Conscientious Objection in the First World War

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Peace and Justice Centre Coordinator Brian Larkin & Lesley Orr  of Fellowship of Reconciliation Scotland spoke on Conscientious Objectors & Women’s Responses to the First World War in a Just Festival Conversation. Following is a transcript of Brian’s  talk.

There was enthusiastic support fort the war when it broke out In August 1914. Thirty thousand men per day rushed to enlist, one million in the first 6 months. But opposition to the war was also strong. Prior to the outbreak of the war there were large demonstrations opposing war across Europe, including in London’s Trafalgar Square. Northern Friends Peace Board was founded in 1913 in response to the deteriorating international situation and the increasing militarization of society. Quakers argued that the arms race was likely to lead to war. Just 3 days after the declaration of war a group of Young Friends set up the Friends Ambulance Unit which would eventually operate hundreds of ambulances, dozens of hospitals, four ambulance trains, which moved half a million wounded, and two hospital ships. Over 1.700 men and a hundred women served in the unit.

Despite the fact that Britain was a vast Empire the Liberal politics of the time meant that Britain was the only Great Power without universal military service. Nonetheless even prior to the war mere was substantial pressure for conscription, ‘me National Service League nad more than 315,000 members and supporters’. Five consecutive conscription bills were tabled in Parliament before 1914. But the Liberal Party & large sections of Labour Party and some Conservatives, opposed the idea. In August of 1914 Cabinet unanimously dismissed Winston Churchill’s proposal for ’compulsory military service.

Recognizing the likelihood that conscription would come at the suggestion of his wife Lillla, Fenner Brockway, the editor of the Labour Leader published a letter in November 1914  which led to the formation of the No Conscription Fellowship. With 300 initial members its Statement of Faith declared it an organisation of men ‘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’.

Within a month of the outbreak of hostilities the Prime Minister had set up a Propaganda Bureau to drum up support for the war, enlisting the services of numerous leading authors. Among them was HG Wells who famously claimed that this was “a war that would end all wars.” Fanned by propaganda patriotic feeling ran high and peer pressure helped keep the level of recruits high in the first months of the war, but with 180,000 killed by Christmas and the numbers of volunteers dropping from 30,000 per day to 70,000 per month pressure for conscription grew, after formation of the coalition government underAsquith in May 1915, the Conservative Party and Liberal Minister of munitions  David Lloyd George mounted a media campaign in favour of universal military service. Conscription was considered by the ‘Independent Labour Party (ILP) and others as an infringement of civil liberties.

The No Conscription Fellowship soon had 10,000 members. Initially they were all men.

But later women would play a vital role in the organisational work as men went to prison. NCF members were Socialists, pacifists and Christians. Socialists believed in internationalism and that the ruling classes created wars which the working class fought & died in. Pacifists believed that killing was wrong and that it was better to avoid war,, that disputes should be settled by negotiation and that preparation for war increases the chance of war. They were against the whole military system. Most Christians at the time were patriotic and supported the war most religious COs in UK were Christians. The largest group of Christians were Quakers but there were Anabaptists. Catholics and other denominations. (Often individuals’ beliefs crossed over these somewhat artificial boundaries so there were Christian Pacifists and Christian Socialists and so on.1 Anyone who refuses to take cart in war or prepare for war is a CO.

The NCF Manifesto published in the Spring of 1915 stated

We have been brought to this standpoint by many ways. Some of us have reached it  through the Christian faith… Others have found it by association with international movements; we believe in the solidarity of the human race, and we cannot betray the ties of brotherhood which bind us to one another through the nations of the world. All of us. …believe in the value and sacredness of human personality, and are prepared to sacrifice as much in the cause of the world’s peace as our fellows are sacrificing in the cause of the nation’s war.”

