WELLS, DAVID, conscientious objector; b. c. 1897 in England; d. 18 Feb. 1918 in Selkirk, Man.
Little is known about the background of David Wells. He was the son of English parents; his father had served in the British navy for 30 years. In 1918, when Wells was a student at a Pentecostal Bible school in Winnipeg, his mother was living in England and one of his brothers was fighting with the British army in France.
Under the terms of the Canadian Military Service Act of 1917, a man ordinarily subject to conscription for military service could obtain a certificate of exemption if he objected conscientiously to combatant service and was prohibited from engaging in warfare “by the tenets and articles of faith, in effect on the sixth day of July, 1917, of any organized religious denomination existing and well recognized in Canada at such date, and to which he in good faith belongs.” From the federal government’s standpoint, however, the Disciples of Christ, International Bible Students Association, Pentecostal Assemblies, and Plymouth Brethren were not organized or recognized religious denominations under the terms of the act, even though all of them were committed to pacifist principles. Thus on 23 Jan. 1918 Wells, a Pentecostal, and another conscientious objector were sentenced by magistrate Sir Hugh John Macdonald* of the Winnipeg City Police Court to two years’ imprisonment for refusing to be conscripted.
Wells was sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary following sentencing, and only four days later prison authorities reported that he had gone mad. On 11 February he was moved to the Selkirk asylum for treatment, but he never recovered. Dr A. T. Rice, acting superintendent of the asylum, claimed that Wells died of a manic depressive condition probably caused by a feeling of disgrace. Rice also asserted that had Wells been brought to the asylum earlier, he likely would have been saved.
Although a post-mortem examination showed no factors besides depression involved in Wells’s death, many believed that it had resulted from brutal treatment in prison. Wells was a robust man in the best of health, and his death followed well-publicized accounts of the cold-shower torture of two members of the International Bible Students Association and one Pentecostal by military authorities at Minto Street Barracks in Winnipeg during the winter of 1917–18. Hence Wells’s Pentecostal friends expressed resentment about the treatment he had received in prison, and they and members of the Plymouth Brethren petitioned the government demanding recognition as pacifists. William Ivens*, pastor of McDougall Methodist Church in Winnipeg and a pacifist himself, wrote to the minister of agriculture, Thomas Alexander Crerar*, charging that Wells had “been literally ‘done’ to death . . . by civil officials.” Ivens remarked, “It may be that his death was necessary to convince the Government that there are Conscientious Objectors in the Dominion outside of Pacifist Churches and Organizations who are prepared to die for their convictions rather than submit to perform military service.” The Trades and Labor Council of Winnipeg forwarded a petition to the Canadian government which called for an inquiry into the circumstances of Wells’s death, asked that its findings be made public, and demanded an end to discrimination against conscientious objectors who were not members of recognized sects.
Although Crerar accepted Ivens’s assessment of the Wells case and passed his letter on to Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden*, the Canadian government took no action. The petitions generated by Wells’s death were also evidently ignored. Therefore, no proof was forthcoming to show whether or not Wells had died as the result of foul play.
Wells’s experience demonstrates the hostility towards conscientious objectors, particularly of non-traditional pacifist church backgrounds, that existed during World War I. If foul play was involved, his case would have been the most extreme instance of the torture of an objector, but it was not the only one. These incidents caused a public uproar and obliged officials to soften, but not curtail, their harassment of pacifist men.
NA, MG 26, H, ser.RLB, 238, file 2309, docs.132780, 132789, 132799; RG 24, 2028–29, file HQ 1064-30-67, pts.1–2. Manitoba Free Press, 25 Jan. 1918. Winnipeg Evening Telegram, 23–24 Jan., 27 Feb. 1918. Winnipeg Tribune, 24 Jan. 1918. Can., Statutes, 1917, c.19. M. J. Penton, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: champions of freedom of speech and worship (Toronto, 1976). T. P. Socknat, Witness against war: pacifism in Canada, 1900–1945 (Toronto, 1987).