Before the First World War there had never been compulsory military service in Britain. The first Military Service Bill was passed into law in January 1916 following the failure of recruitment schemes to gain sufficient volunteers in 1914 and 1915. From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependents, medically unfit, or ‘those who could show a conscientious objection’. This later clause was a significant British response that defused opposition to conscription. Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions and raised the age limit to 50.

There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as conscientious objectors (COs) to armed service during the First World War. This figure does not include men who may have had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations, or had joined the forces anyway. The number of COs may appear small compared with the six million men who served, but the impact of these men on public opinion and on future governments was to be profound.

Private papers

Who were Conscientious Objectors?

Printed leaflet issued by the No-Conscription Fellowship entitled ‘Why We Object’, from the Private Papers of W Harrison

Broadly speaking there were four reasons why men objected to armed service during the First World War. The most common ground was a religious one. Pacifism was a time-honoured tenet of the Society of Friends (Quakers), although some Quaker men did enlist. Other individuals, including Christian fundamentalists, took the Bible at its word: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The next largest group of COs were political activists of the left who saw the First World War as an imperialist war and as an example of the ruling classes making a war that the workers had to fight.

The left was split over support for the war and those who opposed it on the radical left were not necessarily pacifists – they reserved the right to fight for a cause in which they believed. Thirdly, there were those who might be termed ‘humanists’, who felt it wrong to kill but not on religious grounds. A former naval rating, for example, had worked as a butcher and became a conscientious objector because, as he said, ‘l know what it is to kill a pig – I won't kill a man’ (IWM SR 784). The fourth group were those who generally objected to government intervention in their lives; some thought the war had nothing to do with them personally but might have fought if they felt the United Kingdom was directly threatened.

Audio - Walter Griffin interview © IWM (IWM SR 9790)

'You cannot overcome evil, with evil'

"The very things which you try to accomplish by the use of force you bring onto yourself because you must have something worse or more powerful, which is evil, in order to combat the evil which you are trying to  overcome. The result is that, at the – after a period, you have got not only the very thing which you are trying to oppose but you've got t something worse than the one that you are trying to oppose. You cannot overcome evil with evil."


The Tribunals

The usual procedure for a CO was to apply to his local tribunal for exemption from military service. Here, Walter Griffin describes a particular line of questioning used at the tribunals. Made up of local prominent figures, the tribunals had been set up earlier to decide on exemptions under the unsuccessful Derby Scheme. They were therefore available after conscription was introduced to assess a CO’s conviction and sincerity. The tribunals’ members were poorly briefed and in many cases merely used the hearings to state their own views. One of IWM’s interviewees was asked his age and, on hearing that he was eighteen, the tribunal chairman said: ‘Oh in that case you're not old enough to have a conscience. Case dismissed’. The CO was sent to prison. At the tribunal's discretion exemption could be absolute, from combatant service only, or conditional on undertaking work of national importance; but COs were frequently rejected by the local tribunal or offered an unacceptable position. They could then go before an appeals tribunal and if they were refused again they could appeal to the Central Tribunal in London. Once a CO was refused exemption, he was considered to have enlisted into military service.

Audio -  Walter Griffin interview © IWM (IWM SR 9790)

'And if you're agreeable to that, well, he said, then you ought to be doing something about it'

"The man was saying, telling how terrible it was, and ‘you ought to do – the Germans were doing such bad things that they ought to be in any way stopped and if you’re agreeable to that’, well, he said, ‘you ought to be doing something about it’. He said, ‘what do you think’, he said, ‘you would do if it was a case of a German officer was somewhere over here and was molesting your wife and taking your wife away?’ And the CO said, ‘He couldn't do it, Sir’. ‘Of course he could’. ‘He could not do this,’ he said. And they went on this for two or three times until the CO got the chairman where he wanted him, he wanted him to say, ‘Why, well why 
couldn't he do it?’ He said ‘An English officer has already done it.’"