The NCF worked closely with the Friends Service Committee and the National Council Against Conscription and published a weekly paper called “The Tribunal” from March 1916. Despite police harassment and the restrictions of  thd Defence of the Realm Act, which prohibited speaking against conscription the ILP and the NCF distributed leaflets and held meetings that condemned tne idea of a British conscript army, They faced angry opposition and near riots as police looked on.                                                                                                ^

In July 1915 the National Registration Act was passed. It required all men and women

between the ages of 15 and 65 to register. Military recruiters made door to door visits to men 18-40 and pressured them to sign up. In August 1915: Fred Sellar sec of ILP was prosecuted under the DORA and imprisoned for distributing a leaflet that argued Registration was a step to conscription.

In February of 1916, the Military Service Acts were passed by Parliament. All unmarried men between ages of 19 & 41 were “deemed to have enlisted.” A few months later married men were included. Exemptions were allowed for those whose work was essential to the war effort, those with elderly dependents or children, those deemed medically unfit for service and those who could show a ‘conscientious objection’ to active participation in the war. It should be said that Britain was unusual in ww1 in giving CO status at all. The inclusion of the “Consceince Clause” was the result of vigorous opposition by Quaker and ILP MPs, 36 of whom out of 630 MPs, voted against the bill. Nonetheless it would prove difficult for COs to gain exemption. Not until 1987 did the UN recognize the right to refuse to kill and many countries today including South Korea, Turkey, Sudan and Israel still require compulsory military service.

The NCF published a “Repeal the Act” leaflet which stated “Conscription …involves the subordination of civil liberties to military dictation; it imperils the freedom of individual conscience and establishes in our midst… militarism. …We cannot assist in warfare. War, … will only be made impossible when men who so believe remain steadfast to their convictions. Consceince …has been placed at the mercy of tribunals… we cannot accept any exemption that would compel those who hate war to kill by proxy or set them to tasks which would help in the furtherance of war.’’’

Eight of the ten authors of the leaffet were charged and convicted under the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA)  with having made statements likely to prejuaice the recruiting and discipline of HM Armed Forces” and sentenced to 61 one days in prison

Probably all COS questioned the authority of the state at some level.  In 196 Sydney Turner stated “I deny the right of the state to compel me to undertake any military service to which I have a conscientious objection. My life is my own and I will dispose of it as I will particularly as the State has had no part in my introduction to this part of the earth, nor has it assumed any responsibility for my life in the past.”

Tribunals were set up all across the country. They heard claims for everyone seeking exemptions including CO.s. There were 3 types of COs:

  • Noncombatant COs accepted being in the military and agreed to take part in units specially set up to do work other than fighting.
  • Alternativist COs did not oppose work on behalf of the government to help civilians but refused to be in the military.
  • Absolutist COs opposed the system of compulsory service as well as killing.

Although the Military Service Act allowed for three types of exemptions for COs, absolute, Conditional (allowing men to do Alternative civilian Service) and Exempt from combat whereby they could join the Non Combatant Corps (NCC)) the act was unclear and poorly understood and many men were forced into the military against their will.

Tribunals were supposed to be impartial but were clearly biased. There was a military representative on the Tribunal and the Military Council urged Tribunals to take all possible steps to get men for the Army. They were made up mostly of local councillors who were highly patriotic and had little sympathy or understanding for COs. They showed COs little respect. . Young COs were told they were too young to have a conscience. Men who claimed absolute exemption were required to join the army or alternative or Noncombatant service.

Some 400 men out of the 16,000 COs were granted absolute exemption. 6,500 were given conditional exemption and told to perform alternative service by finding “Work of national importance”. 5,000 were granted non-combatant status and enlisted in the NCC. And about 2,500 applicants were turned down and forcibly enlisted. 1,200 men refused to apply to a Tribunal and about 6,000 of those who did apply refused to accept the Tribunals decisions and spent much of the war in prison. 1,500 Absolutists were imprisoned for duration of war.

EJ Ford was an absolutist who did not respond to call up papers. At his Tribunal he stated: “I stand here as a protest against the awful crime of the old men of Europe, sacrificing the young to slaughter.”

