into military service

CONSCRIPTION to military service is a system whereby the state requires all men (and in a few cases women) to serve a period in the armed forces. Begun in Prussia in the 18th century, it was developed by Napoleon in France and thence spread throughout continental Europe. It never became a British tradition, although there was an obligation for some men to serve in local part-time armies called the militia, which withered away in the early 19th century. A National Service League lobbied for British compulsory military training in Edwardian times, but a ‘Citizen’ s Army’ was generally disliked as smacking of militarism.

First World War
Even in the chauvinist atmosphere of the First World War conscription for the battlefield – the position of all Britain’s allies as well as enemies – was resisted until by January 1916 the flood of volunteers was reduced to a trickle, despite social pressure on ‘laggards’ by attempts to shame them.

The turning point in British military policy, the Military Service Act 1916, was unique in conscription history by also providing for exemption on conscientious grounds. Debate had centred not so much on whether conscientious objection should be recognised as on whether it should be limited to Quakers (who in 1757 had been exempted from the militia) or defined in some other particular way. In the event, conscientious objection was not defined, and it was left to those implementing the Act to deal with it on a case-by-case basis.

The importance for the conscientious objection movement of not attempting to define the concept was invaluable, for there was no single motivation or attitude. Some were Quakers and fully accepted the historic Quaker rejection of war; some were Christians in churches accepting the ‘Just War’ tradition, but stood out against it; some were socialists and believed in a unity of fellow workers ‘across the roar of the guns’; some were humanists or anarchists rejecting the ultimate control of the state over life and limb. All agreed that participation in war was a matter for individual conscience, overriding all legal and social pressures. Many of them came together in the No-Conscription Fellowship, formed in 1914 to oppose conscription and support objectors; women and men too old for call-up helped with the work at the risk of their own prosecution.

Local authorities were required to set up tribunals to deal with applications for exemption, but the system enabled personal prejudice to override the libertarian principle of the law. Councillors frequently appointed themselves, with their pro-establishment, ‘patriotic’ views; and the same tribunals were charged with exemption on non-conscientious grounds such as hardship for key workers in family businesses, or compassion such as widowers with dependent children; in this context it was easy to label men without specific responsibilities as mere ‘shirkers’ or ‘cowards’.

Thus, although tribunals had power to recognise three degrees of conscientious objection - exemption without conditions, exemption conditional upon performing alternative civilian work, or non-combatant service in the army (a special Non-Combatant Corps [NCC] was created) - many men were either refused exemption or granted only non-combatant status.

An appeal system was also flawed, so that clashes inevitably arose between individual conscience and the law. Men rejected by tribunals were deemed to be enlisted (either in the army proper or the NCC as the case might be) and could then be arrested by the civil police and handed over to military custody. Following conscience, the men would disobey a sample ‘order’ such as to put on a uniform, and then be court-martialled, receiving sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment, served in a civil prison. Upon discharge the men would be handed back to the army for the cycle to recommence. Some men were very brutally treated in military custody, and for others, particularly those accustomed to sedentary work, the rigours of prison were excessively harsh. Out of 16,000 WW1 conscientious objectors, some 6000 endured imprisonment varying between a few months and three or more years. Some 50 men, illegally shipped to France, were formally sentenced to death, but reprieved. 73 men, however, did die as a result of their treatment and are commemorated on a Plaque in the PPU offices.

Second World War
British conscription ended in 1919, but twenty years later was resumed (Military Training Act 1939 [May], superseded by National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 [September]) in the immediate prelude to the Second World War. On this occasion the procedure for conscientious objectors (with the three categories as before) was on the whole more humane.

Tribunals were appointed by the Minister of Labour, required to seek impartial persons, the chair being a county court judge and one member appointed after consultation with trade union interests; the procedure was also separated from exemption on other grounds. In 1941 women were brought into the scope of conscription, but as all women with dependent children were exempt, and many women were informally left in occupations such as nursing or teaching, the number appearing before tribunals (a woman served on the tribunal on such occasions) was relatively few (1700).

Nevertheless, a number of the total 60,000 objectors were sent to prison by civilian courts for disregarding the findings of tribunals, although not usually for so long or under such harsh conditions as previously. The rising composer (now Sir) Michael Tippett served a three months sentence. Most (like those not imprisoned in WW1) worked in relatively menial capacities on farms, in hospitals or in social services (a particular contribution was made by the Pacifist Service Units, which pioneered a form of social work amongst the socially deprived and became the present Family Service Units). Some, as in the First World War, did relief work abroad with the Friends Ambulance Unit, and, like some non-combatants, on occasions ended up in a battle-zone alongside the military, with the risk and even reality of being killed.

