was immediately arrested and handed over to the military.  

At Mill Hill Barracks in north London, Cecil refused orders to load munitions, stating that this would be “taking a direct part in the killing of men... I regard warfare as entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ as given in the Sermon on the Mount, especially his exhortation to love your enemies”.   

He was immediately court martialled, protesting that he was willing to undertake work that preserved life or “work on the land” – growing food to help the war effort.  

Sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour, Cecil was locked up in Wormwood Scrubs where the harsh regime, an inadequate diet and poor conditions led to the death of several men who had refused military service.   

By February 1917, Cecil had managed to appeal to the Central Tribunal - a higher authority -and was finally judged to be a genuine conscientious objector. He spent the remainder of the war living in Bury St Edmunds and writing propaganda dramas that were in support of the war, and were staged in theatres all over the country.    

One, “The Profiteer”, was about a man who not only betrays his community by profiteering during the war but also treacherously assists the enemy. Another, “The Man Who Made Good”, concerned an army officer who loses his nerve and is then treated as a coward. He returns to his home “disgraced and dishonoured” though, in the end, redeems himself and the play ends with him “covered in glory”.   

There was no glory in having been a conscientious objector, especially in a garrison town and naval port like Portsmouth, but there is no hint that anybody knew of Cecil’s pacifist history on his return to the city between the wars to take on the family’s printing business. It is very unlikely that the school was aware when he was awarded the contract to print the Portmuthian magazine.  

 Cecil threw himself into the city’s business and civic life, standing as the Liberal candidate in a Cosham Ward election in 1935 (coming third), becoming  Chairman of Hilsea Swimming Club, President of North End Businessmen’s Association  and establishing Portsmouth Physical Training Centre. He directed and acted in local pantomimes, often as the dame, attracting huge audiences and raising considerable sums for children’s charities. On a smaller scale he organised and performed in many concert parties entertaining local groups and raising money for the British Legion and other charities. During the Second World War he put on concerts for troops stationed in the area.  

Cecil’s swansong as a theatrical actor took place on the stage of the Theatre Royal in 1958 when he was 80 years old. The Hampshire Telegraph reviewer was not kind, describing the self-penned play as old fashioned  and his performance as self-indulgent.     

Cecil died in 1966 at the age of 88. He had packed the half a century since his release from prison with comedy, drama, entertaining and charity work.   

So, contrasting experiences. James Yates and Cecil Proctor, both Old Portmuthians, both intelligent, both creative  and both devout Christians. James died at the age of 26, fighting for his country, while Cecil died at the age of 88, having refused to fight.  

Nationally, at least 73 fellow conscientious objectors died because of the harsh treatment they received in prison. 704,000 British servicemen are known to have died fighting in the First World War.  

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