Statements of CO’s at Tribunals

Clifford Allen, Secretary of the NCF at his Tribunal said:

“They will never heed our condemnation of their foreign policy if they can always depend upon our support in time of war. There is one interference with individual judgment that no state in the world has any sanction to enforce – that is, to tamper with the unfettered free right of everyman to decide for himself the issue of life and death.”

“To me war is murder” He explained his “unalterable determination to refuse non- combatant or any conditional services, since all of these must contribute, directly or indirectly, to the prosecution or organisation of war…”.

His Application was disallowed. And he went to prison.

Among those who accepted Work of National Importance were many in the Friends Ambulance Unit. But with conscription many Quakers who had been in the Friends Ambulance Unit found themselves in the position of being ordered to do the work they were already doing. Corder Catchpool had been with the FAU in France from October 1914 felt that the FAU was working too closely with the army and was indirectly supporting the war effort rather than simply relieving the suffering of the wounded. The army had come to rely on them so much that it no longer accepted new applicants to army medical units because it knew the FAU would fill the gap. Catchpool wrote “Men displaced by the services taken over by the FAU were often drafted to the front line and complained bitterly that I and my colleagues had sent them there.” When conscription came most FAU members applied for exemption and were granted conditional exemption and told to do ‘alternative service’ by continuing to work in the FAU. Some, though, like Catchpool were happy to be volunteers but refused to be ordered to do work which they now believed was helping the war effort. Catchpool spent a long time in prison.

Prison & Punishments

field punishment no 1Many COs who were required to join the Non Combatant Corps when faced with for example being ordered to move munitions refused to do so. They were frequently treated roughly. When he refusesed military orders Horace Twilley was sentenced to 28 days Field Punishment. “Corporal told me he hoped to be one of the shooting party when my time came.” He was “hauled around for an hour, by one soldier after another,…scores of soldiers laughing at he fun” and “put in irons” for two hours every day.

JB Saunders: Field Punishment No. 1

Saunders was arrested as a deserter for failing to answer his call-up papers. He was imprisoned 3 months at Portobello and Barlinnie. Court martialled again in France and again in Egypt where he was sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Shortly after he was released, he wrote to his wife:

14 September 1917

I will not submit to conscription…! will never give in. …

…I have been in chains and handcuffs, crucified to a tree full in this broiling sun nearly every morning and evening, for five months bread and water and solitary confinement…. Seven times I went down with dysentery, and seven times I managed to get on my feet and face the music. …

This tropical sun and chaining up nearly drove me mad. …I …was doing seven days Field Punishment No.1 chained up in the sun. Many times I thought I should hang in the sun and die. I pleaded with the sentry to shoot me… I’ll die fifty times rather than endorse the wicked thing….

They can have my body, my mind I will destroy rather than allow the military cult to take it.”

About 35 Absolutists from RichmondCastle, Harwich Redoubt and Seaford were sent to France where disobeying orders meant court martial. CO Howard Marten was among them. .

“We were forever being threatened with the death sentence. Over and over again we’d be marched up and read out a notice: some man being sentenced to death through disobedience at the Front…. It was all done with the idea of intimidating us. But we wouldn’t have taken that line unless we were prepared to face that situation….

Finally we had the second court martial…. Eventually we were taken out to the parade ground. There was a big concourse of men lined up in an immense square. Under escort we were taken out, one by one, to the middle of the square. I was the first of them…. Then the officer in charge …read out the various crimes – refusing to obey a lawful command …and so on. Then: ‘The sentence of the court is to suffer by being shot.’

There was a suitable pause, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ Then he said, ‘Confirmed by the Commander in Chief,’ Field Marshall Haig, which double-sealed it. There was another long pause – ‘But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for ten years.’ And that was that. …”

COs continued their resistance in prison in a variety of ingenuous ways. Many were permanently damaged by the treatment they received.  Disobeying the Rule of SILENCE: After several months under the rule of silence Fenner Brockway recalled: “A point came when many of us felt that it was undignified and humiliating …and decided openly to resist, For ten glorious days sixty of us ran our own hall, speaking openly on the exercise ground, took arms, played games, singing in cells, but other inmates could hear so five leaders were isolated and transferred to other prisons.” Brockway got 8 months solitary, 3 months’ bread & water.

