Oldham Historical Research Group

'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen


Link to Glossary of Terms and other information
Link to Local conscientious Objectors
Link to Local Reports - Tribunals and Occurences
Link to Finding more informations elsewhere

The Military Service Act & Conscientious Objection

Until WW1, and Britain's declaration of war on Germany, the army was comprised entirely of volunteers. In times of greater need recruiting officers would travel the land encouraging young men of town and country to take the 'King's shilling' and join the army. Conscription and mandatory military service were unknown.

When war was declared in August 1914, Britain's superior naval power 'ruled' the waves but her regular army was very small in comparison to those of France, Germany and Austria. The British army (not including reservists and Territorial battalions), consisted of fewer than 250,000 officers and men, a significant number of whom were serving in India, Ireland and other countries of the then British Empire. However, in the first flush of patriotic fervour many tens of thousands of men rushed to enlist and answer Kitchener's call to arms. But, as the months passed and the terrifying toll of dead and wounded mounted, in horrifying thousands, the volunteer numbers waned and the government searched for ways to boost recruitment.

In 1915, in addition to a serious and damaging shortage of munitions, of which a significant number were defective, there were deep concerns in government that the number of men volunteering to serve in the army was insufficient to bring battalions back to strength following the staggering number of casualties. The government had to find a way to identify those men who could serve in the forces and the women who could take their place in the workplace.

Pacifists had realised for a long time that conscription was likely to be introduced and, as early as November 1914, Fenner Brockway (editor of the 'Labour Leader', published in Manchester) wrote a letter which, when published in the newspaper, led to the No-Conscription Fellowship being formed. Within a relatively short period of time the Fellowship had more than 10,000 members. In spring 1915 the N-CF, with Fenner Brockway as its secretary, published its manifesto. Initially membership was limited to men liable to conscription but was soon extended to other supporters and also to women. It was realised that, as the men were liable to arrest, women could take their place and keep the Fellowship functioning smoothly.

Their manifesto stated:

"We have been brought to this standpoint by many ways. Some of us have reached it through the Christian faith in which we have been reared, and to our interpretation of which we plead the right to stand loyal. Others have found it by association with international movements; we believe in the solidarity of the human race, and we cannot betray the ties of brotherhood which bind us to one another through the nations of the world. All of us, however we may have come to this conviction, believe in the value and sacredness of human personality, and are prepared to sacrifice as much in the cause of the world's peace as our fellows are sacrificing in the cause of the nation's war."
ref. Peace Pledge Union publications).

The N-CF became the target for derisory and abusive reports in much of the press; there were violent attacks on attendees at their meetings and it was commonplace for the police to stand aside and not intervene in defence. When the government was challenged on this issue in the House of Commons, by MP Ramsay MacDonald, his remarks were dismissed or contradicted.

National Registration card 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 occupations 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.

derby scheme poster
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In October 1915, a scheme was introduced by Lord Derby which encouraged men to attest their willingness to serve. They had the option to volunteer for the army and serve immediately or attest to their intent but defer their call-up until they were needed and mobilised. There was also the opportunity for a choice of regiment, provided they attested before the scheme closed on 15th December 1915. Those who did attest were placed into numbered groups based on their age and marital status. There were 46 groups in total, the first 23 in order of the men's age; the final 23 were for married men and also in order of age. The groups were promised a month's notice of mobilisation. Significantly, it was pledged that no married men would be called-up until there were no longer any single men left who were able to serve. It was expected that every man would attest but those attesting, who had sound personal or occupational reasons to appeal, would be considered for exemption by a local tribunal.


Derby Scheme

This scheme and the earlier National Registration Act were regarded as the precursors to conscription and a leaflet to this effect was published and distributed by Fred Sellars, the Secretary of the Independent Labour Party. He was amongst those who were sent to jail in the summer of 1915 for distributing the leaflet and and condemning the Act.

The Derby scheme had limited success and, although in the face of strong opposition, pressure grew for compulsory conscription.

As a consequence, on 4th January 1916, Lord Derby issued a report on his findings which showed that well over 1,000,000 single men identified in the National Registration as eligible for military service had not attested under the scheme. He also stated that, of almost 3,000,000 married men of military age on the register, only just over half of them had attested.

