Based on the experiences of conscientious objectors at Military Service Tribunals in 1916

   Also available in script form  

It was a raw, grey Monday morning towards the end of March 1916, and Oldtown's Military Service Tribunal was about to sit for the fourteenth time since conscription had been introduced earlier in the year. At least they were able to meet in style, in the Town Hall: only a few decades old, a classic of Victorian architecture, and famous for its well-padded seats. But because the hearings were intended to be held in public, they had to be held in the second largest conference room, famous for its icy draughts.

The first man to arrive, because he had to, was the Tribunal's clerk, John Fielding. He was responsible for the paperwork and for organising the sessions. Fielding was a thin man of 52 who had recently retired early from clerical work on the railway because of his weak lungs. A chilblain-sufferer as well, he had hoped to have seen the last of draught-filled rooms, but he was glad of the pay. Coughing, he laid out the papers for the day's hearings.

Now other members of the Tribunal began taking their places. Colonel Gordon was always punctual, his moustache well brushed and his uniform spotless. He was the Military Representative; every one of the country's more than 2,000 Tribunals had to have one. Short-tempered 67-year-old Raymond Gordon minded deeply that he was no longer a working member of the army; but as a member of this Tribunal, he felt, he could still contribute to the war effort.

Every Tribunal panel also contained representatives of the country's political parties. Harold Hartley was a Liberal. He was the owner of Hartley's, Oldtown's department store, which meant that at the age of 58 he'd felt able to leave the day-to-day work to hand-picked department managers. All but two of them (who were married) had already been called up, though. Hartley was already filling in for the conscripted men himself, so, what with the Tribunal sittings as well, he was as hard-worked as ever.

William North entered the room like a soldier on the march, though he was actually a retired police sergeant. You could tell his job just by looking at him, thought Owen Sedley as he too sat down at the Tribunal table. North, a Conservative, had little time for the Socialist party, of which Sedley was a member: in North's eyes Socialists were among the worst kind of political trouble-maker. To Sedley, now 66, who had worked as a clerk in the textile factories that had made Oldtown so prosperous, Socialism was the best kind of political ideal.

About thirty members of the public - mostly mothers or wives of men seeking exemption from military service that day - were settling down in the public seats as the Chairman of the Tribunal arrived. James Bradfield was a handsome well-built man of 60. In 1915 he had retired from a successful career in London as a civil servant. He returned to live in the district where he was born and where he had always kept a house. They were already talking of making him Mayor next year.

James Bradfield looked amiably at his dozen colleagues. 'Good morning, gentlemen. I trust you passed a pleasant and refreshing Sunday. I had the opportunity to reflect that this panel has so far heard the cases of 557 men, and there are many more than that ahead of us. We need to work fast. Efficiently, but fast.'

Colonel Gordon was pleased by this briskness. He was also pleased by some news he had heard from a friend in the War office, news that meant he would be busy for some time. 'It looks as though there may be rather more than we thought,' he told Bradfield importantly. 'I believe that conscription is to be introduced for married men as well as single ones before the summer.'

'It's a long time since 1914 when everyone was saying the war would be over by Christmas,' remarked Harold Hartley ruefully.

'I hope you aren't blaming the army for that prediction,' said Raymond Gordon sharply.

Owen Sedley gave a bleak smile. 'Well, Colonel, there wasn't much sign that the military disagreed with it.'

William North straightened his back and looked stern. 'Morale needed to be kept up.'

'It still does,' said the Chairman. 'So, Mr Fielding, what have we got today?'

Fielding read from his list. '24 cases of disability. 11 with long-term illnesses. 5 men, two of them widowers, who are the sole providers for immediate relatives. 3 who claim that their occupations require them to remain in their present employment.'

Bradfield thought for a moment. '43. Well, at five minutes each, there's a chance we will finish by luncheon. Good. I have an important business meeting later, and -

'And 5 objectors on grounds of conscience, sir,' said Fielding apologetically but firmly. 'They have been called for this afternoon.'

'Oh dear.' James Bradfield sighed. 'Well, we ought to be able to despatch them fast enough, as long as we don't let them argue. Mr Sedley, I know you have some sympathy with these men: I hope you won't allow that to slow up the proceedings.'

