Conscientious Objectors

Conscientious Objectors

Conscientious objectors were people who simply did not want to fight in World War One. Conscientious objectors became known as 'conscies' or C.O's and they were a sign that not everybody was as enthusiastic about the war as the government would have liked.

Battles such as Ypres and the Somme had cost Britain a vast number of casualties. By 1916, volunteers to join the British Army were starting to dry up. In response to this, the government introduced conscription in 1916 - where the law stated that you had to serve your country in the military for a certain period of time. A 'conscience clause' was added whereby those who had a "conscientious objection to bearing arms" were freed from military service.

There were several types of conscientious objector.

  1) Some were pacifists who were against war in general.

   2) Some were political objectors who did not consider the government of Germany to be their enemy

   3) Some were religious objectors who believed that war and fighting was against their religion. Groups in this section were the Quakers and Jehovah Witnesses.

   4) A combination of any of the above groups.

Some conscientious objectors did not want to fight but were keen to 'do their bit'. These people were willing to help in weapons factories and some went to the trenches to become stretcher bearers etc., though not to fight. Other C.O's refused to do anything that involved the war - these were known as 'absolutists'.

By the end of 1915, the British Army had lost 528,227 killed, wounded or missing presumed dead. Volunteers to 'Kitchener's Army' had dried up and conscription was introduced. The whole issue of conscription was a thorny issue even in the army. The British Army commander in South Africa - Lord Roberts - wrote about conscription:

"Compulsory service is, I believe, as distasteful to the nation as it is incompatible with the conditions of an Army like ours, which has such a large proportion of its units on foreign service. I hold moreover, that the man who voluntarily serves his country is more to be relied upon as a good fighting soldier than is he who is compelled to bear arms."

In 1916 the Military Service Act was introduced - this was soon nicknamed the "Batchelor's Bill" as to start with conscription only included unmarried men between 18 and 41. But it was widened in May 1916 to include married men as well. By April 1918, it had been expanded to include men up to 51. 

However, the act also included a 'conscience clause' which allowed people the right to refuse to join up if it went against their beliefs. Those who claimed to be conscientious objectors had to face a tribunal to argue their case as to why they should not be called up to join the army. However, even this clause was not enough for some who wanted the act withdrawn in full. The No-Conscription Fellowship was founded as early as 1914 and it produced the following leaflet :

Repeal the Act

Fellow citizens:

Conscription is now law in this country of free traditions. Our hard-won liberties have been violated. Conscription means the desecration of principles that we have long held dear; it involves the subordination of civil liberties to military dictation; it imperils the freedom of individual conscience and establishes in our midst that militarism which menaces all social graces and divides the peoples of all nations.

We re-affirm our determined resistance to all that is established by the Act.

We cannot assist in warfare. War, which to us is wrong. War, which the peoples do not seek, will only be made impossible when men, who so believe, remain steadfast to their convictions. Conscience, it is true, has been recognised in the Act, but it has been placed at the mercy of tribunals. We are prepared to answer for our faith before any tribunal, but we cannot accept any exemption that would compel those who hate war to kill by proxy or set them to tasks which would help in the furtherance of war.

We strongly condemn the monstrous assumption by Parliament that a man is deemed to be bound by an oath that he has never taken and forced under an authority he will never acknowledge to perform acts which outrage his deepest convictions.

It is true that the present act applies only to a small section of the community, but a great tradition has been sacrificed. Already there is a clamour for an extension of the act. Admit the principle, and who can stay the march of militarism?

Repeal the Act. That is your only safeguard.

If this be not done, militarism will fasten its iron grip upon our national life and institutions. There will be imposed upon us the very system which statesmen affirm that they set out to overthrow.

What shall it profit the nation if it shall win the war and lose its own soul?

The No-Conscription Fellowship was an organisation made up by members of the Socialist Independent Labour Party and the Quakers. The men who signed the above leaflet were Clifford Allen, Edward Grubb, A Fenner Brockway, W J Chamberlain, W H Ayles, Morgan Jones, A Barratt Brown, John Fletcher, C H Norman and Rev. Leyton Richards. All charged under the Defence of the Realm Act. They were all fined; those who decided not to pay the fine were sent to prison.  






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