It was never going to be enough.

Derby Scheme

Military service act poster 1916
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The following day, 5th January, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith set the parliamentary wheels in motion for the introduction of a Military Service Bill, ie., conscription. 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. Basically, they would now be considered to be soldiers in the army and, if they felt they had a good reason not to serve, it would be their own responsibility to appeal for exemption by 2nd March.

It received the Royal Assent on the 27th January and came into effect on 3rd March 1916.
It was amended to include married men in May, and at a later date to extend the age range for conscripts.

It was reckoned that conscription eventually raised another 2,500,000 men.

The Derby scheme was also re-started on the 10th January and ran until the last day of February.

The groups of the Derby Scheme didn't have long to wait for mobilisation. In January, those who had attested, and not applied for exemption or had it refused, began to receive their mobilisation papers. Groups 2 - 5 inclusive were the first to be called up. Also in January, the nation found out that conscription would be introduced, with the Military Service Act, from the beginning of March 1916. If men wished to apply for exemption an appeal should be entered before March 2nd. "Men in holy orders, or regular ministers of any religious denomination" (Military Service Act First Schedule ) were automatically exempt. One other point was that, if a man was called up by the army but would prefer to serve in the navy, then the navy would be offered his services first.

In February, Derby scheme groups 6 - 13 inclusive, were mobilised in 2 batches; and groups 1 & 14 - 23 inclusive in one batch in March. The Military Service Act was ammended in May to include the married men and, taking advantage of this, the first groups of married men, 25 - 32 inclusive, were given notice of mobilisation in April, with the others following over the next couple of months. All the men who had attested under the Derby scheme, had been mobilised within the first 6 months of 1916.

In March 1916 the No-Conscription Fellowship brought out its first copy of the 'Tribunal' - a newspaper which would be published weekly reporting on Military Service Tribunals and supporting Conscientious Objectors and their families as much as possible.

The Battle of the Somme would begin on the 1st July in 1916.

Certificates of exemption could be granted by Military Service Tribunals on the following grounds:

The Military Service Act 1916 - Grounds for Appeal
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"(a) on the ground that it is expedient in the national interests that he should instead of being employed in miltary service, be engaged in other work in which he is habitually engaged or, if he is being educated or trained for any work, that he should continue to be so educated or trained.

(b) on the ground that serious hardship would ensue if the man were called up for army service, owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic postition.

(c) on the ground of ill-health or infirmity.

(d) on the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service." ...
(Military Service Act Second Schedule )

Example of a Certificate of Exemption

1. Any person aggrieved by the decision of a Local Tribunal, and any person generally or specially authorised to appeal from the decision of that tribunal by the Army Council, may appeal against the decision of a Local Tribunal to the Appeal Tribunal of the area.

2. Any person aggrieved by the decision of an Appeal Tribunal and any person generally or specially authorised to appeal from the decision of that tribunal by the Army Council, may, by leave of the Appeal Tribunal, appeal to the Central Tribunal".
(Military Service Act)

These certificates could be absolute, conditional or temporary and, if personal or national circumstances changed, revoked at a later date.

We can learn from the National Archives in London, HERE that Tribunals were set up to hear the appeals and make a judgement on their validity.

"Applicants seeking exemption under these grounds would start by applying to Local Tribunal, usually at borough, district or town level. The application for exemption could be made by the individual himself, a family member on their behalf, or their employer. The decision of a local tribunal could be appealed to a County Appeal Tribunal. Again, the same individuals, as above, could raise the appeal but so could the local Military Representative on behalf of the army. Therefore, local tribunal decisions seen as too lenient by the army could be overruled on appeal.

A final level of appeal was the Central Tribunal in London. This was used more sparingly and generally for unique or complex cases. Also, the Central Tribunal may be requested to set a precedent in certain cases, so that County Appeal Tribunals could follow suit in similar cases in their region. The tribunal system will have recorded applicants in two separate ways. Men will have been noted as being either attested or non-attested men. An ‘attested’ man was someone who had signalled their willingness to serve in the Army when called upon under the Derby Scheme of late 1915 ...

