World War One - Britain
- unwilling soldiers
- alternatives and dilemmas
- Harold Bing's story
- The story of the Harwich
- Mark Hayler's story
- Horace Eaton's story
World War Two - Britain
In all, more than 6,312 conscientious objectors were arrested; 5,970 were court-martialled and sent to prison, where they endured privations both mental and physical (819 spent over two years in prison). At least 73 COs died because of the harsh treatment they received; a number suffered long-term physical or mental illness.
1,330 'absolutists' refused to do any kind of alternative war work, but never won exemption for this principled stand. Some agreed to join the Home Office Scheme, but later changed their minds and went back to prison.
Prisons in those days were still run on inhumane systems inherited from the 19th century. The silence rule was particularly harsh: almost impossible to keep, yet invoking severe punishment when broken. One CO, a Labour journalist called Fenner Brockway (who later became a Labour Member of Parliament and then a peer) started a rebellion against the silence rule. For ten days all 60 COs in Liverpool's Walton Prison chatted openly, played games and organised concerts. As a result Fenner, as ringleader, was transferred to another prison for eight months solitary confinement, and 'three months bread and water treatment until the doctor wouldn't allow more. And yet one had a sense of freedom which I can't describe. The Governor would summon me into his presence, and instead of standing to attention I would say "Nice morning, isn't it". One had an extraordinary sense of personal freedom.' After the war Fenner Brockway made prison reform a crusade. He went on working for peace until he died in 1988, six months before his 100th birthday.
And after the Armistice? No-one was in a hurry to release the COs - certainly not until the surviving soldiers were brought back from the front, which took months. Some COs went on hunger strike in protest at their continued detention: 130 were forcibly fed through tubes (as suffragettes had been) - so forcibly that many were injured by the treatment and had to be temporarily released. Others went on work strikes and were brutally punished for it.
In May 1919 the longest-serving prisoners began to be released; the last CO left prison in August. Many found that no-one wanted to employ them. Those who hadn't done alternative or non-combatant service were deprived of their votes for five years (though this wasn't always strictly enforced).