Oldham Historical Research Group

'THE GREAT WAR',     'THE WAR TO END WAR',     'WORLD WAR 1'
'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
                                                                                                  
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION IN WW1

Glossary of Useful Terms & Miscellaneous Facts - with a little more detail

Conscientious Objectors
COs were men who applied for exemption from military service on the ground of conscience, after the Military Service Act was introduced in 1916. Many refused to fight from religious convictions, others from moral and political (frequently socialist) convictions.
All men wishing to be considered for exemption, including those wishing to be considered for exemption on the ground of 'conscience', had to apply to the Military Service Tribunal immediately after the Military Service Bill was enacted.
The Conscientious Objectors would fall into three basic categories at the tribunals: Non-combatants, Alternativists (with conditional exemption) and Absolutists.
Every man had a different ethical line that they would not cross and a wide range of differences were covered from :
(i) the non-combatant who refused to carry a gun and kill another person but would wear a uniform, drill and accept military authority. They acknowledged their responsibility and need to support the nation in a time of war (although it would probably be reluctantly).
(ii) to the alternativist (with conditional exemption) who would undertake 'work of national importance' also known as 'alternative service'. These men remained civilians and would work only under civilian authority and would accept no work that supported the war effort, for eg., working on munitions. The work they would undertake would be usually in agriculture and food supply, farming, railways, general labouring etc.
(iii) to the absolutist who was against any military system, war and killing. They refused to be a part of anything that supported the war effort in the slightest way, refusing even to tend the wounded. Most of these men would spend the war years, and longer, in prison serving one or more prison sentences with hard labour.
They maintained a belief in their right to free will and that no-one had the right to demand that they do anything against their own conscience.

The absolutist might take one of 2 courses of action:
1. It is possible that he applied to the tribunal for absolute exemption, been refused and, refusing any alternatives, was handed over to the Military and taken to the barracks.
2. Alternatively, he could have waited until his call-up papers arrived, requesting him to report to his regiment, and ignored that order. He would then be arrested, as a criminal, for breaking the law, charged with "being absentees under the Military Service Act, 1896", brought before the Magistrates Court, fined the usual 40/- (although legally it could be much higher) and handed over to the Military, who would take him to the barracks.

The two options now come together and follow similar patterns. The men would be deemed to be in a specific regiment and ordered to put on uniform (often being forcibly dressed in uniform, stripped and humiliated), swear the oath or sign their papers. This they would refuse to do. Charged with refusing to obey an order they would be kept in detention at the barracks awaiting court martial proceedings. The sentence would usually be either 112 days, 1 year or 2 years, with hard labour. Because they had been court martialled and discharged from the army, they would serve their sentence in a civil prison. These sentences would usually be commuted to a somewhat shorter one. When the prisoner had served his sentence and been released, he would again be called up and the cycle would begin again if he would not re-join his regiment. Some men, who would remain absolutists to the end, would serve more than one prison sentence; some men would find that mentally or physically it was impossible to continue ... some would capitulate, some would die and others would accept work at the newly introduced Work Centres.
When the franchise was extended to men over the age of 21, in 1918, Conscientious Objectors were excluded; they did not gain the right to vote until 1926.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website
Derby (Group) Scheme 1915
The Groups Scheme, was introduced in October 1915, by Lord Derby, to encourage men to attest to a willingness to enlist, if and when necessary, but actual call-up was deferred.
Under the scheme, men were place in groups which would dictate the order in which they were mobilised. The first 23 groups were single men (and widowers with no dependant children) age from 18 to 41 and the final 23 groups were married men in order of age from 18 to 41. Attested men were allowed to appeal to the Local Military Service Tribunal for exemption if they felt .they had the right.
In 1915 the government pledged that no married men who attested, would be called up until there were no single men left in the groups.
By summer of 1916 all the attested men had had been called up, in their groups, including married men.
Exemption certificates
Exemption certificates could be absolute, temporary or conditional. They could all be revoked or re-assessed at any time, depending on changing circumstances either nationally or personally.
Absolute Exemption Certificates meant that a man would walk away from the tribunal hearing with no conditions attached to his freedom. These would usually only be granted where circumstances of health or dependants were extreme.
Conditional Exemption Certificates were dependant on the man remaining in particular, unchanged personal circumstances or a certified occupation.
Temporary Exemption Certificates were granted for short periods of time enabling a man to organise his business or personal commitments so that he could be available for military service. He could appeal for an extension when the exemption period came to an end.
It seems that in some circumstances, badges were issued indicating that the man was exempted from military service and doing war work in a certified occupation - this was to protect them from verbal or physical abuse as a presumed 'coward'.
Note : Government Departments could issue exemption certificates to groups or individuals employed in that department, without having to go through the tribunal procedure.