'Their written statements are quite short and clear, at least, Mr Chairman.' Sedley said evenly.

Bradfield half-smiled. 'Then it hangs on what they say to support their statements, doesn't it.'

Colonel Gordon snorted. 'Men like that are nothing but cowards and humbugs, to my mind. Insolent, some of them, too.'

'If you ask me, they ought to be shot,' North grumbled.

Gordon nodded fiercely. 'Certainly one way and another I see only one reason for giving them full exemption: their death!'

'And if I may say so, Mr Chairman,' continued North, 'you ought not to let the public take notes during the proceedings - poisonous ideas should not be allowed to spread. In fact, we should meet in private - they do in Hull and Doncaster, I know.'

Bradfield looked at North coolly. 'I like to think we have nothing to hide. We'll leave things as they are. Right, Mr Fielding: call the first applicant.'

In fact the morning's work went well. Every man was granted exemption except one, whose skills as a hedger and ditcher, the Tribunal decided, would be better used on the battlefield than beside the farmer's fields at home.

When the Tribunal members came back from an unhurried lunch, they were startled to find John Fielding, who had only had time for a sandwich he had brought with him, trying to organise a crowd of people who were pouring into the public seats. These had all been taken, and more people were standing bunched up around them. The corridor outside was full of yet more men and women trying to get into the conference room.

'Who the devil are all these people?' exclaimed Bradfield. 'There was only a handful in the public seats this morning. Fielding!'

John Fielding struggled towards him, breathing hard. 'There has been some publicity concerning the conscientious objectors, Mr Chairman. The applicant Edward Draper, in particular, is a very popular man.'

Some helpful Borough Council officials appeared and succeeded in clearing a way to the Tribunal table. Bradfield turned and said loudly, so the crowd could hear, 'Well, they know they should be silent. They had better behave themselves.' He turned to Fielding. 'Call the first applicant.'

'Arthur Watt: 39 years of age; worker in a factory packing department; address, 23 Hepton Street, Oldtown.' The man stepped up to the bar separating the Tribunal from the rest of the room.

'Have you anything to add to your statement?' James Bradfield asked.

'I would like to state publicly that I believe in the brotherhood of man, and that Socialism is my religion. I am convinced that all war is wrong, and therefore -'

William North interrupted him. 'You're wearing spectacles with one lens blacked out. Why?'

'I lost that eye in an accident.'

'Then why,' said the Chairman, leaning forward, 'aren't you applying for exemption on the grounds of physical handicap?'

Arthur Watt stood even straighter. 'The grounds that matter to me are moral ones, sir.'

'You're wasting our time,' said Bradfield impatiently. 'You are granted exemption on account of your handicap. We shall recommend that you do civilian service working on the land to support the war effort.'

'Yes, I'm quite prepared to work under a civilian authority - '

North was outraged. 'What do you mean, prepared? The Chairman is giving you an order, not making you a proposition.'

'I will do any kind of civilian labour of which I'm capable. I'd be a dustman if necessary - Lord knows they're needed in this borough.'

Bradfield said coldly, 'Such remarks don't improve your standing with us. Leave this room. Next applicant, Mr Fielding. Quickly.'

Fielding gave the details. 'Joseph Sykes, aged 27, skilled textile worker, 15 Shepherd's Terrace, Streamside, Oldtown.'

The Chairman looked at Sykes. 'Where are you employed?'

'At Murdoch's, sir.'

Hartley intervened. 'Mr Chairman, Murdoch's Textiles are now manufacturing materials used for military uniforms and fibre-based military equipment.'

'Yes, I know that,' said Bradfield testily. 'Mr Murdoch has told me so himself. Sykes, has anyone been found to replace you?'

'I don't think so, sir.'

'You're exempted from military service for two months, then, to allow for that to be done. Make sure your manager knows he has to find an older man to do your work. You will receive a summons to attend at the barracks eight weeks from today.'

'But sir, you can see from my statement that I have applied for full exemption on grounds of conscience.'

'To save your skin, no doubt,' said Colonel Gordon scornfully. 'Be thankful for the two months grace you've been given. You'd better pray for the war to end before they are up!'

