Conscientious Objectors During WW1

Conscientious Objection

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 poster urging men to apply early if they had grounds for exemption.
Conscription poster urging men to apply early if they had grounds for exemption. | Source

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

Field Punishment No. 1 replaced flogging in the British Army.  It was used for those who disobeyed orders on active service.  Some conscientious objectors sent to France were charged and given FP No. 1
Field Punishment No. 1 replaced flogging in the British Army. It was used for those who disobeyed orders on active service. Some conscientious objectors sent to France were charged and given FP No. 1 | Source

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.

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

Men who had been wounded or discharged from the Forces were issued the Silver War Badge to wear on civilian clothes to distinguish them from "shirkers".
Men who had been wounded or discharged from the Forces were issued the Silver War Badge to wear on civilian clothes to distinguish them from "shirkers". | Source

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

John Neufeld was a Mennonite conscientious objector.  He is shown with his parole pass, allowing him to leave barracks to perform work at a dairy.
John Neufeld was a Mennonite conscientious objector. He is shown with his parole pass, allowing him to leave barracks to perform work at a dairy. | Source

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.

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Comments 35 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

3/4 of a million applied for that status and only 16,000 were granted CI status....not good odds! Very interesting information here Judi! I knew very little about this, so thank you for the education. Well done as always.

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

What a well-researched, well-written piece! Conchies really did get the worst of it from the locals. It is truly amazing to see the change in the mass of civilians when war is declared. It's kind of frightening. The social pressure on the conchies must have been immense. I heard that some conchies chose the ambulance service and went out, unarmed, into no man's land to bring back the wounded. Voted up, interesting, awesome and shared.

Horatio Plot profile image

Horatio Plot 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, England.

This is a great article Judi. My great uncle, my mother's beloved Uncle Harold, whom I remember spinning me around and throwing me onto the sofa when I was about 5 and he must have been about 80, spent time in Newcastle Prison because he was a conscientious objector. Three times they marched him and others from the cells and put them in front of a firing squad before backing down and marching them back again, according to my mother. Can you imagine the effect of that on a young man's psyche? I have tried to research the matter but most of the records concerning objectors were destroyed shortly after the war.

A fine piece of writing, congratulations. I suspect I'll be back to say well done on HOTD.

sjwalsh profile image

sjwalsh 4 years ago from Brookline, MA

Excellent Hub!! Voted up and sharing

gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

The complete history of conscientious objectors in both WW1 and WW2 for Britian and the U.S. is not well known. Great contribution!

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

How kind of them not to conscript individuals already serving in the Navy!

It had never occurred to me to consider conciseness objectors in WWI. I always think of Vietnam when I think of people objecting to war! Fascinating information, as always.

Mommy Needs a Nap profile image

Mommy Needs a Nap 4 years ago from Arkansas

Very interesting and informative. Voted up.

aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

I would suggest that this article isn't complete without a mention of one American conscientious objector who became extremely famous, Alvin York. York received the Congressional Medal of Honor for what he did in the war, after his battalion commander and a captain sat down with him and a Bible. The commander "said he didn't want to discuss this question as a battalion commander discussing it with an officer and a private. He wanted us to discuss it as three American citizens interested in a common cause. ... We didn't get annoyed or angry or even raise our voice. We jes examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter favoured war." (from "Sergeant York and the Great War")

Being from the UK, you would probably be amused by York's statement that a German major he captured "could speak English as well as I could."

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Bill - the odds were definitely stacked against the COs, although the government did begin to realise that the Tribunals were somewhat over-zealous.

Hi David - you're right - many alternativists went into the RAMC and there was also a particular ambulance group set up by COs. Should add a bit about that. These men were definitely not cowardly,

Hi Horatio - fascinating to hear first hand experience of a CO. You are right, most Tribunal records were destroyed in 1921. However, you can sometimes find information from local record offices, newspaper archives and, if the man was enlisted (like the man I researched - John) you might find a service record (although most of these perished in the Blitz).

Hi sjwalsh - thank you!

Hi gmarquardt - now I've started looking at this subject, I intend to find out more, so I hope I can find a few books and records on the subject. I know there there are a few organisations in both the UK and USA who keep records and resources.

Hi Natashalh - damn decent of them not to force naval ratings into the army!

Hi Mommy Needs a Nap - thank you!

Hi aethelthryth - I did read about Alvin York and perhaps I should include him too - was trying to condense things down a bit - I've left out so much! Thanks for the suggestion.

Thanks to all of you for your very kind comments, truly appreciated.

GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Yes, this is an education. Thanks. Conscientious objectors were not a popular lot, understandably, and I'd heard about them being stoned. Your articles are so thoroughly researched and contain such fascinating material and detail. Appreciate your example story of Cornwall John. I'm sure Radio 4 have put on more than a few radio plays with this as theme, if not, it would make a great play. The feelings around the CO, his friends, the government, their families etc were complicated and extremely dramatic. Superb period piece.

You are very good at bringing the times alive, causing reflection on how very different our world was then.

FB this and voting. Great stuff.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi GoodLady - it's telling that I haven't added John's surname, even almost 100 years later! It is quite an uncommon name and I would hate it if I found that his family were embarrassed by this story, even though the records are all in the public domain.