Alternativist or Absolutist

A problem for the CO was determining where to draw the line in his stance and whether there was a difference in principle between combatant and non-combatant service. Some COs would take on alternative civilian work or enter the military in non-combatant roles in the Royal Army Medical Corps or Non-Combatant Corps, for example. COs in prison were offered so-called ‘work of national importance’ in a scheme put forward by the Home Office. This was generally agriculture, forestry or unskilled manual labour. Other conscientious objectors - known as 'absolutists' - refused to do any war-related work or obey military orders.

Audio - Philip Radley interview © IWM (IWM SR 642)

'We said no, and that's that'

"We went down, my friend and I, and we joined – we had two others who particularly became close friends of ours – taking the absolutist point of view. We said ‘No’ and that's that. Well now when we got down there, there was a man I remember who did his best, one of the NCC [Non Combatant Corps] people, did his best to – he'd been presumably through the tribunal and so on – to persuade us to carry on. He said ‘Oh but this is all right, you're not killing, you're, it’s non-combatant’. And we said ‘No’ and we went off for the first sentence. When we came back he himself was in the guardroom for refusing, because he was a Seventh Day Adventist and they'd asked him to do some work on a Saturday and he'd refused, so that was that. But there was another chap there who was quite prepared to carry on and was trying to persuade him to carry on. And this was ludicrous. And the next time we got out this other chap was in the guardroom because he'd refused to load munitions. Well, here was the whole thing, I mean it was easy for us. We said 'No' to this because we on principle are not prepared to accept anything. These people had to think it all out every time." 


Military and Civil Punishments

Copy negative made from a photomontage and cartoon postcard "A Souvenir of C.O. Settlements 1918"
© IWM Q 103096
Copy negative made from a photomontage and cartoon postcard "A Souvenir of C.O. Settlements 1918"

In practice, having been rejected on appeal a CO was a soldier absent without leave and as such was subject to arrest. COs who entered military service were also arrested for refusing to obey military orders. Over one-third of the 16,000 COs went to prison at least once, including the majority of absolutists who were imprisoned virtually for the duration. At first, COs were sent to military prisons because they were considered to be soldiers. It was a minor triumph for the anti-conscription movement when a mid-1916 Army order ruled that COs who had been court martialled were to be sent to civil prisons. The initial standard sentence was 112 days third division hard labour - the most severe level of prison sentence under English law at that time. This began with one month in solitary confinement on bread and water, performing arduous and boring manual jobs like breaking stone, hand-sewing mailbags and picking oakum. With good conduct remission, most COs served about three months. 

However, after being released a CO could be immediately arrested again as a deserter, court-martialled and returned to prison. This ‘Cat and Mouse’ treatment had been previously used on the Suffragettes, and as the war went on sentences handed down to COs increased. Over the course of the war, some conscientious objectors were actually taken with their regiments to France, where one could be shot for refusing to obey a military order. Thirty-four were sentenced to death after being court martialled but had their sentences commuted to penal servitude. Here, Howard Marten talks about military field punishments and the outcome of his court martial in France.

Audio - Howard Marten interview © IWM (IWM SR 383)

'Well it isn't exactly a pleasant experience'

