While it is true that the start of World War One was greeted with vast amounts of patriotism throughout Europe and the Empire, there were those who were pacifists and refused to have anything to do with the war. The pacifists were few in number (the UK had about 16,000 in total during the war) and would have had no impact on the number of fighting men Britain had in the lead up to conscription. However, despite their lack of numbers, the military and War Office came down on pacifists were great energy.
In the autumn of 1914, so many men volunteered for the British Army, that the few pacifists in society were all but overlooked. As the war would be over by Christmas 1914, most men were more concerned about missing out as opposed to thinking about those who did not want to fight.
Religion was the main reason why men did not want to join up. Many such as Bert Brocklesby were very religious. On the day war was declared he said:
“God has not put me on this Earth to go destroying His children.
Therefore, he refused to have anything to do with the military and the war.
Initially, the most these men could expect were white feathers being given to them and petty verbal abuse in the street. However, when it became clear that the war would not be over by Xmas 1914, the stance taken on pacifists became more aggressive. As the number of British casualties greatly increased from 1915 to 1916, it got worse. In public, known pacifists ran the risk of being assaulted and thrown in jail for the most trivial of reasons.
While joining up was voluntary, the pacifists remained within the law if they had nothing to do with the fighting etc. However, in February 1916, conscription was introduced – and this included all conscientious objectors. They had to go before a military tribunal to explain why they believed they should be exempt from fighting. There can be little doubt that they were given a hard time by those on these tribunals. One was told that he:
“was only fit to be on the point of a German bayonet.”
Some conscientious objectors were exempted from actual military service and joined the Non-Combatant Corps. Those who joined this unit did not fight but were engaged in work that supported those who did. Some conscientious objectors acted as stretcher-bearers on the front line, for example.
But a few deemed that this was all part of aiding war and refused to do anything associated with the military. Some refused to peel potatoes to soldiers on the front line, as they believed that this was aiding the war effort. It was this very small group of men who received the roughest treatment. They were put into solitary confinement and fed on bread and water. Some senior Army officers called for these men who refused to do anything for the war effort to be shot. They believed that their example might spark off major dissent among those who were at the front.
Thirty-six of those who refused to do anything were shipped to France. Here they were in danger of being sucked into the war machine with no help from civilian authorities. There was a very real chance of these men being tried for disobedience, which could be punished by death. Under Army regulations, these men were subject to field punishment before facing a court martial. All thirty-six stood before a court martial where they admitted that they had refused orders. One week later they found out the verdict:
“When on active service refusal to obey an order. Tried by court martial and found guilty. Sentenced to death by shooting. This sentence has been confirmed by the commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, but afterwards commuted by him to penal servitude for ten years.”
Many in Britain were angered that Haig had spared the men but, ironically, the men in the trenches had few complaints. Some wrote to their families that they admired the faith and stance of the thirty-six. Whereas they were “conchies” to the people in Britain, the ‘pbi’, poor bloody infantry, reserved their judgement on them. It is highly likely that some in the trenches wanted these men punished but the evidence does suggest that they were in the minority.
The thirty-six did not serve their ten years and many were out of prison by 1919. When told of what had happened Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister, became outraged that the Army had gone behind his back by sending the pacifists to France when they were civilians and subjecting them to military law. Asquith is said to have referred to their treatment as “abominable”.