Conscientious Objection during World War 1 - Description

Pre-Hansard Parliamentry Reports, 1102-1803; an Introduction

The process of marking the centenary of the First World War will, inevitably and understandably, concentrate on the business of fighting and its consequences both for the individual combatants and for the societies mobilised to sustain them. There will also be the question of how those societies responded. Was the war necessary? Was it even popular and if popular, for how long? Inherent in these latter questions is the matter of the war's opponents.

For much of the summer of 1914 the attention of the British press and, probably, the British public was pre-occupied with affairs at home; and there was a great deal to be pre-occupied with. Not least the threat of an army mutiny over home rule for Ireland and the increasing militarisation of both Nationalist and Loyalist organisations. The assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on the 28th June, in Sarajevo, was, for a time, little more than another item of bad news from abroad. It was not until the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd July that the pre-occupation began to shift. The bustle of diplomatic activity and the preparations for war in Europe posed the question of British involvement. Were there secret treaty obligations which would draw Britain into a war or could she remain aloof as she had done since Waterloo, almost a hundred years earlier? By the August Bank Holiday weekend the sense of what was might happen began to provoke anguished and desperate reactions. A huge public meeting in Trafalgar Square on Sunday the 2nd August, organised by the Labour Party and supported by radical opinion of all kinds, passed a resolution opposing Britain's entry into a European war. That weekend across the country in towns and villages there were meetings organised by churches, women's groups and political organisations, mostly from radical Liberals leftwards to Marxist Socialists, demanding the same thing. All to no avail, on the 4th August Britain entered the war by declaring war on Germany.

Within weeks of the declaration of war, many of those who had been keen to avoid it accepted the situation as their patriotic duty and threw in their lot with the war effort. Many did not. Among them were groups and individuals who had opposed the Boer War, the arms race of the pre-war years and the National Service League's campaign to introduce conscription for Britain's young men. Most of them were drawn from existing political organisations. Of these the socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP), the major political group within the Parliamentary Labour Party, was probably the most important. Also from the political 'Left' were Anarchists, elements of the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). Arguments opposing the war from these 'political' war resisters ranged from the essentially moral and humanitarian views of a great many ILP and Socialist Sunday School members to the more overtly class conscious view that the war was a war for foreign markets and empire and had nothing to do with working men and women.

The anti-war cause was not an entirely socialist or 'Leftist' movement. It did include people from other parts of the political spectrum. Radical Liberalism was thrown into disarray by the war and many of its local adherents left the party to join the anti-war movement and, in some cases, eventually to join the Labour Party. The women's movement was also divided. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel declared an end to militancy and to tried to lead the members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the 'Suffragettes', into support for the war. Not all the WSPU's grass-root militants were convinced and, epitomised by the other Pankhurst daughters, Sylvia and Adela, opposed the war.

Opposition to the war was not simply a political matter. For many Christians and some Jews, the 6th Commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill', took precedence over patriotic duty. Notwithstanding the theological sophistry of the 'Just war' they opposed the war and, when it came to it, refused to take up arms. Chief among them was the Society of Friends, the Quakers. Although at least a third of all eligible Quaker men joined the armed forces, the rest did not. Instead they chose other forms of service or, as conscientious objectors, no war service at all. Other nonconformist sects joined those who refused to fight although not all of them could be said to have been part of the anti-war movement. Christadelphians, International Bible Students (later Jehovah's Witnesses), Plymouth Brethren, 7th Day Adventists and others rejected this particular call of the state although their view of themselves as part of God's Kingdom on earth prevented them from joining with other 'political' war resisters. While these particular sects can be said to have opposed the war, individual members of most of the main Christian denominations were to be found among the war resisters, from Roman Catholics and Anglicans, through Wesleyan Methodists to Congregationalists and Primitive Methodists. The difference was that, in many cases, the leadership of these denominations either, as in the case of the Church of England, took a pro-war stance or refused to take a stand at all on the grounds that to do so would divide the faithful. In the case of Roman Catholics or Jews there was an understandable reluctance to have accusations of lack of patriotism attached to an already toxic brew of anti-Irish or anti-semitic prejudice.