Although there was some stigma (partly whipped up by the popular press with headlines like ‘pansies’ ringing the changes on ‘pasty-faces’ of WW1) and social exclusion, most were accepted by colleagues in the work situation when actually seen to be pulling their weight as much as anyone. The greater exclusion was by some employers, not least local authorities, adopting a policy of refusing to employ objectors, even though a tribunal might have, for example, granted exemption to a teacher conditional upon remaining in his employment. The government condemned the practice but refused to make it illegal.

There was another kind of conscription for some, in that the government had power to ‘direct’ civilians to certain kinds of work, and to order ‘fire-watching’ in air raids. There was no formal provision for conscientious objection to these activities, and some people (including women) were prosecuted and even imprisoned for refusing to perform civilian work which they saw as part of the war, and others for refusing compulsory ‘fire-watching’. In this last case, objectors made it clear that they were willing to be ‘good neighbours’ in an emergency, but could not conscientiously become ‘a cog in the war machine’.

In a different way from the aftermath of the First World War, conscription for men was continued fifteen years into ‘peacetime’, until 1960, adding some 10,000 objectors to the British total. These continued to be supported by the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, set up in 1939 with advisory bureaux all over the country. Even today, volunteer members of the armed forces have a right to claim discharge on the grounds of a conscientious objection developed since enlistment. The Ministry of Defence recognises the Peace Pledge Union as an independent ‘third party’ to observe hearings of the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors, which sits in the capacity of former tribunals.

The Wider World
Meanwhile, conscription continued in continental Europe, and only after patient endurance of repeated imprisonments by individual men in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, has the right to refuse to kill gradually and grudgingly been established in most west European countries. None, however, allows the former British possibility of absolute exemption, and some require alternative service to be longer than military service. In some states only religious grounds are recognised. Ironically, after the extremities of the Nazi regime, under which the Austrian Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in 1943 as a conscientious objector, the Allies insisted that the newly emerging West German army must recognise conscientious objection.

Even before the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, conscientious objection had become a significant mode of dissent in eastern Europe. Along with other liberal values, conscientious objection is being more widely recognised in the former Soviet bloc, but still not yet in Russia, although an intention to phase out conscription has been announced.

Conscription has already been abolished in Belgium and is set to be in the Netherlands and France; Greece, however, where objectors were executed as late as 1949, only recognised conscientious objection in 1997 – with alternative service twice the length of military service; Switzerland still has to properly recognise it, and Turkey – in NATO – is rigorously repressive.

Two Commonwealth countries – Cyprus and Singapore – have conscription without recognition of conscientious objection, and Bermuda has conscription to a part-time army, with the right of conscientious objection won as recently as 1995. The new government of South Africa has abolished conscription, whereas the former regime (which conscripted only Whites) imprisoned some objectors for six years. Conscription without recognition of conscientious objection applies in most of Latin America, but Costa Rica has officially abolished its army, and Colombia has recently begun to recognise objection. In Israel women also are liable, but it is easier for them to claim conscientious objection than for men. In authoritarian states such as China, Iran or Iraq, refusal of military service would probably result in death.

Although it has only persuasive rather than binding force, the UN Commission on Human Rights has since 1987 recognised ‘the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to compulsory military service as a legitimate exercise of the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. Similar resolutions have been adopted by both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, and all these bodies have urged member states to give effect to such right. The UK government has supported all these moves, but what counts for more is the persistent demand by conscientious objection and civil rights groups, and the accounts of individual experiences in many countries.

Short of the complete abolition of conscription, there is another ideal set forth by the European Parliament in 1983, which no government has yet implemented: ‘no court or commission can penetrate the conscience of an individual and a declaration setting out the individual’s motives must therefore suffice in a majority of cases to secure the status of a conscientious objector’.

Many in the peace movement now take an even wider view of conscientious objection. There is the refusal to take civilian work in arms factories, weapons research and the like. People are refusing to pay the proportion of their taxes that pay for war and preparations for war. School pupils have resisted pressures to join military cadet forces. There is a sense in which everyone who stands out as a human being against a society which seems to accept the inevitability of war is a conscientious objector.

In the meantime, each 15 May is observed as International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, and on that day in 1994 a Stone was dedicated in Tavistock Square, in London, ‘to commemorate men and women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world and in every age who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill’

Alternativists and Absolutists
Amongst the wide variety of conscientious objectors, two broad categories may be distinguished: ‘alternativists’ and ‘absolutists’.
‘Alternativists’ are prepared to perform some compulsory but socially useful service instead of military duties.
‘Absolutists’, or ‘total resisters’, deny the right of the state to impose any compulsory service.
In states which do not recognise conscientious objection at all, there may be no practical difference in the way the two groups are treated. Some states, however, recognise conscientious objection, but only on the basis of alternative service being performed, and ‘total resisters’ are much more harshly treated.


Peace Pledge Union, 1 Peace Passage, London N7 0BT. Tel +44 (0)20 7424 9444  contact   |  where to find us