Bradfield ignored the interruption. 'We do not need to deal with the matter of your conscience here, Sykes. If it's still giving you trouble when you're called up, you will have to re-apply, or bite the bullet: either way, you will be under military authority in two months' time.'

North barked, 'Not that the army wants dishonourable fellows like you in its ranks!'

Sykes said calmly, 'Sir, I have indeed asked that the armed forces should not burdened with me, and yet you refuse to consider my moral objection to war.'

Colonel Gordon looked both angry and triumphant. 'As I said, these men are intolerably insolent.'

'There is no more to be said, Mr Sykes, or certainly not by you,' said Bradfield. 'The next applicant, Mr Fielding, please.'

John Fielding cleared his throat. 'David Sharpe: 32 years of age; elementary school teacher; address 11 St Anne's Villas, Heddon Road, Oldtown.' Fielding's youngest daughter was in the top class of Sharpe's school and said he was kind and fair.

James Bradfield looked down at his notes. 'I see that you belong to a Christian sect which requires its members not to carry or use weapons. Is that your only reason for applying for exemption?'

'I have held these beliefs for 7 years now, and to abandon them now would brand me a hypocrite, which I could not tolerate. It's a matter of deep importance to me, and I would like to explain - '

'I asked you, have you anything else to say?'

'Yes, I do.'

'Then why is it not in your written statement?'

'I expected to be able to bear witness to it here. My conscience, my beliefs, are - '

North burst out, 'What would you do if an enemy soldier was attempting to rape your sister?'

David Sharpe sighed. This was a familiar question put to pacifists. 'What has that to do with my moral objection to war? I am totally opposed to war, and that is why I stand here. I also remind you that war breeds the kind of atrocity you refer to, when men have been brutalised by fighting. The rape of women by soldiers in warfare has been documented by historians of all societies down the ages. War is indeed an evil, and there is no moral justification for - '

'Mr Chairman, we resolved to hear no speeches, no arguments!' cried Colonel Gordon loudly.

Bradfield looked at Sharpe. 'I repeat, do you have any other objection to military service?'

'What is more terrible than to kill another human being? What greater objection could there be to - '

The Colonel exploded, 'God help our wives and daughters if the enemy invade! They'd get no protection from you.' He looked at Sharpe with open hatred. 'Frankly, you appal me.'

The Chairman made up his mind. 'In view of your religious convictions, Mr Sharpe, you are recommended for non-combatant service. No, not another word! Stand down.'

Friends of David Sharpe came forward and led him away, murmuring sympathetically.

The Colonel spoke so that the whole room could hear. 'If our men took the line he does, we'd be an occupied country now! And another thing - he's not a fit person to be teaching children. The coming generation needs -

'No arguments or speeches, as we agreed, Colonel Gordon!' said Bradfield wryly. 'Next man in, please, Mr Fielding.'

'Alan Saville: 30 years of age; solicitor's clerk; address The Corner House, Priory Lane, Oldtown.'

'What have you to add to your written statement?' asked the Chairman with a touch of weariness.

Alan Saville had noticed how most of the Tribunal members, except the ones who spoke, sat with hunched shoulders and an unwillingness to look at the applicants. Some were doodling on the papers in front of them. One repeatedly and pointedly pulled out his pocket watch. So Saville spoke loudly and clearly to get their attention. 'I am a Socialist and believe that the life of every human being is sacred. To me, war is murder, and war will end when that view is held by many more who, like me, refuse to take part in warfare of any kind. I am not afraid of hardship as a result of my views.'

Bradfield looked at him thoughtfully. 'My fellow Tribunal member, Mr Sedley here, is a Socialist too, and he will agree with me when I tell you that many Socialists have become soldiers in this war. Will you not, Mr Sedley?'

Sedley looked seriously at Saville. 'It is not easy for many Socialists to take so fundamental a position as yours, Mr Saville. It may not even, at this point in time, be right. People move only gradually towards radical change.'

Saville met Sedley's eyes. 'I am justified in interpreting my Socialist faith according to my lights. Whatever you say, there are more and more Socialists who oppose all war, including the Independent Labour Party of which I'm a member, and I'm proud to be among them. Perhaps you too will think again, after you have heard us.'

'Do you belong to any religious sect?' enquired North, who seldom bothered to read the applicants' written statements.