At the beginning, the business of opposing the war was largely about propaganda, but propaganda in an increasingly hostile environment. As casualties mounted and the war dragged on into 1915, reactions to the apparently disloyal or openly un-patriotic anti-war movement became unpredictable and at times violent. Holding public anti-war meetings in the open air or indoors became difficult. Some were attacked and anti-war campaigners assaulted. The possibility of this kind of violence prompted local authorities to ban public open-air meetings and to deny them the use of civic buildings and school halls. It also encouraged the owners of theatres and private assembly rooms to do the same. Writing to the press was also constrained and press self-censorship reduced the amount of coverage for anti-war views. It was, however, the introduction of the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914, which most hampered the anti-war cause. Its clauses which made it an offence to make a speech or to publish writing likely to cause disaffection or to discourage recruiting, although not rigorously applied, did make campaigning fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, campaigning against the war persisted.

The actual stand made by young men of military service age varied enormously. For some, while they refused to take up arms, there was a humanitarian imperative that they help the wounded and support the war's refugees. This applied from the very beginning of the war. The best known examples are the Friends' Ambulance Unit (FAU) and the Friends' War Victims Relief Service (FWVRS) which were formed in the early months of the war. By 1918 they had involved almost two thousand men and women in humanitarian work throughout the European theatre of war. What is less well-known is that until 1916 many young men volunteered to serve in a non-combatant capacity in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) or the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). Their understanding that they would be treated as non-combatants only became more generally known when, in 1918, the Army High Command decided to transfer them to combatant units and they resisted, in many cases to the point of Court Martial and prison. In purely legal terms these humanitarian volunteers were not 'Conscientious Objectors' not because of their volunteering but because they did so before the introduction of Conscription.

Until 1916, alone among the combatant nations, Britain did not have compulsory military service. However, faced by the war's apparently insatiable appetite for more and more men, Asquith's Liberal government gave in to pressure and in January 1916 approved the first Military Service Act and in so doing introduced Britain, for the first time, to the idea of compulsory military service. This required military service by all single men from England, Scotland and Wales between the ages of 18 and 40. Given the very real political and security issues there, conscription was not applied in Ireland. In May 1916 further legislation extended conscription to married men and by 1918 the net had been spread even wider to include fifty year olds. The legislation allowed conscripts the opportunity to appeal to a local Tribunal to defer or even suspend their call-up. The Tribunal were to consider seven acceptable grounds for some sort of exemption including domestic hardship, the need to complete their education, illness, business, or the national importance or war-essential nature of their work. These were listed 'a' to 'g'. It was the addition of the 'conscience clause', clause 'f' which created 'Conscientious Objectors' (COs). Men who were not prepared to serve as combatants were allowed to apply for exemption from service on grounds of conscience. The anti-war movement interpreted that as meaning COs could be granted Absolute Exemption from war service of any kind. The government and the Tribunal system took a different view by allowing COs exemption only from combatant service.

The introduction of conscription proved to have a very mixed effect on the anti-war movement. For the first time in the war it meant that the movement's men of military service age had to decide how best to express their opposition to the war. It was no longer simply a matter of refusing to volunteer, the arrival of their call-up papers demanded a response. The working of the conscription process had other effects. On the one hand, one way or another, it removed male anti-war activists from both local and national campaigns ? although, in doing so it created gaps which were ably filled by the anti-war movement's women. On the other hand, the imprisonment of COs, their sometimes brutal treatment and the local contest between COs and authority which characterised most Tribunal proceedings created moments of 'theatre' and an almost inexhaustible supply of news-worthy stories from which the anti-war movement in all its forms derived stories of 'heroic' resistance and from which it drew a measure of solidarity which, at times, it had seemed to lack.

The Military Service Tribunal structures were in place from January 1916 to November 1918. During the whole of that time COs came before them to plead their cause. What drove them to this point of the public declaration of their views varied as did the course of action they were prepared to take. Of the 20,000 COs who can be identified appearing before the Tribunals, the vast majority, perhaps 14,000 were prepared to offer some sort of service short of carrying and using arms. Many whose work was regarded as being either essential to the war effort of to maintaining the fabric of society and its economy were allowed to remain in their existing occupations. Others, prepared to do work of national importance which was not directly war-related and not under military control were found work on the land or in essential service industries. Some, like the pre-conscription non-combatant volunteers, were enlisted in the RAMC and more than 3,000 agreed to serve in the specially created Non-Combatant Corps (NCC).

For the 6,000 or more who were prepared to do none of these things the route was very different. Their appeals for exemption were refused and they were handed over to the military. At this point some gave in and accepted army discipline; the majority did not. The next step for them was a Court Martial for disobedience and a sentence to time, usually 112 days with hard labour, in a civil prison. But this was not always the case. In May and June of 1916 the Army's response was to send thirty-five COs to France. There their refusal to obey orders was a capital offence. They were sentenced to death by firing squad. It is not clear whether in doing this the Army was hoping to make examples of COs to discourage the rest but the government had a very different view. The executions did not go ahead and the sentences were commuted to ten years' penal servitude.

