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When conscription was introduced in 1916 and single men were immediately called up to fight in Europe, conscientious objectors had to decide what line they would take. If they were offered alternative civilian service, would they say yes? Some thought that was they ought to do, and that was what they did.

But there were others who believed that any kind of alternative service was, in one way or another, helping the ‘war effort’ and supporting the government. So they wanted complete – absolute – exemption from the call-up. That is why they were called ‘absolutists’. What they got was imprisonment.

These men were people of strong minds and strong character: they had to be, if they were to survive harsh prison conditions and mostly solitary confinement. They had to be strong, if they were to go on standing for their principles in prison. Some went on hunger strike, so that they would be released, although they knew that they would be arrested again – and go on hunger strike again. Some refused to stitch mailbags (the usual work given to any prisoners to do), because it was work for the government. Some refused to obey any prison rules, because these rules were inhumane.

Not long after the call-up of single men, married men were also conscripted: they were needed to replace the thousands of soldiers who had already been killed. The example set by the first absolutists made it easier for many married COs (conscious of the effects of their actions on their families) to follow the single men’s example more confidently.

Many of the men who refused to accept prison rules
made a point of explaining their reasons to the governors

the Wakefield Manifesto        :: >

of the prisons where they were held. They said they would do some of the tasks listed – but these would be necessary ones: to do with keeping things clean, for example, and other common-sense needs. But they would do these tasks of their own free will, not under orders.

Such disobedience meant punishment. The men were confined to stone cells without any heating. They were given only bread and water. They were not allowed books, or letters, or visitors, or the opportunity to get some exercise. But they did not give in, though a few suffered badly and never really recovered, either physically or mentally.

We tend to think of rebelliousness in prison as violent and aggressive. But these disobedient and determined protesters were always polite and civilised: they were making a point about the importance of their consciences, and about the evil of war, and about the futility of trying to control men’s minds by imprisoning and ill-treating their bodies. Most kept their spirits up in every way they could – which included singing from their cell windows, to cheer their fellow-prisoners as well as themselves.

When they were finally allowed books again, they spent their time studying. On the rare occasions when they could socialise, some of them gave interesting lectures to the rest. They also talked about their various points of view, and learned from each other. Some men became religious. Some became socialists. Many of the younger COs matured fast, many of the older ones mellowed. As one said later: ‘None who went into prison came out unchanged.’

Meanwhile, outside the prisons, the COs’ friends were hard at work speaking up for them. All kinds of notable and influential people agreed that it was not right to imprison people for a sincere belief just because it was not popular with government policy-makers. At last public opinion forced the government to reconsider the law concerning the treatment of COs.

So now the government tried what became known as ‘the Wakefield experiment’. 120 absolutists were sent to Wakefield Prison, where they were offered comfortable housing and treatment – as long as they were ‘quiet and obedient’. (The first arrivals were even offered sedatives, which they refused to take.) The ‘experiment’ lasted only 3 weeks. Patiently the absolutists explained once again that it was not an easy life they were after: they wanted their freedom so that they could work hard in their own communities in any ways (teaching or writing, for example) that did not help the war. In no circumstances would they obey prison rules, though they would organise themselves to carry out ordinary day-to-day tasks. The embarrassed and exasperated government drafted in large numbers of prison officers, put nearly all the men in solitary confinement, and 3 days later sent them back in small groups to other prisons.

The Government at last officially recognised that the absolutists were genuine in their objection to conscription, and released them all during the summer of 1919.

What was the legacy of the absolutists? There were two important results in particular. First, their resistance and high principles meant that conscientious objection was rather easier in the next world war. Second, they had taken significant steps towards bringing about reform of the country’s prisons. As one absolutist said, their experience ‘helped us to understand the futility of the present penal system to effect any reform of the criminal. Its methods, and the assumptions on which it is based, revolted everyone. It forced many men to think of social reform. It gave an opportunity for study and thought and the making of plans for the future.’