I looked him straight in the eye and told him, I said, ‘I respectfully refuse to obey your orders,’ and he went barmy. Absolutely barmy…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

Around 16,000 men refused to take up arms or fight during the First World War for any number of religious, moral, ethical or political reasons. They were known as conscientious objectors. Godfrey Buxton found that some of his fellow Christians questioned the war from the outset.

One met people who didn’t quite know which way to go and some who felt very strongly for religious reasons – others for political reasons – that they wouldn’t take part. I think really at that stage I was so young that I wasn’t really thinking it through. There were some who were purely political conscientious objectors. But from the Christian point of view I think people took that phrase ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’. And therefore the matter of ‘kill’ did seem to be final to some people.

In late 1914, the No-Conscription Fellowship was set up in Britain. Its members opposed the introduction of compulsory military service. Fenner Brockway remembered how and why he started it.

It was my wife who suggested that those of us who would refuse military service should get together. I didn’t feel I could advocate this in the columns of the Labour Leader,although I was Editor, because in a sense it was unconstitutional action and I didn’t want to commit the party to that as a party. So I got my wife to write a letter to the paper and she did and as a result of that names poured in of young men who would refuse to fight in the war. The interesting thing was that it was not only young socialists it was young religious people, mostly young Quakers but others as well – Methodists, primitive Methodists. And as all these names poured in, those who had been most active in bringing them together formed themselves into an ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Clifford Allen.

In 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship successfully campaigned for a ‘conscience clause’ in the Military Service Act, introduced that year to legally force men to enlist. The clause allowed conscientious objectors, or COs, to argue at a tribunal for their exemption from conscription. Harold Holttum was a Quaker and, as such, was one of the small number of men who were given exemption.

I had to put my name down as a conscientious objector in some way, I’m not quite sure of the details as to how that was done. But I was notified that there would be a public hearing, similar to a magistrate’s court; that the local solicitor had been appointed an army officer and he was in effect as you might say prosecuting on account of the Army. The tribunal, who I think must have all – or most of them – been local magistrates, decided in their wisdom that this bloke might as well be exempted, provided he did useful work. But in some cases it might have been that the tribunal was more rigorous than mine was. Because I’d been known locally, I’d lived in that village 18 months, you see. In a big town I can quite imagine that all the young fellows that came up before them were strangers. What the tribunals had to decide was, is this chap genuine or isn’t he? In my case they decided I was.

THE MILITARY SERVICE ACT, 1916 Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster No.153. This poster explains the ways men could be exempted from combatant service, including conscientious objection.
THE MILITARY SERVICE ACT, 1916 Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster No.153. This poster explains the ways men could be exempted from combatant service, including conscientious objection. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5161)

The tribunals were generally unsympathetic to conscientious objectors. Of the 16,000 men who claimed exemption, the vast majority were refused. Eric Dott recalled his treatment when he went before a tribunal.

I stated that I was a CO and they said well then, I would have to go before a military tribunal, who would assess me and see if they thought I was a genuine CO. And I had to appear before them and they put me through the usual sorts of questions that these tribunals did. They had certain routine questions. A favourite one was, what would you do if your sister was threatened with rape by some German soldier or something like that? And I can’t quite remember what I answered but it was to the effect that that had nothing to do with being a CO against the war. I think that I said that I didn’t know what I would do and that it didn’t matter in the present context in the least what I would do. The thing was this was a protest against the war, that the war was wrong.

If a CO was refused exemption, he was conscripted into the Army. Around 6,000 of these men – known as absolutists – refused to obey military orders. Walter Griffin was one of them.

I felt no fear at all and yet you might say I’ve a nervous disposition I suppose, to a point, but in these sort of things I had no fear whatever. I was up against a sergeant major, a brute. He sort of tried to bully me in that way. He came right up to me and tried to shout as hard as he could to me, right within a yard or two. And I looked him straight in the eye and told him, I said, ‘I respectfully refuse to obey your orders,’ and he went barmy. Absolutely barmy. In front of a lot of recruits, the most stupid thing anybody could do and he just went barmy.

The treatment COs received varied. Some members of the army were sympathetic and prepared to hear them out. But other soldiers were angered by the COs and their disobedience. George Dutch had a particularly harsh experience when he refused to put on his army uniform.

