Pierre Ceresole and the first workcamps – Archives of Service Civil International

Pierre Ceresole and the first workcamps

The strong personality of Pierre Ceresole is at the origin of Service Civil International. He was born in 1879 in Lausanne (Switzerland), in a large, well-educated and happy family, which regularly received writers and intellectuals. His father had been the President of the Swiss Confederation for one year. After graduating as an engineer, Pierre had worked for some time in a large manufacturing company, but he was not interested in a career and spent a few years travelling around the world, doing various jobs, including hard manual work. He was very concerned with moral and spiritual issues based on Christianity but he also had a very independent mind.

In 1917, while World War I was going on and Switzerland, although a neutral country, was making military preparations, Pierre began to make public statements in favour of conscientious objection and refused to pay the military tax. He was prosecuted on various occasions and was several times in jail. At the end of the war, he participated in meetings of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organization of which he was the secretary for a short period. During one of these meetings, a young German had said: “We have discussed enough for two days; it is time to act”. He explained that his father had contributed to the destructions of the war in France and that he wanted to participate in the reconstruction.

Pierre Ceresole was deeply impressed by this statement, which exactly met his own concern for action, as a service. Here probably lies the origin of the slogan “deeds not words” which later became famous in SCI. In 1920, it was decided to organize the first reconstruction workcamp near Verdun, with the participation of German volunteers, despite the reluctance of local inhabitants for whom the Germans were still the enemies. During the following years, other similar workcamps were organized in Switzerland and in neighbouring countries, mostly to help people after natural disasters (floods and earthquakes). International volunteers participated in these camps.

In 1931, Romain Rolland, one of the very few writers who had stood against the war, had invited Pierre Cérésole to meet Gandhi, whose non-violent ideas and actions against the British colonization in India were very close to Pierre’s interests. And Gandhi recognized Pierre as a brother. Links were thus established between India and the first leaders of SCI. The latter were particularly concerned when a dramatic earthquake affected the Bihar region in India in 1934. Pierre went to that country and got in touch with local personalities, including Rajendra Prasad, then president of the Congress Party and later president of the Indian Union. With a small group of volunteers, Pierre participated in a workcamp and contributed to the mobilization of the authorities and of the population. At the end of the camp, Rajendra Prasad said: “The simple fact that European people, ‘sahibs’, are doing this type of humble work with Indian people is as such a revolution which is astounding for the passer by and which gives all its meaning and its value to the project” .

During the same period, a general assembly of all the SCI volunteers and friends was held for the first time. It elected a Committee and decided that there should be a paid permanent secretary. This was the beginning of a process of institutionalization, which implied the existence of headquarters, of regular meetings and of a bulletin. At the same time, branches were established in various European countries. But their resources remained very modest for quite a long time; they came mostly from donations received in connection with specific workcamps, following natural disasters. Apart from the usual ‘pick and shovel’ camps, SCI participated in actions to help Spanish refugees in Spain and in France, during the civil war. This work (mostly the organization of canteens) involved an important outside support and was for some time done on a very large scale.

W.W.2 limited the development of the organization, which included around ten groups in 1939, but it was accelerated post war when SCI became a truly international organization. Unfortunately, Pierre Ceresole, could not participate as he had died in 1945. It is this second period in the history of SCI and the story of the second generation of volunteers which is dealt with in the following pages.


  1. City in the Eastern part of France, where the most deadly fighting with the Germans had taken place.
  2. Hélène Monastier: Paix, pelle et pioche, histoire du Service civil international de 1919 à 1965 (Service civil international, 1965). Also: Hélène Monastier, Pierre Ceresole d’après sa correspondance, La Baconnière, Neuchâtel, 1960. And Arthur Gillette: One Million Volunteers. Penguin, 1968.