Overseeing the administrative running of Military Service Tribunals was the Local Government Board, who issued instructions, pamphlets and booklets to the Tribunals to help provide guidance. Included in such instructional material were documents on official Substitution policies, whereby women and also men of non-military age or fitness could replace those in industry who could serve in the army. These instructions and pamphlets help to underline the significant contribution of wider society and the Home Front to the British war effort.

Tribunal hearings would have generally taken place at Town Halls, local council buildings and other places central to the local community. Local newspapers would cover hearings ... under the grounds of Conscientious Objection you are likely to find cases based on personal beliefs, nationality, political views, and religion or faith membership.

Following the end of hostilities, the Government issued an instruction to destroy Tribunal records, retaining two official sets for possible future use. Luckily, many records do survive at local level, having been saved or avoided the official destruction order."

There were multiple government pamphlets issued defining which occupations came under the heading of 'certified occupations'; which jobs could be filled by women, to release the men for the army or war work, and any other matters that it was believed would guide the local tribunal members. However, whether or not all the tribunal members actually followed, or even read, the hundreds of informative pages sent out to them, is debatable.

The Tribunal members were local people appointed by the local council and were supposed to represent all walks of life within the borough (but probably didn't). There could be between 5 and 25 men appointed plus one representative from the army, but only 5 or 6 would sit at any one time. There were many accusations of partiality and abuse of the system.

National Archives

When it came to the issue of Conscientious objection, and whether or not it was personal bias that clouded judgement on whether or not the appeal was genuine or justified, many other factors came into the equation. Emotions ran high and there was, all too frequently, a strong judgemental bias on the part of the Tribunal.

In both religious and political organisations pacifist issues had been debated and, even when there was a core consensus of agreement, there was still disagreement about the details of allegiance; about which work could be undertaken and which refused. Opinions ranged between those who believed it was wrong to carry a gun or kill but would join the newly formed Non-Combatant Corps, work in hospitals etc., to the most radical, who would refused to wear a uniform, take an oath of allegiance or be in any way associated with the military; they would also refuse to work in hospitals tending the wounded in order to send them back to fight yet again. The latter men were known as 'absolutists' and most would suffer brutal, freqently sadistic and life-threatening treatment, at the hands of the military or in the prisons to which they were sent to serve sentences of hard labour. There is a substantial number of instances where the prisoner died as a result of this harsh treatment.

Most prominent in support of the Conscientious Objectors were the Independent Labour Party, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Women's International League (which had strong links with women's suffrage organisations and with the Women's Co-operative Guild), together with other, smaller but strongly supportive, groups.

list of certified occupations 1916
   National Archives
   Download freely - Books, Booklets, and Pamphlets, Military Service Act 1916 from the National
   Archives MH 47/142/1

The majority of appeals were based on personal circumstances: family finances, businesses, dependants, the belief that their job was of national importance and so on; only a small percentage, perhaps about 2%-4% were on the grounds of conscientious objection, and these appeals could be based on religious, moral or political beliefs.

Certainly, in Oldham, the newspaper reports kept the names and addresses of the appellants appealing on most grounds, anonymous, but when they were conscientious objectors both their names and addresses were published. A great deal of hostile emotion was generated as a result of the appeal decisions, whatever their outcome, and I think it's realistic to say that the conscientious objectors bore the brunt of the worst of it.

In principle, the Tribunals were supposed to give a fair and unbiased hearing to all appeals and a pamphlet was issued giving instructions to this effect ...

"Whatever may be the views of members of the Tribunal, they must interpret the Act in an impartial and tolerant spirit. Difference of convictions must not bias judgement. The Local Authority [ie. the Council], in making their appointments to the Tribunal, should bear in mind that the Tribunal will have to hear, among the applications, those made on the ground of conscience objection. Men who apply on this ground should be able to feel that they are being judged by a Tribunal that will deal fairly with their cases ... the functions of the Local Tribunal will be of a judicial nature. Persons should therefore be appointed who will consider the cases impartially."

Newspaper reports of Tribunal proceedings indicate that this was anything but the case.