They stripped me of my own clothing and put the uniform down beside me and said ‘Now you’ve got to put it on’. I said ‘Well, I will not put it on’. ‘Alright, you’ve got to sit there’. I sat there for a day or two and the whole camp was interested. Everybody knew what was going on. Soldiers used to come and say ‘Go on, stick it boy, stick it if it kills you’. The major was very much disliked and I can understand that. I can see what type of person he was. He must have noticed it, because after a day or two suddenly my tent was taken up and taken right up on top of the cliff overlooking the sea. This was in November and it was pretty cold, misty weather. And I was taken up there and my uniform put beside me again by the tent pole, and just to make things worse than ever they rolled the tent walls up so that the wind came right into the tent, all round, and I could sit there and freeze. Which I did. And the orders were that no one was to come near me until I dressed and came down. Well I didn’t dress and I didn’t go down and I stayed there and I’m not quite sure how long it was, but I think it must have been at least ten days – and nights – in just my singlet and pants and socks. Just sitting like that in the tent and before I’d been there many hours I was frozen right through with exposure. So that I didn’t feel a lot, I was just insensitive. I just sat there, day and night, just set my teeth to stick whatever came. Then suddenly a whole group of them turned up. The medical officer, the doctor, and the NCOs that had put me up there and rolled the tent walls up. The doctor was very angry. So he said to his men, ‘Get him down to the tent, down to the medical tent.’

The COs who resisted all military discipline were arrested and court-martialled. Thomas Painting dealt with such a situation while he was a musketry instructor with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in Britain in 1916.

While a party was firing on the range the instructor reported me ‘There’s a rifleman refused to load his rifle on conscientious grounds.’ I reported to the officer, who told me to give the rifleman a direct order and load. The instructor was to be present as witness. The rifleman replied ‘I object on conscientious grounds.’ I explained the seriousness of not complying with an order and gave him a direct order, three direct orders, which he refused to obey. I reported to the officer who told me to escort the rifleman to the guard-room and place him in close arrest. The rifleman was tried by court-martial, acquitted – his defence – ‘I have a conscientious objection to taking life.’ He was killed as a stretcher-bearer doing his duty bringing in the wounded. He wouldn’t take life, but he’d try and save life.

Nearly 6,000 men were sentenced to imprisonment for resisting military authority. Arthur Wilkinson was one of them. He described his cell at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London.

In the cell was a wooden stool, no table, but a built in piece of tabling with a hole where they could put food through to you without opening the door. And the bed, the first night you slept on the boards. It was three boards with cross members to brace them and the cross members raised them off the floor a bit you see. A bare mattress, I think it was just a straw filled mattress about two inches thick, stretched on these boards and you slept in your own clothes for that first period, ‘til later on you didn’t. So you hit the harsh conditions straight away there.

A rule of silence was enforced in prisons, and inmates were punished if they broke it. Solitary confinement had negative psychological effects, as Donald Grant experienced.

But it was severe to be in solitary confinement. I was, if I may say so, less affected than most others because I knew what I was doing, I had a way of life, I had a philosophy of life. I had a pretty well-filled mind, I could sing, I could recite poetry, meditate. What I do remember is, during the early days in my little cell, everything quiet and I’m sewing the mail bags and I hear the click of the spy hole and I see an eye – what am I doing? Then the click goes back. There is no handle on the inside of the door. I can’t open that door. I am enclosed.

Prisoners were usually given simple, monotonous work to do, such as making mail bags. There were few comforts, and the prison diet was insufficient, as George Dutch found out.

I got proficient in making mail bags and used to do my quota and a bit over, and was rewarded with – as you were if you did a certain amount of extra in your time in the evenings – rewarded with a mug of ship’s cocoa and a hunk of bread. Which was very welcome, because the diet was very poor, much worse than the army diet. And I was a vegetarian and quite a number of us were and those of us who were, were even more unlucky because even part of that poor diet we had to reject. And sometimes our diet was little more than potatoes and bread and water. If anything came that we could eat that was not carnivorous, well we ate it of course, but we never really had enough to eat and I’m quite certain it did affect the health of many people. Some of those people who died in prison or outside were probably affected by these harsh conditions. Because it was harsh enough, but we never had enough to eat.