"Then we were given 28 days' field punishment. Now field punishment can be a very nasty thing. In its most extreme form a man can be tied up to a gun carriage, which isn't at all a pleasant thing, but normally he's send to what is known as a field punishment barracks, and there the prisoners are tied up for three nights out of four. They're tied up maybe to a fence, or to ropes, with their arms extended, and their feet tied together, or they may be tied back to back - it varies in form - and that's done for two hours. Well, it's not exactly a pleasant experience...But finally we had the second court martial, and the whole business was: each of the four of us, it was all gone through, all read and taken down in longhand. It took about a day, these court martials, and it must have been very annoying to the base commandant who had to come down from his office to give evidence in each case and this all had been gone through all over again. So I think the poor, wretched man must have been thoroughly fed up with this business. Anyway, finally, after a few more days, we were taken out to the parade ground. There was a big concourse of men, mostly of the Non-Combatant Corps and the labour battalions, lined up in an immense square. We were taken to one side of it, and then under escort taken out one by one to the middle of the square. I was the first of them and my verdict was known nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. That was the real test of the whole business. focused on what the sentence was going to be in my case. And then, one of the - an officer in charge of the proceedings read out the various crimes and misdemeanours: refusing to obey a lawful command, disobedience at Boulogne and so on and so forth. And then: ‘The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot’. Then there was a suitable pause, and one thought, ‘Well, that's that’. And then, but, now the second thing: ‘Confirmed by the Commander in Chief’. That's double-sealed it now. Then another long pause, ‘But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for ten years’. And that was that. And the thing that interested me and the others particularly was that penal servitude meant your return to England, and would get us into the hands of the civil authorities at a civil prison which was a much more – you see as long as we were in the hands of the military authorities we were subject to military punishments. We could only go on offending."


Prison conditions

When Harold Bing was in Winchester Prison, there was one wing for male criminal prisoners, one for women and two for conscientious objectors. The conditions for COs were exactly the same as those for criminal prisoners, but COs did succeed in getting prisons to offer a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism was common among COs, as it had an obvious affinity, particularly with humanitarian pacifism. CO prisoners were allowed a very limited number of censored letters, though one of the COs interviewed by IWM said ‘filling the notepaper was quite an art’ because there was nothing to say after months or years in prison. They had no calendars, no newspapers, and few visits – those visits they did receive were through a grille. They were limited to a few books from the prison library at infrequent intervals, but after a while COs were allowed to have books sent in under the condition that they donate them to the prison library once finished with them. Later CO prisoners were impressed to find prison libraries stocked with titles by William Morris, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other writers of the left. Here, Bing recalls the constrained and degrading conditions of prison life.

Audio - Harold Bing interview © IWM (IWM SR 358)

'You had the sense of being watched the whole time'

"I was in a cell by myself the whole time. There was no 2 or 3 to a cell in those days as there is today owing to the overcrowding. The cell was about six feet by thirteen feet with one small window above one's head so that you couldn't see out of it except by standing on your stool for which of course you might be punished if you were found doing it. In the door there was a little spy-hole with a cover on the outside so that the warden could come along and open the spy-hole and spy on you at any time to see what you were up to. So that you had the sense of being watched the whole time – though of course you weren’t being watched the whole time, but you may be spied in upon at any moment, which gave you a very uncomfortable feeling at first until in time you grew indifferent to it…First day I said to the warder: ‘I'd like a toothbrush’. ‘Oh you'll have to put yourself down sick’. ‘But I'm not sick’. ‘Yes, but unless you’re put down sick you can’t see the doctor, and if you don’t see the doctor you can’t get a toothbrush’. So of course I put myself down sick which meant I lost my exercise. Then of course when they came to open the cell to go to see the doctor: ‘take your pint pot’. I said, ‘What for?’ ‘That's for your medicine’. I said ‘I don't want any medicine, I’m going to ask for a toothbrush’. ‘You’ve got to take your pint pot’. And the doctor had a sort of trolley with a bottle of green liquid and a bottle of red liquid and he seemed to dish it out alternately as people came along. The whole thing struck one as very, very funny, really if you’d got a sense of humour."


How did conscientious objectors cope in prison?

Severe physical brutality towards all COs seems to be a First World War myth. Certainly several of IWM’s interviewees experienced or witnessed very harsh treatment and 73 COs died as a result of physical abuse. The primary punishment - in many cases the most severe - was psychological rather than physical. The most fortunate COs were those who could devise ways to cope with loneliness, doubt, depression and loss of ability to concentrate. Some COs took an active role in challenging the situation in which they found themselves. Some participated in covert activity, described here by Harold Bing. Others coped through mental exercise. One of the COs interviewed by IWM, a musician, played an imaginary piano on his knees and even did some composition. Some COs learned Esperanto, many recited poetry from memory, and several went on long, imaginary, remembered walks.