The food in prison was Inadequate. Breakfast was a pint or porriage made w water; Lunch: potatoes, 6 oz bread, 10oz beans w bacon fat; Dinner was a pint of porridge.

There were numerous hunger strikes by COs & force feeding followed.  In Newcastle Prison 11 COs strike to protest poor and abusive treatment by the doctor: All were Force fed with the  same tube though one man had a disease of the nose. Though force feeding caused terrible thirst the doctor reduced water available to them and insured washing water had soap in it, all bled profusely from the nose and throat.

John Maclean who was tried under the DORA for making speeches “likely to prejudice recruitment to HM Armed Forces” and sentenced to 10 years in prison maintained he was being poisoned and was Force Fed. His health was broken and he died only a few years after being released at the end of the war.

When WE Burns went on hunger strike in Manchester he was force fed. The tube was  too short and cocoa poured into his lungs and he died.

CO’s devised a method of communicating on the pipes using cell no’s as telephone numbers & an adapted Morse Code.  And In many prisons COs secretly produced tiny ‘newspapers’. Written on toilet paper they included short articles, cartoons, jokes, poetry and mock advertisements. Titles included the Walton Leader and the Canterbury Clinker. They smuggled in pencil leads w/ sticking plasters and used hollowed candles as ink wells. This article appeared in the Winchester Whisperer:

‘News from the back of the Front’

Our special correspondent at the back of the front reports that in the early hours of Sunday last the British captured a cowshed. Our losses were only 10,000. The enemy losses must be at least 100,000.

It is hoped that this splendid victory will stop the cry for peace, which seems to have taken hold of a large section of the British people. (Later) in the early hours of Monday the enemy made a strong counterattack and recaptured the above cowshed. Their losses are estimated at 250,000, our casualties were practically nil. The cowshed is of no military value’.

The Walton Leader included articles on Russian Revolution and Passchendale, referring to men sent over the top as canon fodder. Regular papers were not allowed to carry such reports so they were truly revolutionary.

Refusing to Cooperate: When Clifford Allen refused to co-operate with prison authorities he was placed in solitary confinement and put on a diet of bread and water. Suffering from tuberculosis and close to death, he was released in December 1917.

In an attempt to break them many COs were subjected to a kind of cat & mouse treatment whereby they were court martialled, imprisoned for 112 days, then released back to their regiments and, when they again refused to obey orders, court martialled again.  5,973 COs were court martialled. Of these 655 were court martialled twice, 521 three times, 319 four times, 50 five times, and 3 were court martialled six times.

And many were subjected to torture. Jack Grey was released from prison back to regiment: “frog marched, put in a sack and thrown into a pond into which drainage and other foul matter ran 8 times, and, “stripped naked, dragged across a field”  73 Cos died in prison or as a result of imprisonment .  319 men were shot at the front for desertion.

Despite all of the rough treatment though it seems that the steadfastness of COs influenced those they came in contact with. The following article appeared in the NCF paper The Tribunal, 8 Nov, 1917.

“Notes from a CO”

“I think of my first confinement – the surly, contemptuous corporal in the picket room, the boycotting in conversation by the pvts, the cursing by the guards, the constant rudeness, and bullying by the sergeant of the guard, the general attitude of hostility among the men. moved we were when two soldiers whispered ‘good luck’ to us as we passed them

And now! Instead of hostility there is every where sympathy and support. The men go out of their way to be cordial. Almost every soldier the barracks smiles and nods his head in recognition….this atmosphere of friendship not only reflects the respect won by the CO s who have preceded us it reflects positive appreciation of our attitude and admiration for .. .our ‘pluck in stickin tuitl’

In conclusion I’d like to remind us of HG Wells and the idea of the war to end all wars. Conscientious objectors saw through that. At his third court martial CO Frederick Walker said “I am certain warlike efforts will never end wars.”

 Brian Larkin

This article drew heavily upon “Refusing to Kill” a publication of the Peace Pledge Union.



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