Prison had a very damaging effect on the morale of some of the COs. Eric Dott explained how this could happen.

It depended, if you were young and fit as I was, you could relatively enjoy the time there. But there were many older men and men with worries at home for whom it was very hard. Because that was really one of the hard parts of it, people in poor circumstances, their families got a small pittance. I can’t tell you how much it was, but it was some very small amount for the family. Less than what the soldiers got for their families and that made it very hard for those. And then those who weren’t so strong or fit found it very hard, because conditions were rough. You slept on boards with a thin mattress between you and hard boards. And altogether you had to be fairly fit to stand it.

Some COs also suffered maltreatment in jail. Harold Bing served several prison sentences during the war. He witnessed one occasion when a CO was treated inhumanely.

Conditions in these civilian prisons varied a good deal. Some prisons had a reputation for being fairly lenient, others for being very harsh. Winchester Prison had had a reputation for being a very harsh prison and I did hear that a number of those prisoners got badly treated. By the time I got into Winchester, which was the January of 1917, the warders had become more accustomed to conscientious objectors and most of them treated us quite reasonably. There were one or two who were still very bitter, very harsh, very abusive. Others who, in the course of time, became almost sympathetic to our point of view. I never personally experienced any physical ill treatment at the hand of the warders, but I did see another prisoner being physically maltreated. I’m referring to a CO whom I saw a couple of warders drag down several iron staircases head first, with his head banging on each iron step as he came down.

Medical care was often lacking for the CO inmates. At least 70 of them died either in prison or as a result of its effects after their release. Wilfred Littleboy was strong enough to cope with prison life, but saw that others weren’t.

We knew that there were some people who were having a very bad time of depression. I had good health all the time; I never had to see the prison doctor; no trouble whatever; ate what was put before me with an appetite and was perfectly well. Now some people were not well. One man I know went home on doctor’s orders and died, fairly soon after. I don’t know the details but I imagine that something had affected him. Some others definitely got depressed and it probably remained with them. Some looked back at it and it’s all black. There were some people who just did get lower and lower and got more and more depressed.

In July 1916, the ‘Home Office Scheme’ was introduced. It offered imprisoned COs the chance to leave prison to work at labour camps around the country. It caused a divide. Absolutist objectors like Fenner Brockway saw it as helping the war effort and refused.

The divisions came later, when alternative service to military service was offered. And then there was a difference of opinion in our members as to whether alternative service should be accepted or not. Some took the view that, in wartime, one ought to be ready to serve society in non-military ways. Others took the view that if one did any service under the Military Conscription Act, and that service was service for the government, one was in effect serving the war. And there was that division of opinion.

Others, like Howard Marten, decided to take up the scheme. He explained why he did so.

In the national interest, we hoped it might be. You see, many of us felt that with all its imperfections, it might open the way to a more enlightened treatment of the penal system, which was you might say a by-product. Anyone who had an interest in penal reform felt that the Home Office Scheme could possibly provide the nucleus for a more enlightened method of dealing with ordinary prisoners. But unfortunately, you see, you had a category of man who wouldn’t work the Home Office Scheme. Just destructive for the sake of being destructive. They didn’t want the scheme to work and they weren’t prepared to work it. Well, you can do very little with men like that; and there was that element present which was most difficult for us, who were trying to work things.

The camps varied in their standards of accommodation and treatment of the COs. Alfred Evans discovered corruption at his placement.

We were sent down to – I was on the Home Office Scheme then – and I went down to south Wales to work on the waterworks. It was a slave-driving job and they put professional slave drivers over us! Anyhow, we found out that the government were paying the employers the trade union rate of wages, while they were paying us 8 pence a day! So I called our boys together and said, ‘What about it?’ They said, ‘Go and tell them we’re not having that. We don’t mind working for the 8 pence a day, but we’re not putting money into employers’ pockets. Not a bit of it.’ So in 24 hours, we were on strike.

Around 1,000 conscientious objectors were sent to Dartmoor Prison under the Home Office Scheme. Conditions there were slightly better than elsewhere, as Joseph Hoare remembered.