* Example HERE
Friends Ambulance Unit
The FAU was set up by a group of Quakers (the Society of Friends) just after the war started. It was an independent and voluntary unit relying entirely on donations from Quaker sympathisers. At first unwelcome to both the military and the British government, because it was not under their authority, the organisation went from strength to strength becoming a vital asset to the army - a fact which in itself caused a great deal of conscience-searching amongst the alternativist COs.

" The FAU set up dozens of hospitals in France, manned dressing stations on the front line, gave vaccinations against typhoid. They had hundreds of motor ambulances which moved 260,000 sick and wounded away from the front, had four ambulance trains which moved half a million wounded, and had two hospital ships which took 33,000 men back to Britain. They also fed and clothed refugees, distributed milk and purified water, and set up recreation huts."
'Refusing to Kill' p. 44, Pub. by the Peace Pledge Union

Irregular discharge A soldier could be discharged for a multitude of reasons see a full list at http://www.military-researcher.co.uk/ "King's Regulations for the Army set out the various reasons (causes) for which a soldier could be discharged.
In WW1, paragraph 392 of the 1912 edition of King's Regulations contained all the official causes of discharge, and these were set out in sub-paragraphs, numbered from (i) to (xxvii), omitting (xvii). In 1919 a new cause of discharge was introduced, numbered (xxviii).
"
'Irregular discharge' resulted in the event that the man had been 'irregularly enliisted' ie., if he was entitled to have been exempted or ineligible for any reason.
This was ammended in 1918 to include the above but also to add, "Those wrongfully called up under the Military Service Acts [of WW1] either at home or abroad", for eg. valid conscientious objection.
Military Service Act 1916
The Military Service Bill was introduced at the beginning of January 1916, received the Royal Assent on January 27th and the Act came into force on the 3rd March 1916.
It was the first time that Military Conscription had been known in Britain.