'No. My position is founded on moral grounds.'

'Moral! Hah! Political you mean.' North said meaningfully.

Colonel Gordon was growing restless. 'Do you think it right, on these moral grounds of yours, to allow a foreign foe to invade these shores?'

Saville said gravely, 'I have no desire to see this country occupied. But even in that event I would never carry weapons or use them. It is being armed that provokes the use of arms. No civilised country would think of attacking another if that country was not armed.'

'Do you really mean to say that if this country had no weapons, no army or navy, we would not be attacked?' Raymond Gordon's voice grew shrill in disbelief.

'Yes. When a country is unarmed there is far less danger of attack. Countries invade each other through fear.'

The Colonel, scarlet with temper, turned to Bradfield. 'We've had enough of this, Mr Chairman. This case should be stopped.'

The Chairman drew breath to speak, but North interrupted with a new question. 'Saville: do you smoke?'


'Do you realise that every cigarette you buy provides tax money which pays for the war? If your conscience is so important to you, you should give them up.'

'It's impossible to do anything without helping the war. If I eat I help the war, if I travel I help the war. If I neither smoked, ate nor travelled, and my money sat in the bank, it would still be used to pay for the war. So my energies are spent in one aim alone: working to promote peace. That's why I'm here now.'

James Bradfield had been looking at the clock. 'Your claim for exemption is disallowed,' he said abruptly.

'Why?' demanded Saville.

'You have not made an adequate case for it. This is not a place for political debate. Make way for the next applicant immediately. Mr Fielding?'

'Edward Draper - 'Fielding began, but was interrupted. The moment he said the name, there were loud cheers and applause from the listening crowd. Some of them shouted words of encouragement to Draper, who looked back over his shoulder, smiling, as he approached the Tribunal table.

'- 27 years of age, skilled textile worker, 18 Palmerston Road, Oldtown.' finished Fielding as the noise subsided.

'We know who he is!' called a man in the crowd.

'You listen to him!' cried another.

The Colonel spoke low and urgently. 'Mr Chairman, the room must be cleared of these people at once! This is clearly an orchestrated disruption of the Tribunal. It's outrageous.'

'We shall have to hear this case in private,' Harold Hartley agreed.

William North looked important. He had been confident there would be trouble. 'The police have been sent for. I got a message to the Chief Constable earlier.' The other Tribunal members eyed him doubtfully, but nodded or pursed their lips in grave approval. One of them pointed to the back of the conference room, where, sure enough, several uniformed constables had appeared.

The crowd had spotted them too, and began shouting.

'A trial in private is not a fair trial!'

'Free speech!'

'Free speech for the people!'

'As citizens we have a right to hear.'

'And to speak if we have to!'

Owen Sedley spoke to Bradfield: 'It is quite likely that Mr Draper has no connection with these people. Perhaps we should let him state his position.'

Edward Draper heard him. 'I'm as surprised as you are by this demonstration. But I think I can explain it. One of the reasons I'm widely known at my place of work and throughout Oldtown is that I've expressed a strong anti-war attitude in peacetime as well as war, indeed since I was fourteen years old. Perhaps if you let me speak to these people - '

Colonel Gordon said contemptuously, 'They won't listen to you!'

He spoke more loudly than he meant to, and the crowd spoke back.

'Yes we will!'

'We think highly of Draper, you know.'

'Yes, more than we do of this Tribunal!'

Owen Sedley stood up and signed to them for silence. 'You aren't making it any easier for Mr Draper with these remarks. He'll tell you so himself.'

Turning towards the crowd, Draper said earnestly, 'Women and men, I appeal to you to make no further demonstrations while my case is heard. If I get no justice, it doesn't matter - I'm just one man, representing the pacifist beliefs of many men as well as myself. I want fair play and no favours. Will you help? It's important that I'm heard in public.'

There were murmurs of agreement.

James Bradfield looked at the crowd, frowning. 'Be warned,' he told them. 'The slightest disturbance and the police outside will remove you.'

Then he turned to Draper. 'Now, Mr Draper, can you prove that you have been, as you put it in your written statement, "opposed to militarism" for more than a few convenient months?'