They carted out the remaining convicts from Dartmoor and opened that up and invited volunteers. First of all from amongst the COs and I being wanting to get alone, I went to Dartmoor where in one’s off time, of course, sometimes you could wander over the moors for miles without seeing anybody at all! And the work that I was put on there was looking after a fire engine which was a very cushy job. They paid us 8 pence a week or something like that. There were 1,000 men there before long and a very well-organised kind of committee. And there was a tremendous variety of people. I got to know some of them very well indeed and liked them very much.

But Walter Manthorpe’s health suffered while he was at Dartmoor.

I was sent to dig in the garden and I did it and I went unconscious, that knocked me completely out. And then after that I was given a job of dealing with stones, stonework. And that was very difficult work to shape stones. You had to use a hammer and chisel to do that. And I was knocking on a piece of stone and one of the chips went completely into my wrist there and that was terribly painful, that was. And I had to have it taken out. And they’d got no anaesthetic or anything, they had to do the best they could with it. And I went out then, that sent me out, you see.

Mark Hayler was also at Dartmoor. He witnessed the effects that poor medical care at the prison had on another of the COs there.

At Dartmoor we had a young fellow who died in Dartmoor. As I was working in the hospital at the time I attended him. I was a sort of orderly, you know. He was a Yorkshire boy, he was only a boy really, a chap under 21, and he was a local preacher with the Methodists up there. He had pneumonia. He’d been badly treated at Dartmoor. He should never have been sent out on the moor in the weather because he was liable to… he should have had an indoor job. The whole of the men attended the funeral. They followed behind the coffin down to the railway station and it was put on the little train at Princetown and taken down to Plymouth. And I remember those nearly a thousand men sang a hymn, Abide With Me, I think it was or one of the hymns. Yes I think it was that. A sort of farewell.

Nearly 10,000 conscientious objectors who were conscripted into the Army refused to fight but were allowed to serve as non-combatants. The Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) was formed in March 1916. Harold Bing saw how several of its members were treated while he was briefly part of it.

The 9th Eastern Non-Combatant Corps was engaged in various duties about the big camps around Winchester. They were in the charge of two or three old NCOs of pre-war days – sort of Boer Warvintage – who were very rough and violent indeed and treated the members of the corps very roughly. And needless to say, those who got attached to the corps and weren’t prepared to serve in it also got rough treatment. I’ve seen one of them at a seven o’clock in the morning parade on a frosty January morning when the ground was as hard as iron, knock a private down on the ground and then kick him ruthlessly with his army boots. That was the sort of way those old NCOs were in the habit of treating men and licking them into shape.

Members of the NCC carried out manual labour but would not handle weapons or munitions. Harry Hopthrow of the Royal Engineers had a low opinion of those he saw on the Western Front.

I saw very little of them they had a badge, NCC. Their cap and shoulder badges, as far as I can remember, were exactly the same. And they were put on labour duties. I saw them working a quarry or something like that, only once. They were not popular with the rest of us. They were looked upon, I’m afraid, as shirkers rather than anything else. I think that’s all I can say about them. At our young age we rather thought that. I think we’d tend to dub them as shirkers rather than anything else.

Other non-combatants worked in medical teams at the fighting front. As a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit stationed near Dunkirk, Lloyd Fox often came close to danger.

I was just getting out of bed I think and suddenly there was a noise like an express train going by. We didn’t know what it was. It was followed by a tremendous explosion about a mile away, on the docks, which smashed most of the little glass we still had in our windows. We realised that the Germans had got a gun to work and got the range. I remember going down, I was called out straight away. As my ambulance went down to the dock area where the first of these naval shells had landed, alongside a billet I think killing and wounding about 20 men. It took them a little time to get the casualties out for me to take to hospital.

British private Eric Nunn didn’t have the highest opinion of conscientious objectors – until he was helped by one when he was wounded in 1918.

Then they brought the ambulance up to this sunken road. Well he was the man that bound me up, the conscientious objector. ‘Cos he was chatting away, he’d got a lovely bedside manner, in the circumstances. He was chatting away, I suppose to calm me down. He told me he was a conscientious objector. I thought he was a great fellow. He really must’ve been a conscientious objector, ‘cos he was right there in the middle. He wasn’t dodging the action in any way or form, he was right there in the middle with me and all the others. Right in the middle of it, he wasn’t dodging anything. He must’ve been really a conscientious objector. I take my hat off to him. It must take a lot of moral courage to stand out and be a conscientious objector in a country at war. You know you are going to be misunderstood and misrepresented, don’t you?