For about 1,500 'Absolutists' who would have nothing to do with any schemes or palliatives, the rest of the war was spent going from prison to Court Martial and back to prison again. A number of COs had as many as five Courts Martial. This obdurate group also supplied the COs who refused prison work and those who went on hunger strike and were force-fed.

In August 1916, for those Court Martialled and imprisoned at least once, there was the Home Office Scheme (HOS). This was centred on work of national importance which was not in any way war-related. The Absolutists refused it arguing that any work in wartime was, in some way, war-related. Those who accepted the scheme, the 'Alternativists' disagreed. This division was one of the first major ruptures in the previously united front the COs had presented.

For a time these schemes were called 'settlements' which suggested a purpose which was rather more positive than the reality. One of the earliest of them, digging roadstone in quarries at Dyce, near Aberdeen, was a short-lived and almost disastrous embarrassment. From August until October 1916 more than 250 men were sent there. Some of them were 'Frenchmen' who had been repatriated to English prisons from army custody in France, mostly to Winchester. Others who the Central Tribunal deemed to be genuine COs and who, at first, appeared to have accepted the Home Office Scheme joined them from prisons across the country. Accommodation was in reject leaky army tents on a wet site which Aberdeenshire's September rains soon made a quagmire. Food was inadequate and the work beyond the ability of many of the men newly-released from prison and, in some cases, punishment diets. On the 8th September Walter Roberts, an ILP man from Stockport, died after a high fever and a short illness. Thereafter work at the camp became difficult. Men refused to work more than five hours a day and some rejected the Scheme altogether.

After this death and near-rebellion, rather more care was taken in selecting and managing the Scheme. HOS men were eventually kept in a number of empty prisons ? Wakefield, Warwick, Dartmoor and Knutsford ? and in work camps on forestry, quarrying and other schemes in different parts of the country. In the former prisons, while much of the work was normal prison work, the cells were not locked, neither COs nor warders were in uniform, and the centres were allowed a measure of self-regulation.

The whole of this structure remained in place until the spring of 1919 when the Absolutists were released from prison and the men on the HOS and on work of national importance away from home were gradually allowed to return to civilian life.

Drawing together the different sections of the anti-war movement, co-ordinating its campaigns and supporting the COs and their families, were a number of organisations which functioned at both local and national levels. The ILP and, after 1916, the BSP, were the only main-stream and substantial political organisations which were committed to the anti-war cause. In both cases, local branches and a good many individual members, took different lines but the national party line remained firmly opposed to the war and to conscription. The same is true of the Society of Friends. Its Friends' Service Committee became an important part of the anti-war movement. However, it was three other organisations, largely created by the war and the desire to resist conscription, which drew much of the movement together and helped give it a national voice ? the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) and the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF). Minority left-wing fragments all opposed to the war, such as Anarchists, the SPBG and the SLP, added to the numbers and their individual members were often highly influential, although their national presence was insubstantial.

The FOR grew from an initiative within the Society of Friends in August 1914. It was an essentially Christian and pacifist organisation which saw its members taking part in the 'Ministry of Reconciliation between man and man, class and class, nation and nation'. As such it was a campaigning, even evangelical, but determinedly non-political organisation.

If the FOR campaigned for 'reconciliation' then the UDC was rather more specific. Its central concern was that the war had come about as a consequence of the lack of democratic accountability in the making of British foreign policy. Coming together shortly after the outbreak of war, the UDC was, in effect, a combination of the war's critics drawn initially from the Liberal party but also involving members of the ILP. It was the brain-child of Charles Trevelyan, Liberal MP for Elland in the West Riding, a junior minister in Asquith's Liberal government who had resigned his post at the outbreak of war. He was joined by Arthur Ponsonby, also a Liberal MP and former private secretary to the Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman. E. D. Morel, a campaigning journalist, who had resigned his membership of the Liberal party, became UDC secretary and treasurer. By the spring of 1915 the UDC's executive committee had also recruited senior figures from the ILP in Ramsay MacDonald MP, Philip Snowden MP. It was not a pacifist organisation and, despite the participation of senior Socialists, had no analysis based on notions of the war as a product of the competition for empire or the failings of international capitalism. Fenner Brockway described its leaders as 'bourgeois to their fingertips' so much so that ' ? they might have been lifted out of any gathering of the gentlemen of England ?' Nevertheless, its Manifesto, published in November 1914 established a number of the points of principle which, it hoped, would pave the way for the democratic control of foreign policy and create guarantees of peace. However, the process could only begin with an early settlement of the war according to four cardinal principles:

? The principle of self- determination.