Thank you very much for your kind comments, appreciated immensely

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

Another brilliant hub! It's difficult, isn't it, when from this vantage point you can see both sides' p.o.v.? If it was my kid, I'd rather he serves time in Princetown than risk death for a government who doesn't appreciate him.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi theraggededge - a truly difficult decision - don't know what I would do. Neither of my grandfathers had any hesitation, nor did their brothers - all signed up immediately. One great-grandfather had a letter from Buckingham Palace congratulating him on having six serving sons. He lost half of them. No letters from Buckingham Palace on those occasions, just short, bleak telegrams.

Thanks so much for commenting, great to hear from you.

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Judi. How do you do it? Your research and presentation puts many of us to shame. Absolutely first class.

Voted up and all.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi Graham - gosh, you'll make me blush! I was so glad to be able to put the piece of research about John to use - I came across his records when I was researching another man from the same town with the same surname. When I've got time I should like to follow up what happened to him and his wife after the war.

Thanks very much for your kind comments, very encouraging and, as always, very appreciated.

jellygator profile image

jellygator 3 years ago from USA

In the Army, we heard about conscientious objectors, but I've never seen anything on the topic before. This was an interesting history lesson for me. Thanks!

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi jellygator - I remember watching the film "The Four Feathers" years and years ago, in which a man is presented with white feathers for alleged cowardice and it's always interested me. When I found the story of "John" whilst researching my local war memorial, I found out more about COs. Glad you enjoyed reading this!

Thanks for commenting and sharing, much appreciated.

LoisRyan13903 profile image

LoisRyan13903 3 years ago from Upstate NY originally from Long Island

Somebody else mention Sgt York. That was an excellent story. Most decorated WWI soldier and he was a CO at first

sue 2 years ago

Hi Judie, please can I include your post about John the conscientious objector in a newsletter I am compiling which is using the 4 years...2014 - 2018 to emphasise peace Vs war? I will of course credit you and include a link to your blog.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Sue - yes, that's fine - just so long as it is clear that it is not to be published elsewhere. Glad you found the article useful and would be interested in seeing your newsletter when it is ready.

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

I enjoyed rereading this, Judi. I didn't realize that "old" hubs were ever chosen for Hub of the Day! Congratulations.

conradofontanilla 2 years ago

Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and mathematician, mentioned in his autobiography that he was a conscientious objector to WWI. He was jailed. However, he endorsed WWII against Hitler.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi David - I didn't realise they chose old hubs either! Not complaining though... Good to hear from you.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi conradofaontanilla - yes, you're right. He was also gay and allegedly made some saucy remark when challenged about being a CO. He was asked what he would do if a German soldier was threatening to rape his sister - wouldn't he fight back? He replied no, but he would be happy to put his body in front of the German soldier :)

KrisL profile image

KrisL 2 years ago from S. Florida

Congratulations on a well-deserved hub of the day. Hubbers like you are a great source for history that we did not learn in school.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi KrisL - thanks for a lovely compliment. Glad you enjoyed this hub.

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA

Very interesting piece of history and very well researched. Voted up.

brownella profile image

brownella 2 years ago from New England

Great article. Its funny I just read an article not too long ago on the Richmond 16 (well about the 5 of them who were Jehovah's Witnesses). I am a conscientious objector, though as a woman the likely hood of me ever having to fight is slim it is still a tough subject to discuss with many people, especially in a family like mine with a long history of military service. Well written, thanks for sharing.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

hi melpor - thanks very much!

hi brownella - it is a subject that raises strong opinions and I can relate to it being a difficult topic to discuss with family members who support the armed forces. I sincerely hope that our descendants will one day live in a world where no one's conscience has to be troubled by the spectre of war. Many thanks for commenting.

Liz at RaHN 23 months ago

A good and useful article, but there is a misunderstanding about the meaning of ‘attest’ in this context.

Far from encouraging or inviting conscientious objection, the poster was exhorting men to “attest” their willingness to serve when called upon, while notifying them of their right under the Act to claim exemption on whichever grounds. Conscientious objection was the 6th (of 7) option, ‘F’, for such claims.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 23 months ago from UK Author

Thanks Liz, I'm aware of that. I'll read through to see how I've managed to give the wrong impression.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 23 months ago from UK Author

Liz, I can't see how I have used "attest" as you suggest. Under the poster I have drawn attention to the phrase regarding certificates of exemption requiring early notice - I don't see that as being the same as suggesting that the whole poster is an invitation to "attest" as a CO. When I can edit the article, I may just delete the caption so there is no room for confusion.

Liz at RaHN 23 months ago

Sorry if I misunderstood, Judy, but this is the sentence that struck me as misleading: "However, the British Government wasn't entirely unsympathetic and did allow men to attest to their objection to military service on grounds of their consciences. " - The options were to "attest" willingness to serve, to wait for call-up, or to apply for exemption. All the COs whose records I've seen were "Not attested". David Boulton's book "Objection Overruled" gives more information about "attesting" under the "Derby scheme". - Liz

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 23 months ago from UK Author

Ah, I see. Sorry, I have no computer at the moment and am trying to look back over this on a mobile. I'll amend when the computer is fixed, or Im aydelete it, I hate to mislead people.

Liz at RaHN 23 months ago

Easy mistake to make, Judy - I had to look up what attesting was all about myself!

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    Judi Bee profile image

    Judith Hancock (Judi Bee)740 Followers
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    Judith has a long standing interest in World War 1 and has spent many hours researching the lives of the men of her town who fell in WW1.

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