COs were criticized both during and after the war for their beliefs. Members of the armed forces often viewed them as cowards. But Leonard Hewitt of the Leicestershire Regiment didn’t think it was that simple.

I didn’t admire them at all. On the other hand, I qualify that by saying that some of them and a good many of them served equally as well as any man in the line. By reason of the humanitarian way they did it, of their beliefs and the way they went out under fire on a good many cases to pull a wounded man in or whatever. I don’t like them and I don’t like the idea but that’s the only individual comment. But basically they’re as good as any other man and they do for humanity perhaps more than the average man would.

A cartoon from the First World War period by Frank Holland "An Object Lesson: This Little Pig stayed at Home" depicting a lazy conscientious objector who stayed at home while the rest of his family contributes to the war effort. Holland, an artist, worked as a cartoonist for Lord Harmsworth from the 1890s until the First World War. His work appeared in various magazines and newspapers, including the Daily Mail.
A satirical cartoon from the First World War, depicting a conscientious objector who stayed at home while the rest of his family contributed to the war effort. © IWM (Q 103334)

Harold Holttum was mostly well treated while he was a CO in Britain during the war – but remembered one instance when he wasn’t.

On one occasion, I went into the little town of Southall for a haircut and the man in charge of the shop said, ‘I have a conscientious objection to cutting your hair.’ I said, ‘Very well, sir, that is your right. Goodbye.’ I don’t say we parted good friends but there was no more words. I never had any other real trouble.

Conscientious objectors were also subject to criticism from their families. Francis Meynell’s parents didn’t agree with his absolutist views.

My father and my mother were against it. They thought it was a war to end war. That was the slogan put over and they accepted that. My father regretted my attitude. My mother did not really regret it, she thought I had the right to my own opinion and therefore she would support me in that opinion, though it was not hers, not her opinion. I think that when I visited them, as I did occasionally in their house in Sussex, I tried to avoid the subject. And indeed there was a time when I thought that my father would rather not be seeing me there.

The post-war fate of COs varied. The last of those who’d been imprisoned were finally released in August 1919. Walter Griffin was let out in April that year, but he was in a poor condition.

I had gone down so much in weight and in nourishment you see that I had no resistance left hardly. The difficulty that I was in, I’d been more or less in bed in this cell for… a few weeks, shall we say. And therefore, I’d seen nothing moving at all. You’d see the four walls just round you and nothing more at all. So here I was, at the time of being released, going out into the world and seeing movement everywhere. It can’t possibly be imagined by anybody that hasn’t had it. I was so weak, although I’d only got an attaché case, that I used to have to keep on putting this little bag down. And looking in windows just pretending to… didn’t know what to be doing in order to be able to get to the station.

There was a stigma attached to men who had been conscientious objectors. Most struggled to gain new employment or return to their old lives. Mark Hayler recalled the effects of his experiences.

I think it left most of us a sense of it would have been better if it hadn’t been so. It’s dogged me all my life. I don’t know what else I could have done. And when the whole war was over and I was looking for a job, I got many jobs, I really got many good jobs. And then I was interviewed by committees and so on and the last question was always ‘What did you do in the Great War?’ I knew that was the end. I remember getting one very good job somewhere; I forget where it was now. But the secretary came to me and he said, ‘We are very sorry about this, we are really sorry. The whole committee’s very sorry about it, but we couldn’t possibly employ you having a record like that.’ They couldn’t get past it you see. Nobody would be responsible for employing a man who had been in prison.

Harold Bing felt it was important that the conscientious objectors who died during the war as a result of their beliefs should be remembered after its end.

There were altogether seventy three conscientious objectors who died in prison or died very shortly after release as a result of their imprisonment – having been released practically in a dying condition. The memorial plaque to the men who died was carved by an English woman at the request of Martha Steinitz, a German pacifist. And she persuaded a friend of hers to carve this beautiful wooden plaque with the names of the men who died. And also there was on it a representation of a CO in his cell and rays, like Sun’s rays, coming out from the cell with the words ‘No More War’ in ten or more languages…

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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