One man held races on the floor between bits of cobbler's wax and another gained comfort from talking to the spiders on the cell wall and the bolts on its door.

Audio - Harold Bing interview © IWM (IWM SR 358)

'All the copies were finally smuggled out and placed in some depository in London'

"One had no writing – well, wouldn’t say one had no writing facility – the only writing facility in a cell was a  slate and a slate pencil and therefore if you filled your slate you had to rub it all out again. There was no  writing material except periodically when you were allowed to have the notepaper in your cell and a pen and ink to write your monthly or fortnightly letter. But here again a little ingenuity was used and some prisoners managed to make little inkwells by taking a block of cobbler’s wax – which was used for waxing the thread for making mail bags and so on – making a hole in it, sinking a thimble into the wax and then covering it up with another piece of wax. So that what appeared to be a block of wax was in fact a block of wax with a lid and when you lifted the lid there was a thimble sunk into the wax. And that thimble you filled with ink when you had your fortnightly or monthly ink for writing your letter. With ink pots of that kind there was produced in Winchester prison a periodical called the Winchester Whisperer. It was written on the brown sheets, small brown sheets of toilet paper with which we were supplied – different people writing little essays or poems or humorous remarks, sometimes little cartoons or sketches. And all these bits of paper were passed surreptitiously from hand to hand and reached the editor who bound them together with a piece of, with a mail bag, a bit of mail bag canvas used for repairing – bit of old canvas – for a cover and this issue of the Winchester Whisperer was then again passed round secretly, hidden under people's waistcoats or up their sleeves. And as it happened, despite many searches, no copy of that Winchester Whisperer was ever captured by the warders, though I think some of them suspected its existence. And all the copies were finally smuggled out and placed in some depository in London, some library. Most prisons where there were COs managed to do something similar. Canterbury Prison ran a little surreptitious magazine called the Canterbury Clinker and others with, again, similar names in other prisons…I used as a pen a needle, writing with the hollow end – dipping the hollow end into the ink. This meant of course one had to be almost dipping the needle into the ink for almost every word. But it did produce thin writing so that you could get a good deal on one small sheet of toilet paper."



Some COs openly resisted the system, as described here by Fenner Brockway. Work and hunger strikes were held by COs including Clifford Allen (later Lord Allen of Hurtwood), chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, and Sir Francis Meynell. For many COs, the pressures and hardships strengthened their resolve.

Audio - Fenner Brockway interview © IWM (IWM SR 476)

'But a point came when many of us felt that it was undignified and humiliating'

"We found the prison system was absolutely inhuman and denying human rights. As I've said, we were not  even allowed to speak to each other. Of course we did, but we always had the sense of doing something  which was prohibited and which, if we were found doing it, would lead to punishment – bread and water,  solitary confinement. And the point arose when many of us thought that it was wrong to accept this absolutely inhuman system. Let me just emphasise that as always in prison, we were able to defeat regulations. I mean, for example, we had a heating pipe going right through our cells going up to the next floor. We had a complete telephone system. We learned the Morse code in reverse and by tapping on the pipe – we had a prisoner at the end acted as a kind of switchboard, he could actually put our message through on the pipe to the floor above. I played chess with a boy in the next cell. We only had a slate and a slate pencil but we could rub out the moves and a whole game would take a week but by tapping in reverse in the Morse code, one could communicate with the boy in the next cell the whole time. But a point came when many of us felt that it was undignified and humiliating to accept the system itself and we decided openly to resist it. For ten glorious days sixty of us ran our own hall in prison. Speaking openly, on the exercise ground instead of marching five steps behind each other and not saying a word round and round, we took arms, we played games, we organised concerts every night. We were shut in our cells but at a window we had lots of Welsh boys who could sing beautifully. They would sing at the window and everyone down the side would hear. But the effect became disastrous in Walton Prison, Liverpool, because not only did our own boys hear, but the ordinary prisoners heard as well. And so the five leaders were isolated and then we were transferred to other prisons. I was transferred to Lincoln Prison. I had eight months solitary confinement at Lincoln Prison. Three months bread and water treatment until the doctor wouldn't allow more. And yet one had a sense of freedom which I can't describe."