This Act would deem all single and widowed men, without dependent children, and between the ages of 18 and 41, to have enlisted in the army for the duration of the war. A man believing he had a right to be exempted from military service had to appeal to the Military Service Tribunal immediately.
This Act would be modified within months to include married men and again, at a later date, to extend the age range.
* You can download freely, from the National Archives, the collection MH47/142/1 which includes The Military Service Act of 1916 (plus many other papers pertaining to the Act, tribunals etc.)
National Registration Act 1915
In July 1915, Parliament passed the National Registration Act which created a register of all men and women between the ages of 15 and 65, identifying their age, occupation and number of dependants (excluding wives).
The intention of the Act was to resolve issues of priority between the needs of industry and food production at home, and those of the armed forces (implicit in this would have been the Merchant Navy). From this data the government could also assess how many men could realistically be encouraged (or eventually conscripted) into the armed forces.
No-Conscription Fellowship
In November 1914, Lilla Brockway had the idea for the No-Conscription fellowship and her husband, A. Fenner Brockway, a commited pacifist, socialist, and editor of the 'Labour Leader' (the ILP newspaper published in Manchester), published a letter in that paper, declaring that conscription would soon be enforced and the need to resist it. . Encouraged by the support he received, he co-founded the No-Conscription Fellowship, along with Clifford Allen, from his home near Manchester. At first membership was only open to men liable for conscription but this was soon extended tto both men and women who supported the ideal. Women would keep it running smoothly when the men found themselves in jail. The Fellowship held meetings regularly across the country, published its own newspaper, the 'Tribunal', and provided information and support. One of the strongest groups was at Hyde, Cheshire. Meetings often ended with aggressive and violent behaviour from mobs who came to disrupt the meetings deliberately. Brockway himself was arrested in 1916 for distributing pacifist literature.When he came out of Pentonville jail he was re-arrested under the Military Service Act and spent the remainder of the war in and out of jail serving various prison sentences, with hard labour, and frequent solitary confinement, as an absolutist CO..
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
Non-Combatant Corps
The Non-Combatant Corps was a government initiative, in 1916, to conscript pacifists who would not agree to carry a gun or kill another man, but would wear uniform and accept the authority of the military. COs who appealed to the Military Service Tribunal for exemption on the ground of conscience but expressed a willingness (often reluctantly) to accept the authority of the military, as long as they were not expected to carry weapons or fight, could be sent for service in the Non-Combatant Corps. The men in the Corps would train alongside the regular soldiers although they wouldn't be expected to put their new-found skills in killing into practice on the battlefield. Their function would be general labouring, to repair and build roads and railways, provide huts, sanitation, baths, accommodation, and any of the other necessities for soldiers coming out of the front line when relieved. One of their other tasks was moving supplies around, loading and unloading trains and trucks with any goods other than munitions ... However, some of the men in the NCC would find it impossible to obey an order when faced with handling munitions and would face severe disciplinary measures and punishement as a consequence.
None of the officers, either commissioned or non-commissioned, of the NCC would be conscientious objectors; the COs could never rise above the rank of private.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
Prisons
Prison was where the abolutist would find himself within a short period of time. Depending on their capacity, both mental and physical, to withstand the unimaginably hard conditions and treatment, they would spend months or even years in prison. The regime was designed to break the spirit of the man and force him to capitulate, at least to some degree. Many, however, would prefer to die rather than serve in any capacity that would lead to another man losing his own life.
One of the most difficult rules was that of silence ... not only were letters or visits from outside infrequent and limited, but the prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another at any time ... nor even to the warders, who would only be allowed to speak to issue instructions.
Physically, all would suffer from the poor diet, the hard labour, the affects of cold and wet weather in cells without proper ventilation or heat and the lack of any comfort in those cells. By contrast, in summer, the same cells could become so hot that it caused men to faint.
Writing materials were strictly rationed ... just enough to write the letters home but nothing more. But where there's a will, there's often a way, and resourceful COs would save tiny pieces of toilet paper and, with pencil lead smuggled in by a friendly visitor, would write notes and poems, and pass on news with little drawings, all of which were passed around the prisoners.
Work in the prisons would probably consist of sewing mail-bags in their cells, breaking stones and other hard, physical labour.
On occasions the COs would be driven to go on hunger-strike, to draw attention to their situation or complaints ... it wasn't in the best interests of the authorities or the prison for a prisoner to die in those circumstances and so they resorted to force-feeding which in itself caused them even more embarassment after a public outcry. If a prisoner became so ill through this treatment that his life was endangered he was released until he was sufficently recovered to bring him back to continue serving his sentence. It was exactly the same treatment as that meted out to suffragettes on hunger strike in the years just before the war, and known as the 'cat and mouse' system.
*
Read HERE our transcript of pages about Prisons, in the No-Conscription Fellowship Booklet, 'A Souvenir of its Work 1914 - 1919'
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
Royal Army Medical Corps
Formed in 1898, the RAMC consisted of less than 10,000 men in 1914 but by the end of the war numbered 113,000. They were non-combatants and carried no weapons but were part of the military machine and, although not a fighting force, lost almost 7,000 men killed or died of wounds in the conflict. Their ever expanding role grew to include front-line medical attention, field ambulances, casualty clearing stations and hospitals (both at home and abroad). By the end of the war the soldiers had been awarded a significant number of medals for their bravery and selfless courage. They were supported in their work by QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service), Red Cross and St. John Ambulance nurses and VADs (The Voluntary Aid Detachment).
Several hundred COs entered the RAMC but the fact that they were a military unit and the men were soldiers in every sense except that of attacking the enemy, made it an unacceptable option for many COs.
* Read more HERE external link to page on The Long, Long Trail website.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Picture Postcards from the Great War..
Tribunals (Military Service)
The Military Service Tribunals were set up by the Home office to consider appeals for exemption from military service. The first Tribuanls were set up to consider men who had attested under the Derby Scheme but felt they were entitled to exemption (conscientious objection wasn't a category at this time as conscription had not yet been introduced). Tribunals set up after the Military Service Bill had a 'ground of conscience' category included.
There were three levels for the Tribunals. First was the Local Tribunals which could reject appeals, issue conditional or time limited exemption certificates, or absolute exemption certificates. If the appellant wasn't happy with the verdict he could appeal again through the County Appeal Tribunal. This Tribunal had the power to change or modify the original decision - either way! If the appellant was still unhappy he could go back to the Local appeals Tribunal to be heard again or, in certain circumstances, apply for his appeal to be heard at the Central Appeal Tribunal. For this to happen permission had to be given and it wasn't a frequent occurrence.
The Tribunal numbered between 5 and 25 members - local men who were selected by the local Council. They had no judicial skills nor training and although a stream of 'helpful guidance and information' pamphlets passed through their hands it's difficlut to believe that many of them were even read, let alone digested. Usually, only 5 members would sit at any one Tribunal. There would also be a Military representative, presumably to make sure that no potential recruit slipped through the net. The members were supposed to represent a cross-section of the community and of political leanings, with a clergman, councillors, bank managers, trade union representatives and businessmen. This 'fair ideal' didn't usually happen ... impartiality frequently seemed in short supply.

