in Britain during the First World War


World War One conscientious objectors


World War One - Britain

- conscription
- unwilling soldiers
- alternatives and dilemmas
- prison
- Harold Bing's story
- The story of the Harwich
- Mark Hayler's story
- Dartmoor
- Horace Eaton's story

World War Two - Britain


Tribunal for conscientious objectors WW1.
click picture for large view


There have always been people who are committed to an idea, an ideal, a value, a religion, a cause. Among them, there have always been people convinced that, at whatever risk to themselves, their commitment must not involve the use of violence or war. They have hung on to that conviction despite being despised, condemned and punished for it. It takes a lot of courage to hold out against violence and killing when your family and friends are threatened and may themselves turn against you, when you face public hostility and hatred, when the leaders of your society are determined that war, not peace, is the right and heroic way forward, and when you are accused of being a coward and a traitor. The conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the First World War were courageous in this way.


In 1914, after 20,000 casualties had been recorded in the first two weeks of the war, compulsory call-up for British men looked increasingly likely. Pacifist members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, set up in 1915, successfully campaigned to secure 'the conscience clause' in the 1916 Conscription Act: the right to claim exemption from military service. [see Military Conscription]

Over 16,000 men made that claim. They were required to attend a tribunal (an interviewing panel with legal authority) to have the sincerity of their claims assessed. The government meant well: these tribunals were intended to be humane and fair. But it was left to local councils to choose the people who actually sat on the panels, and they often selected themselves. They were a mixed bunch: businessmen, shopkeepers, landowners, retired military officers, civil servants and the like, most of them too old to be called up. Most were also strongly patriotic and therefore prejudiced against anyone whom they thought was not. Often they were people 'of not very great depth of vision or understanding', genuinely confused about their task and its complicated guidelines. A few tribunal members were women, who seemed particularly incensed by the conscientious objectors' (COs') point of view. Another hazard for COs was that each tribunal panel contained one army-selected member, attending every hearing and with the right to cross-examine each applicant. These 'military representatives' had a common aim: to get as many men as possible into the army to fill the gaps left by the dead.

The COs came from all walks of life, and varied widely in their ability to cope with often rude and aggressive interviewers. Some didn't get a chance to say a word, other embarked on well-prepared argument. Whatever they said, the result was the same: only a handful received full exemption, and many were denied any form of exemption at all.


The COs fell into three categories, all providing difficult choices for them to make:

- Some were 'absolutists', opposed to conscription as well as war, upholders of civil liberty and the freedom of the individual - values thought to be respected in Britain. Absolutists (most of whom were committed pacifists) believed that any alternative service supported the war effort and in effect supported the immoral practice of conscription as well. The tribunals had the power to give these men complete and unconditional exemption.

- Some were 'alternativists', prepared to undertake alternative civilian work not under any military control. Tribunals had power to exempt them from military service on condition that they actually did this work.

- 'Non-combatants' were prepared to accept call-up into the army, but not to be trained to use weapons, or indeed have anything to do with weapons at all. Tribunals had power to put these men on the military register on this basis.

But the tribunals didn't use their powers with much judgement or sympathy. Not only did they rarely grant unconditional exemption, they also often allocated absolutists or alternativists to non-combatant duties. In many cases applications were turned down altogether, which meant that the men were liable for call-up as ordinary soldiers. These unwilling conscripts could be arrested and handed over to the military; if they disobeyed military orders they would be court-martialled and sent to prison.

COs faced these unpleasant consequences with responses as varied as themselves. Their only backing came from peace groups and a small group of Members of Parliament, and above all from the sustained vigilance of the No-Conscription Fellowship. Despite continual harassment by the police (which meant going partly 'underground') the NCF managed to keep track of almost all COs, provide moral and physical support for some of their families, and campaign against the harsh treatment and imprisonment so many of them endured. The NCF was fortunate in its leaders - intelligent and dedicated men - and in its organiser, a formidably efficient ex-suffragette: Catherine Marshall reckoned that for aiding COs she was technically liable to 2,000 years in prison! continue...






  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  41b Brecknock Road, London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 020 7424 9444  fax: +44 020 7482 6390     CONTACT US