Conscientious Objectors During WW1
At the beginning of World War 1 in August 1914 there was a huge rush to enlist. Many young men were only too eager to join up for King and Country. A significant number of men resisted the propaganda posters and recruitment sergeants, not because they were cowards, as was often asserted by their opponents, but because they had genuine moral or religious objections. These men became known as the conscientious objectors, or "Conchies".
The conscientious objectors faced a great deal of opposition from the public and the Press. However, the British Government wasn't entirely unsympathetic and did allow men to state their objection to military service on grounds of their consciences. Unfortunately, sympathy at local level was sometimes in short supply and many conscientious objectors found that their requests for exemption fell on deaf ears. These men often faced harsh treatment, confinement and, in a few cases, death.
Conscription Poster: Military Service Act 1916
Conscription In Britain
Unlike some other European countries Britain did not have a tradition of conscription. However, after the first two years of World War 1 the initial flood of volunteers had waned and there were simply not enough men to replace those who had fallen. The government took the unprecedented step of introducing into legislation compulsory military service. A Bill was put before Parliament in January 1916 and the Military Service Act came into effect on 2 March 1916.
The Act applied to all men aged between 18 and 41 years of age. The Act did not apply to men who:
- were married
- were widowed with children
- were serving in the Royal Navy
- were members of the clergy
- worked in a reserved occupation.
In May 1916 a further Act extended conscription to married men and in 1918 the age limit was raised to 51 years of age.
There was one important feature of the Act: a "conscientious clause". Pacifists had campaigned through organisations like the No-Conscription Fellowship to secure the right of individuals to claim exemption from conscription due to conscientious objection. Britain was unusual in allowing an opt-out clause for individuals, but the Act allowed individuals or their employers to ask for exemption by applying to a Military Service Tribunal.
How Many Conscientious Objectors in WW1?
The Military Service Tribunals around Britain were kept enormously busy, not just with conscientious objectors but with men claiming exemption on domestic and business grounds too. In June 1916 alone the Tribunals had received claims from 748,587 men (in contrast the Army had received 770,000 new recruits).
The number of conscientious objectors that passed through the Tribunals during the course of the war was approximately 16,000.
Categories of Conscientious Objectors
There were three categories of conscientious objector recognised by the government's system.
- "Absolutists" - men who were categorically opposed to the war. These men were unwilling to perform any form of alternative non-combatant service that might aid the war effort.
- "Alternativists" - men who would perform alternative work as long as it was outside of military control.
- "Non-Combatants" - men who would join the army but on the basis that they were not trained to bear arms.
Military Tribunals could give absolutists who proved their cases complete exemption from military service (only around 300 men were actually granted absolute exemption), allow alternativists to take up civilian work and ensure that non-combatants were posted to non-combatant units.
The Richmond Sixteen
Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire dates from the time of William the Conqueror, yet the castle's prison cells were again put to use in 1916. The castle was a base for a Non-Combatant Corps, but 16 of the men placed in the Corps were absolutists and refused to work. They were put into the castle's jail and then deported to France. The Richmond Sixteen were amongst the men sentenced to death and then reprieved (see below left).
The Non-Combatant Corps
Early in 1916, to coincide with the Military Service Act, the Army decided to set up a Non-Combatant Corps (NCC). By June 1916 there were eight NCC companies catering for some of the 3,400 men who accepted non-combatant service.
The men in the NCC were put to work on tasks that were similar to those undertaken by the Labour Corps, so road building, cutting timber, quarrying, sanitation and moving supplies.
Men in the NCC were privates or lance-corporals and were expected, like all other soldiers, to wear uniform and obey military law.
Punishment for Conscientious Objectors Disobeying Orders
Conscientious Objectors, Court-Martial and Death Sentences
Some conscientious objectors, having been denied an exemption by the Tribunal, were sent to fight in France. Not surprisingly, these men refused to obey orders. The army responded with imprisonment and punishments, including the dreaded Field Punishment No. 1: the man was tied to a fixed object, for instance a gun wheel, often in a crucifixion pose. He was left like this for up to two hours and the punishment repeated every day for up to 28 days.
In 1916 around 34 absolutist Conscientious Objectors who consistently refused orders whilst in France were marched on to a parade ground in Boulogne. Three sides of the square were lined with ranks of 600 troops, called to witness the fate of the Conscientious Objectors. Each of the 34 men was called forward to hear the charge and the sentence: disobeying orders and death by shooting. After the last man was called the adjutant declared that General Haig had confirmed the sentences but, after a pause, he added that General Haig commuted them to 10 years of penal servitude.
