Conscientious Objector

Subject: Social studies
Summary: Students discuss the issue of what it means to be a conscious objector and debate three specific points about soldier’s rights. The lesson also involves reading and speaking tasks.
Activity length: Duration is approximately 90 minutes.

Students will be able to evaluate eight people’s opinions about a soldier who deserted, claiming the right to be a conscious objector.


Teacher prepares handouts of the reading task. Teacher divides the class into pairs. Prepare groups of 4 for part 2.


Part 1: Students read the opinion column “Does Gunner Williams deserve this sentence?” and write their own opinions. This is followed by sharing your opinion with your partner in pairs. They may try to reach a consensus.

Part 2: In groups of four, alter the following three recommendations until every person in the group agrees with them. For example, in group 1 you can insert not to produce the opposite. Teacher can change including to except. Teacher can make as many alterations as they wish.

  1. Soldiers should be allowed to be conscious objectors at any point, including during the conflict.
  2. Soldiers should be allowed to object to a specific conflict whether they are volunteers or conscripts.
  3. Soldiers should be allowed to openly question government policy before, during and after a conflict

Part 3: Each group persuades the others to join them. Each group continues to argue and alter their recommendations until everyone has joined the same group. Dynamic group debate. The purpose of this debate is for everyone in the class to agree to the same three recommendations.

  1. Each group tells the class its version of the recommendations.
  2. Individuals change to the group they agree with most. Groups who agree join together into a larger group.
  3. Each new group persuades other people to join it and moderates and adapts its recommendation in order to reach a compromise. As soon as you agree with a set of recommendations, join that group.
  4. The debate continues until everyone is in the same group and can endorse all three recommendations

Teacher supervises the activities and records language errors, without interfering in the activity. In a following lesson, these errors will be discussed and explanations will be provided The final set of recommendation will be written on the blackboard and a final conclusion will be drawn.

Additional notes:

Teacher should pre-teach some of the vocabulary related to discipline, legislation and legal rights.

Does Gunner Williams deserve this sentence?

On Wednesday 11th September 1991, Gunner Williams of the 27th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, was tried by court martial on one charge of desertion and two charges of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, after having gone absent without leave from his regiment in Germany the day before he was due to leave for active service. He was found guilty on all charges, sentenced to fourteen months in jail and dismissed “with disgrace” from the army.

Dr. Alan Borg, director general, Imperial War Museum: “A couple of hundred years ago, I think he would have been shot – in those days they didn’t take too kindly to soldiers disobeying orders. He was presumably aware of the possible consequences of his actions, so he must accept them.”

Ian Lavender, Dad’s Army actor: “I sympathize with him, though I think his timing was very poor. Why wait for a time of conflict to make his feeling known? But I don’t think anyone should go to prison for a moral judgment. I wouldn’t like to lose 14 months of my life.”

Penny Dunman, counselor and mother of Gulf serviceman: “I was staggered by my son’s courage, which came through in the letters he sent to us from the Gulf. Gunner Williams is also a brave man to act according to his conscience. I admire anybody who stands up for to be counted against popular opinion.”

Tom Slizelki, assistant editor, Soldier of Fortune magazine: “He’s getting off pretty lightly. I’m just about sick of cry-babies who join up for the educational and training benefits then cry off and say “oh, no, no, no” when they are actually asked to do something. You can’t join the Army then demand to be reclassified as a conscientious objector when things get rough.”

Violet Oliver, WRVS volunteer: “He should have thought about it before he joined. I was 17 when I was conscripted into the ambulance service in the last war. There were man working with us who were conscientious objectors, but they made their minds up early on. They didn’t join the army and then walk out.”

Dr Barrie Paskins, senior lecturer in war studies: “People who object to a particular war traditionally do get short shrift: there has always been more leniency to those who believe all wars are unjust. People can’t be picky about obeying orders, but I think the Army have handled this in a pretty flat-footed way.

Celia Pease, editor, Far East Prisoner of War newsletter: “Why on earth did he join the Army if he didn’t expect to face action? People say it wasn’t our war, that it wasn’t our country that was invaded, but Poland wasn’t our country in the last war either.