'Yes,' said Draper with complete confidence. 'I can call on a number of women and men who have heard me express that view, and my belief in the sacredness of human life, for more than a decade.'

Hartley leaned forward and spoke with real concern. 'Doesn't it trouble you that by refusing to fight you are sheltering behind the brave men who are fighting for your country?'

'In that sense I have no country. My country is the community of workers, wherever they are. I work for the economic and moral betterment of humanity, anywhere.'

'Including Germany?' asked North, with emphasis.

'Yes,' said Draper. Some of the Tribunal gasped.

'Well, you'd better go there, then,' said Colonel Gordon petulantly.

Draper glanced at him, then looked away. 'I would be no worse off there than I am here. Wherever I am, I work to persuade the people that war is never the way to settle disputes.'

North spoke as one who knew best. 'Oh, they might pretend to go along with you in time of peace, but when their blood is up, only force will do.'

'You can never defeat militarism with militarism,' Draper said. 'Meanwhile, the interests of the workers of England and the workers of Germany are the same, and I will not march against the workers anywhere.'

'Non-combatant service, then,' said Harold Hartley to the Chairman.

Draper spoke fast. 'Certainly not. Non-combatant service is still military service. I object not only to killing but also to manufacturing the ammunition and weapons to do it.'

The Colonel stared at him incredulously. 'But in heaven's name, man, the Germans are fighting against England!'

'They are not fighting against me,' said Draper simply.

Hartley said, gently, as if explaining to a child, 'You're an Englishman - of course they are!'

Edward Draper looked at him without expression. 'I don't think my name has been mentioned in the German Parliament.'

Any reply was drowned by laughter and applause from the crowd.

The Chairman got up and signalled to his colleagues that they should rise: this case needed private discussion in another room, not their usual rapid whispered exchange at the table.

In an anteroom next to the lavatories they perched on small hard chairs, all talking at once until Bradfield held up a hand for silence. Then he looked enquiringly at Sedley, who said, 'I think he has made out a good case.'

North would have none of that. 'Oh, he talks well, but his ideas are alien and crackpot. They could never work in practice. Any fool can see that.'

'He would say they can work when enough people believe in them,' said Sedley.

The Chairman spoke before North could reply. 'Well, one way and another Mr Draper has taken up a good deal more of our time than we normally allow. I think we have a majority vote that in the light of his evident sincerity we grant a two-month temporary exemption?'

'Yes, I support that,' said Hartley at once.

North said grudgingly, 'I suppose so - two months isn't long. He would have made an excellent officer, don't you think, Colonel Gordon? It's a dreadful waste of a good man. Still, in two months he will come under military control. He might be licked into shape yet.'

'Of course not,' said Owen Sedley impatiently. 'He won't fight, and he won't accept non-combatant status.'

The Colonel was genuinely astonished. 'These men are really quite insane. Doesn't he realise what he's passing up? As a non-combatant he could have an army rank, army pay, and government allowance for any dependants. And on top of that the coward's dream: the knowledge that he would never be asked to fight on the front line.'

Sedley spoke quietly. 'I think, Colonel, he is fighting on a front line of his own, and I for one respect that.'

Bradfield had been listening in silence. Now he stood up. 'In a way it is we who are taking the coward's way out. We are granting him a temporary exemption, and he will appeal against it in favour of the absolute exemption we have refused. The Appeals Tribunal will turn him down and give him enforced non-combatant status. He will reject that too, and face military discipline and prison. He knows it. We know it. And what help is all this to the war?'

Sedley said, 'I remember another objector saying that non-combatant service was like trying to stop a boat sinking by baling the water out instead of plugging the hole that was letting it in. "The only way to save life," he said, "is to stop the war." It has a certain logic, don't you think? I believe Edward Draper when he speaks of working for the interests of humanity.'

Abruptly Colonel Gordon stood up, knocking his chair over, and said intensely, 'The whole war is in the interests of humanity!'

James Bradfield, still thoughtful, looked at them all in turn. Then he said, 'We can scarcely disagree, however, that interests of humanity are best served by peace. It so happens that most of us believe that to preserve peace we must be prepared for war. Draper does not. But it is peace we want, and I am now going out to tell him that and wish him luck. Which of you will support me in that?'

And he went out without waiting for an answer.


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