? The ratification of treaties by Parliament.

? The abandonment of the 'balance of power principle' and its replacement by the idea of the 'concert of nations' which would set up an international council and the machinery to guarantee peace.

? Multi-lateral disarmament and the nationalisation of the arms industry.

The idea of an early negotiated settlement and the beginnings of a post-war system to guarantee peace was its major contribution to the wartime debate. The political seniority of its major members and supporters gave the anti-war cause articulate and talented advocates at the highest levels of British Parliamentary democracy. The UDC's campaigning pamphlets were important statements of its policy and helped sustain the criticism of the war and to establish its Manifesto as a basis for the construction of a lasting peace. Its monthly journal, The UDC, reinforced its pamphlets campaigns by including articles written by its leading members which were both policy statements and commentaries on the war.

Beyond all that, it had a local presence in the form of more than a hundred branches spread across the country and a monthly journal which reported their activities. It was The UDC which by reporting on branch activity helped sustain a sense of the UDC as not simply an elite metropolitan organisation. For example, The UDC issue for December 1916, carried the following report of its Birmingham branch's activities in November.

Birmingham: The following meetings have been addressed by our speakers during November: Sparkhill Women's Co-operative Guild, by Rev. Morgan Whiteman; Handsworth Women's Co-operative Guild by Councillor Harrison Barrow; Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners by Mr J. E. Southall; Operative Bricklayers' Society by Mr E. W. Hampton; No.10 branch N.U.R. by Mr W. Milner; Bournville Women's Co-operative Guild, by Rev. Morgan Whiteman; Railway Clerks' Association by Councillor J. W. Kneeshaw; Bristol Street Adult School Class XIV by Councillor Harrison Barrow. Owing to the exigencies of the Military Service Act, our Organiser, Mr Fred Longden is no longer with us, but is awaiting sentence of Court Martial. Our Treasurer has also left to take up alternative service offered him by the Tribunal. Please address all communications to the Secretary, Hubert W. Lemon at 69, Mostyn Road, Handsworth, Birmingham.

Such reports from as far afield as Yeovil in Somerset and both Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, give a sense of the UDC's reach and of the difficulties faced by those of its members who were of military service age.

It was arguably the NCF which proved to be the dominant factor within the anti-war movement. From the very beginning of the war there were those who felt that it was unlikely that the British war effort would be sustained by an entirely volunteer army and that conscription would soon replace voluntarism. For those within the anti-war movement this, as much as the war itself, was to be resisted. One form of opposition began as an idea launched by Fenner Brockway, who, at the outbreak of war was editor of the ILP's newspaper the Labour Leader. In November 1914, he published an appeal inviting all young men who intended to refuse military service, to join a 'No-Conscription Fellowship'. The response was encouraging. By February 1915 the NCF had 339 members and the names of a number of men beyond military service age who were prepared to help. Originally organised by Fenner Brockway and his wife Lilla from their house in Derbyshire, the flow of new members and its developing work prompted the opening of a head office in London later that summer.

By that time the British system of voluntary recruitment was in trouble. The Derby Scheme, which attempted to encourage every man of military age to 'attest' his willingness to serve should he be called on to do so, was voluntarism's last throw and it failed. By late autumn conscription seemed inevitable. As a consequence, membership of the NCF grew to the point where it became necessary to convene its first national conference. This was held in London in November against a background of press hostility and attempts to disrupt proceedings by groups of soldiers and pro-war civilians.

The conference formally agreed the NCF's organisation, elected its National Committee and set down its definition of the 'Statement of Faith' as the basis of membership:

The No-Conscription Fellowship is an organisation of men likely to be called up for military service in the event of conscription, who will refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms, because they consider human life to be sacred, and cannot, therefore, assume the responsibility of inflicting death. They deny the right of Governments to say. 'You shall bear arms,' and will oppose every effort to introduce compulsory military service into Great Britain. Should such efforts be successful, they will, whatever the consequences may be, obey their conscientious convictions rather than the commands of Governments.

Within three months of the NCF's inaugural national conference and its declaration of principle, conscription had been introduced with the first Military Service Act. At the beginning of March when the first COs were beginning to appear before local Tribunals to plead their cases, the NCF launched its weekly newspaper, The Tribunal. Despite police raids and attempts to close it down, it continued in print until it was closed-down voluntarily in January 1920.