How were conscientious objectors treated?

Whether in prison or not, COs and their families did have a common experience in many respects, especially from the pressures they felt from society. Britain's public support for the war was almost unanimous and society tended to view men who would not fight - and the men and women who supported them - with suspicion and loathing.

To become a conscientious objector in 1916 was a difficult decision, which apparently involved rejecting the whole of conventional British society and everything it stood for. Wartime domestic propaganda made it all too plain that a person was either with the national effort or against it; and if against it, he was by implication either not concerned with the sacrifices of others or was undermining their willingness to serve. The conscientious objector was trapped psychologically: he felt guilty if he shared the soldiers’ ordeal and guilty if he did not. COs were not released until about six months after the end of the war, in order to give most soldiers a head-start when looking for jobs. They were also stripped of the right to vote until 1926. With time most did find a way to fit back into society - some very successfully. None of the COs interviewed by IWM appeared to feel any bitterness about their treatment, but they seem to remain, through their First World War experiences, permanently set apart.

Audio - Clips from interviews with Percy Leonard © IWM (IWM SR 382), Lewis Maclachlan © IWM (IWM SR 565), Dorothy Bing © IWM (IWM SR 555)

'After the war was over it was never healed'

Percy Leonard:" There was a bit of a riot when we arrived there and a number of the fellows were smothered with mud and so on, that sort of thing. I was in the middle of it but I didn't get anything at all; they must've thought I was the  boss I think, I don’t know. But at any rate we – after we’d been there for a while the local populace came round to us and treated us quite alright. Of course they'd heard about COs and knew we were COs and they were going to take it out on us. [Interviewer asks: These were the civilians then not the soldiers?]. Oh yes,  no, no soldiers there, civilians. [Interviewer asks: Did that mean at Brockenhurst you were more restricted to camp?] No, no we used to go out – you see, when we went down as individuals the majority of them didn't know who we were. It was just when the crowd arrived on that one train, you see. They’d apparently heard that  we were coming and that was that…I wouldn’t like to say it was the attitude of the church but the attitude of the minister was that he did his best to separate my fiancée, as she was then, and me. He did his very best to separate us. We were both of us workers in the church and of course I was – I think I told you – working on the Home Office Scheme quite a long time during the war, and when I came home at the end, I went to the Church on the Sunday, and the minister used to make a practice of going to the door and shaking hands with people as they went out and when he saw me he refused to shake hands…" 

Lewis Maclachlan: "My father was a very quiet and humble and scholarly sort of man and I’m sure he was a pacifist at heart but he never was outspoken. I think I brought upon him, without knowing it, a good deal of unpopularity because I left, I was away from the village you see, but it was known that I was a conchie and that was something in the country that was very unpopular – you could get away with that in a city, in London of course it really doesn’t matter, but in Perthshire this was just the last word of disgrace."

Dorothy Bing: "It did have a very bad effect on my mother, I think, I was telling you about that. You see, she came from a very united family. During my childhood we were constantly taken to see her sisters and their families and in fact I stayed there when my younger sister was born, with one of these aunts. And as soon as they realised that Harold wasn't going to fight for his country they just cut us dead completely. And then after the war was over it was never healed. They wouldn’t have anything to do with us at all, it was a clean cut." 

This is an abridged version of a longer article, written by Margaret Brooks (former Keeper of the IWM Sound Archive), which appeared in the Imperial War Museum Review, No. 3 (1988).

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