"War is a Gun With a Worker at Each End"
The Home Office Scheme: The Brace Committee
Because of the scandal of the court-martial of men, the deaths of men in prison and a feeling that some men had unjustly been denied exemption, the Home Office set up an alternative work scheme. This was administered by the Brace Committee and is sometimes called the Brace Scheme. The idea was that these men should make an "equal sacrifice" to the men at the front.
Two prisons, Dartmoor and Wakefield, were adapted as "work centres" and some absolutists were released from prison on agreeing to accept places.
The work centres weren't universally popular. There was a public meeting in Plymouth on 25 April 1917 to protest against the conscientious objectors at the Princetown Work Centre (formerly Dartmoor Prison). Complaints against the men ranged from their harassment of women to their buying up of supplies in local shops.
Men at Princetown had varying experiences. Some reported being stoned on the way to church services, whilst another recalled galloping on the moors, reading and playing soccer.
White Feathers and Silver Badges
The Order of the White Feather was formed in the UK at the start of World War 1. The organisation aimed to shame reluctant volunteers, such as conscientious objectors, into enlistment by presenting them with a white feather, a traditional British symbol of cowardice. Young women in particular were encouraged to present feathers to men of service age in civilian clothes. Of course, many men were not in uniform for reasons other than cowardice; one winner of the VC was presented with a white feather whilst on leave.
The white feather movement became very popular, not just in Britain, but in Australia, Canada and New Zealand too. Mindful that many men on the home front were either in essential war work or permanently invalided out of the Army, the government issued the Silver War Badge or lapel badges indicating that the wearer was working for the war effort.
Silver War Badge
One World War 1 Conscientious Objector's Story
John was a picture frame maker and gilder in a small town in Cornwall. In February 1914, at the age of 24, he married Caroline in the town's Wesleyan Chapel. When war was declared in August of that same year, John did not join up. However, when conscription came into force John appeared before his local tribunal, on 22 June 1916. On 25 June he filled in his enrolment form on which it was noted that he was exempted from serving as a combatant on conscientious grounds following his tribunal. He was immediately posted to the 3rd Dorset Non-Combatant Southern Corps on Home Service.
Most of the Army Service Records that survive include the results of a medical examination. The results, including a recruit's height and weight, plus a general physical description, are noted. However, in John's case these details are absent; perhaps the Army thought him unworthy of a medical examination.
Apart from overstaying a furlough by 10 hours in 1916, John appears to have settled down to army life. However, on the morning of 22 July 1918, he decided that he could no longer stay in the army. When Corporal Preece noticed that John had not turned out on parade, he fetched Sergeant Francis and the two NCOs found John in his hut. The Sergeant ordered John on to the parade ground, but John stated "I cannot conscientiously carry on in the army". Sergeant Francis said he would give him 30 minutes to reconsider and left him. On his return, John repeated that he could not go on the in the army and was placed under arrest. The charge was disobeying an order.
At his trial the next day, John declined to cross-examine either Corporal Preece or Sergeant Francis and reserved his defence. He was sentenced in the recreation room of the camp at 10.00am on 26 July 1918 and given a prison term of 2 years with hard labour. John was then taken to HMP Wormwood Scrubs, but released on 24 September 1918 as he accepted work under the Brace Scheme. He spent the remainder of the war at the Dartmoor Brace Committee Work Centre.
I found my information about John when I was researching men from my town who didn't return from the war. Many British soldier's records did not survive the Blitz, but John's record did, including the details of his trial.
A WW1 American Conscientious Objector
American Conscientious Objectors in World War 1
During World War 1 the US allowed men to serve in non-combatant roles rather than go on active service. However, as in the UK, this was unacceptable to absolutists. Around 2,000 men were sentenced to prison terms for refusing to undertake alternative war work. Alcatraz Island was just one of the prisons for American conscientious objectors. The men endured harsh conditions; two Hutterite men died whilst incarcerated.
As the war progressed the authorities in the US changed their approach, more through pragmatism than compassion. The exodus of men to France had left farms short of labour, so many conscientious objectors were released to take over their jobs. Others worked for the American Friends Service Committee in France.
The American Friends Service Committee
The American Friends Service Committee was formed in April 1917 as a direct consequence of the US involvement in World War 1. A group of Quakers met in Philadelphia to formulate plans for themselves and other denominations who opposed the war. Their plans covered alternative service in France, finding and supporting conscientious objectors and collected essential supplies for the needy and displaced in France.
Useful Information on Researching UK Conscientious Objectors
- Conscientious objectors in the First World War: further research | The National Archives
Guide to researching First World War conscientious objectors in The National Archives.
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