When World War I broke out and the U.S. instituted a draft, there was no such category as “conscientious objector” for those opposed to war. Young Friends like Wendell F. Oliver who were drafted but refused to take up arms usually were jailed, even though they argued they were willing to do their fair share of duty—as long as that work didn’t “simply release another man to train for fighting.”
As Wendell’s father wrote, “What we and (he also) fear is that he will be asked to take some form of non-combative service which would be equally objectionable from the Friendly point of view….. We are very solicitous that he shall be placed in some position where his principles will not be violated.”
As those young pacifists awaited court-martials, Friends worked to carve out the conscientious objection exemption—leading to the birth of the American Friends Service Committee.
In Wendell’s case, his 1918 application to serve with the Friends Reconstruction Unit (a civilian service program) was approved, and he was assigned to the Tree Distribution Project in the war-blasted countryside of France.
“I am touring the Meuse-Ardennes (Forest) area on a Harley … and find the need great and the appreciation of the peasants immense. In the area north of Verdun there is scarcely a thing left. And it is a fine thing to be the first on the scene with trees, such a necessary part of the new life of these people.”
During his 1919 service in France, Wendell F. Oliver filed regular reports noting “the enthusiastic support for the idea of planting trees in the war-destroyed areas.”
Riding a Harley motorcycle presented unique challenges. As he writes in “Mishaps of a Mission Motorcyclist”:
“The roads of the Argonne have suffered from the war as have the villages and towns they connect. From shell and heavy motor transport they are pitted and scarred. Such routes as those try the patience of motorcyclist… All drivers figure an hour in the garage to one on the road.”