The first test the COs faced was when the call-up papers dropped through their letter boxes and they had to decide whether or not to fill in an application for exemption or ignore the call-up and be arrested by the Military for desertion (as they were now deemed to be in the army by default). Most COs would appeal and could submit a statement to be read by the Tribunal stating their reasons for the appeal. This allowed some to go into great details justifying their plea ... whilst other would just write 'on grounds of conscience'. At the Tribunal hearing they would be questioned on the contents of their statement. The result would either be a rejection and sent for combat service; sent for non-combatant service; or conditional exemption from military service for work of national importance. As a conscientious objector it seems to have been extremely rare that they were granted absolute exemption on that ground.

It sounds relatively straightforward but, in actual fact, it was anything but that.

A further complication could arise if the conscientious objector would insist on appealing only on conscience grounds, to make the point, but would have been granted exemption on grounds of his being employed in a certified occupation or had a disability that would have precluded him from military service.

For the absolutist COs their belief was that, if they accepted any work that would release another man for military service - this was aiding the war effort, sending another man to his death and prolonging the bloodshed. These were the men who were caught up in the most brutal punishments and attempts to force them to comply.

In an attempt to deal with the problem of the unexpected numbers of absolutist Conscientious Objectors who were in civil prisons the Home Office came up with a scheme. If, after interview, they were considered to be 'genuine' in their objections they could be offered civilian work under civilan authority in specially created Work Centres (4 of them) or Camps (18 of them). If they refused, they remained in prison.

For the absolutists, who refused to recognise the right of the government or military to compel them to serve or appeal, and ignored their call-up papers, it became a recurring round of arrest, handed over to the military, refuse to obey army orders, court martial, imprisonment, release after the sentence served; call-up, arrest, military orders refused, court martial and so on ... this could happen several times with the abuse and conditions becoming ever more intolerable. Some men couldn't cope with the treatment and capitulated, others wouldn't give in, some lost their reason and others died.

For a CO who was not an 'absolutist' and would accept work that did not entail carrying a gun or killing a person and was not under the authority of the military, there were a number of alternatives. They could be placed in work of national importance (usually necessitating moving miles away from family and accepting low wages as part of the 'punishment') usually it would be labouring work, farming and food production, forestry, dockyards, railways etc. Rarely were a man's skills, education and qualifications taken into account and utilised ... it was all about punishment and the principle of 'equal sacrifice'. (Ref. the Pelham Committee).

Those that were sent for non-combatant service (whether willingly or otherwise) were assigned to the Non--Combatant Corps which came into being specifically for conscientious objectors although they could never rise above the rank of private and the officers were always military men. The intention was that this corps would be employed in repairing roads and railways; constructing and providing accommodation and sanitary necessities for the soldiers and animals behind the front line; plus any other work that was necessary, including burying the dead at the front. The men were still in the army and under military authority; they wore uniform and were subject to army discipline, drill and training ... but not expected to carry a gun or fight. They might serve at home or abroad.

However, problems could arise when the military authority sometimes decided to use the men (wrongly) in situations such as being expected to load munitions and supplies that would eventually lead to the death of soldiers. If the men followed their consciences, and refused, then a court martial and prison would follow.

Every Conscientious Objector had a different 'line' that he would not. and could not, cross.

There have been around 18,000 Conscientious Objectors identified, to date, and more names are being added to the list all the time as researchers across the country trawl the local newspapers, for tribunal reports, and archived material from local organisations such as the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Independent Labour Party. There are graphic descriptions to be found, and read, of the treatment suffered by the COs and recorded in their own writings and interviews. Much of it makes harrowing reading and is diificult for us to reconcile with a civilised society. There was a constant campaign of abuse, vilification and physical violence levelled against anyone campaigning on behalf of conscientious objection, pacifism and a demand for a negotiated peace.

They were branded as cowards ...

In 1918, with the reform of the franchise, Conscientious Objectors were denied the right to vote for 5 years.

Contributed by Sheila Goodyear & Dorothy Bintley

For comprehensive information on all aspects of Conscientious Objection in WW1 visit 'the men who said no' on the 'Peace Pledge Union' website.
You can find the names and details of all known Conscientious Objectors on the Pearce List - accessible at 'IWM - Lives of the First World War'.

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Link to Glossary of Terms and other information
Link to Local conscientious Objectors
Link to Local Reports - Tribunals and Occurences
Link to Finding more informations elsewhere

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