* Read HERE a transcript of the proceedings of the Military Service Tribunals at Oldham, with conscientious objectors, in July 1916, as reported in the local paper.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
* You can download freely, from the National Archives, the collection MH47/142/1 which includes The Military Service Act of 1916 (plus many other papers pertaining to the Act, tribunals etc.)
Tribunal (Military Service) Records After the war ended, a directive was sentout to local authorities to destroy the records of the Military Service Tribunals' appeal proceedings. Just a few sets were kept for future reference and some were overlooked (mistakenly or otherwise) and survived the cull.
According to the National Archives, "Due to the sensitive issues that surrounded compulsory military service during and after the First World War, only a small minority of the tribunal papers survive. In the years that followed the end of the war, the Government issued instructions to the Local Government Boards that all tribunal material should be destroyed, except for the Middlesex Appeal records and a similar set for Lothian and Peebles in Scotland, which were to be retained as a benchmark for possible future use. A sample of records from the Central Tribunal were also retained, which are also part of the MH 47 series. Some incomplete sets of records relating to local tribunals are held at local Record Offices in areas that resisted destroying all of their records."
Of course, many local papers would report the Tribunal proceedings in great detail, starting in early 1916.
*
Read more HERE external link to page on the National Archives website
* Search the Middlesex appeal records HERE and download without charge.
The 'Tribunal'
Newspaper
The 'Tribunal' newspaper was produced on a weekly basis by the No-Conscription Fellowship, from March 1916 until 1920.
It reported on happenings at the local Tribunals and offered advice and support to conscientious objectors and their families.
It had a readership of around 10,000, within weeks of the Military Service Act coming into force.
Their offices were the frequently raided by the police agents and of the government, in the name of censorship, and paper, machinery and printed copies were stolen or destroyed. However, the 'Tribunal' managed to keep 'one step ahead' and was never forced to close, even managing to get more materials and machinery and keep the whereabouts secret. As many of the male employees were arrested as COs the women stepped forward to fill their shoes and keep the newspaper being published, despite being constantly harrassed by the police and even arrested.
With the men 'away' the most well known of the women left 'holding the fort', was Catherine Marshall who drew on her experiences in the struggle for women's suffrage, to organise the records, meetings and publicity campaigns, keeping the treatment of COs firmly in the public eye. Alongside her were such women as Lydia Smith, Violet Tillard who dealt with publications, and Ada Salter who organised support for the families of COs.

* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
Work Centres / Camps
The unexpected numbers of COs who were going to prison for their absolutist beliefs were becoming the cause of acute embarassment for the government. A solution needed to be found and the Home Office came up with a scheme, administered by the Brace committee, in which COs who had been court-martialled and imprisoned would, after a period of some months , be interviewed and, if found to be genuine in their beliefs, offered an alternative ... release from prison if they would agree to perform work of national importance under civil control at designated Work Centres and Camps. Failure to accept the offer, or if deemed 'not genuine' meant that the CO would remain in prison. The scheme offered the men a degree of freedom. Not everyone would accept the offer ... viewing it as a compromise too great.
The four Work Centres were at Princetown, on Dartmoor, Knutsford in Cheshire, Warwick and Wakefield. All were formerly civil prisons. There were 18 associated Work Camps scattered across England, Scotland and Wales including Dyce, near Aberdeen (which only lasted about 3 months and was the location of the first CO, Walter Roberts from Stockport, to die as a result of harsh living and working conditions and virtually no medical attention).
The scheme wasn't universally successful and there were a number of deaths attributable to the frequently poor living and working conditions.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.
Work of National Importance

Work of National Importance was a Home Office Scheme that worked on the premise of 'equal sacrifice' ie., of those remaining behind and those serving in the military. Men could only be employed under this scheme if it was granted by the Military Tribunal. The idea was that the work would also serve as a 'punishment', COs usually working on low wages and at least 25 miles away from home with very basic living conditions. The COs given exemption conditional on these terms would be given 2 or 3 weeks to find acceptable work and report back to the Tribunal for their approval. COs would often find this difficult as employers were frequently reluctant to employ a CO.
Within a short time the Pelham Committee, officially 'The Home Office Committee on Employment of Conscientious Objectors', was set up to bring some order to the chaos of finding employment and monitoring wages, conditions and employment (ie. making it as unappealing as possible!). The work would generally be manual, on the land, labouring, loading and unloading at railway depots and docks, and dozens of other unskilled but necessary jobs. Ironically, COs with skills and qualifications such as teaching, which were reserved occupations, were not allowed to remain in these posts as their appeal was on the ground of 'conscience'.
The Pelham Committee was constituted in an advisory capacity, and the Tribunals could refer to them for advice or clarification but this wasn't mandatory and there were occasions when the Tribunals were dismissive of the recommendations.
* Note: The term, 'work of national importance', should not be confused with that of 'Certified / Reserved occupations', when used in connection with the Tribunal decisions.
* Read more HERE external link to page on Peace Pledge Union website.


Contributed by Sheila Goodyear & Dorothy Bintley
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