Although unquestionably the most significant, the NCF was not the only anti-war grouping in Britain during the 1914-18 war. Its commitment to 'oppose every effort to introduce compulsory military service' had already been the major part of its work for much of the summer of 1915. In this it was joined by other organisations from within the broad anti-war community which came together in a broad and hectic campaign largely co-ordinated by the National Council Against Conscription, later the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) to prevent the inevitable introduction of the first Military Service Bill. This eleventh hour attempt to co-ordinate resistance, came too late. However, something of that failed campaign was preserved in the creation of the Joint Advisory Council ? better known as the 'JAC'. This co-ordinated the work of three principal anti-war groups; the NCF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Friends' Service Committee (FSC) for the remainder of the war years and beyond.

One of the JAC's principal activities became known as the Conscientious Objector Information Bureau (COIB). Using mostly NCF branches and a national network of volunteer supporters it gathered data about CO experiences ? Tribunal hearings, Courts Martial, prison, Home Office Scheme. It also liaised closely with Quaker prison visitors and chaplains. Data gathered in this way was used to inform on-going debates in Parliament about the treatment of COs. Sympathetic MPs, Philip Snowden (Labour) and Ted Harvey (Liberal) amongst them, were primed with evidence for Parliamentary questions and Catherine Marshall, the NCF's political secretary, used every opportunity to keep the anti-war debate alive. To help with this from March 1916 until the spring of 1919, the COIB published a weekly Report. The Report was cyclostyled and circulated first to NCF branches and to the editor of The Tribunal. There it was used as the basis for the lists of COs and their experiences published throughout 1916 and as copy for articles as issues arose. It was also sent to more than 200 men and women from within the broader anti-war community and to others who were regarded as opinion-formers whose sympathy might be helpful.

Supporting this 'national' presence was the activity of the anti-war movement's local branches. At this level branches of the NCF joined with the local FOR, the ILP and elements of the BSP to form their own No-Conscription Councils also known as local branches of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). Local Quaker meetings, Adult Schools, trade unions and individuals were also represented. The work of the local NCF and the NCCL branches was essentially about three things. First, to continue the anti-war campaign by leafleting, holding meetings and writing to the press. Second, by supporting COs and reporting on their experiences within the system. Classes for COs were held to help them in making their case before the Tribunals. Tribunal hearings were monitored by 'watchers' and, once the CO was in the system, reports were sent back to the branch so that his family might be informed. Thirdly, it was about fund-raising. The money was to sustain the organisation, locally and nationally, but it was also to help support COs' families who were in difficulties.

A selective memory wishing to belittle the efforts of the anti-war movement would prefer to suggest that its people and their struggles were only evident and indeed, only relevant, in wartime. There are even those who would dismiss COs and their supporters as 'Cranks'. That was far from the case. The anti-war struggle had far-reaching effects on British politics, not least on the Liberal party many of whose members left to join Labour. Within the Labour party, the anti-war activists, men and women, continued to play key roles in the party in the inter-war years and beyond. Many became local Councillors and some, Members of Parliament. The Society of Friends, with the majority of the pro-war Quakers gone and new members drawn from other 'religious' anti-war men and women, emerged in the post-war world more committed to its traditional pacifist stance than before. From the campaign to resist the passing of the Military Service Acts came the National Council for Civil Liberties. It remains a resilient defender of the rights of conscience a hundred years later in the form of 'Liberty'. The peace movements of the post-war world also owed much to the personnel who had worked for the NCF, the UDC or the FOR. Indeed, some of the founder-members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s were former First World War COs. The imprint of the struggle for peace is not confined to the years 1914 to 1918 , nor even to the rest of the twentieth century. It continues to have its reverberations as we consider the centenary of that hideous slaughter.

September 2014.


Acknowledgement of Copyrights:

The publisher acknowledges with thanks the permission granted by Hull University Archives, the Working Class Movement Library, Salford and the library of the Religious Society of Friends, London to reproduce in digital format documents from the archives of the No-Conscription Fellowship and Union of Democratic Control as well as the scrapbook of Thomas Henry Ellison. In accordance with UK copyright legislation, attempts have been made to identify and contact the owners of other copyrights in the material published within this archive. In the case of the owners of surviving copyrights whom it has proved impossible to contact, Microform Academic Publishers earnestly request that they write to the Editor at the address below.


To cite this resource:

Cyril Pearce (2014) War Resisters in Britain, 1914-1918: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 30 September 2014.