As the Objecting to War project uncovers the lost stories of First World War conscientious objectors, we will come across interesting and unique objects, stories and articles about Conscientious Objection and the First World War. Our volunteers will help us to highlight objects from our own archive and present them, along with some historical information. This object is a No Conscription Fellowship leaflet that led to prison sentences for the writers!

Conscription in the First World War

Britain went to war in 1914 with a small full-time army designed for maintaining the British Empire. Compared with the armies of the European powers, France, Germany, Austria and Russia, the British Military force was tiny. Only a few months into the war at the end of 1914 many of the men who had been part of the professional army had already been killed. The British recruitment machine began in earnest, pulling 2.5 million men into the charnel houses of Belgium, France, Turkey and Africa. Losses were such that by the end of 1915, even these men were not considered enough – conscription, forcing men into the army, would begin in 1916. Throughout 1914-1918, many people consistently opposed the war, and as conscription became ever more likely, a growing number registered their opposition to conscription, seeing it as a dangerous precedent or simply that it was immoral to force men to fight – whether or not they supported the war.

Why was it so controversial?

Conscription was a tactic used by the Police and Government during the early 20th century to break up strikes and punish people who disagreed with government policies. In 1916, people were well aware that a French railway strike in 1910 had ended when employees were conscripted into the army and forced to do their own jobs - as soldiers,  while the same tactics were used by the Spanish government in 1916. Stories of unscrupulous employers secretly thrilled at the idea of conscripting their workforce were commonplace and worried questions were asked in parliament. People were worried that conscription would lead to the loss of freedoms and civil rights, as well as the worrying prospect of being replaced at your place of work by a soldier if you were part of a strike, union or were simply not liked by your employer.

How was it passed?

Despite opposition to conscription in both the House of Commons and Lords and among the people of Britain, the Military Service Act was passed in January 1916, coming into force on the 2nd of March. The Military Service Act stated that men ages 18-41 were considered to have joined the army unless they were married, widowed with children, having domestic hardship, working in a nationally important position or conscientious objectors. Subsequent acts would include married men and men up to the age of 51 in the lists of men called to fight in the war. After the Act was passed, a number of groups registered their disapproval of the steps the government had taken. More than 2 million Trades Unionists would sign a bill stating their opposition to conscription on January 6th 1916. The Scottish Labour Party, dockers on the Clyde, Thames and Mersey along with Firemen, Train drivers and Miners all passed near-unanimous resolutions to oppose Conscription, seeing it as a form of slavery. Other groups also opposed conscription from religious and moral grounds. For these individuals, conscription would force them to take up arms and kill their fellow men – violating the principles they stood for and forcing them to go against their own religious beliefs.

The No Conscription Fellowship was founded in 1914 from members of both Unions and left-wing parties, alongside a substantial amount of religious leaders, groups and individuals, as a way to give a focus to efforts against the war and against the government’s compulsion to kill. The NCF campaigned tirelessly from 1914-1919 against conscription and for the right of individuals to refuse to go to war, producing a newsletter, leaflets and an astonishing degree of support for conscientious objectors and others who opposed the First World War

Written and Printed in London, Salisbury Court, Fleet Street and Manchester. The location of the printing presses for leaflets such as these is often a mystery – police pressure caused the NCF to move presses whenever possible, and underground smuggling of leaflets became common towards the end of the war. The leaflet is printed on cheap paper in order to produce as many as possible for distribution.

Why is it important?

“Repeal the Act” is one of a series of leaflets produced by the No Conscription Fellowship opposing the Military Service Act that imposed conscription on Britain. It calls for an end to conscription as a violation of civil liberties and establishes the reasons behind conscientious objection. While the NCF had been active from 1914 onwards, Repeal the Act is one of the first leaflets to be seen country-wide. Some sources estimate around 750,000 copies were distributed. This makes it crucial to the story of conscientious objection as it acted as a rallying cry for groups wishing to oppose conscription on moral and political grounds. It allowed the spread of a speech men could use to help them prove they were conscientious objectors.

The leaflet uses powerful emotive language to appeal to a wide audience and ask them to support the NCF. It uses a mixture of techniques to get the point across and was carefully written to appeal to as many people as possible. Christian groups would have been familiar with “What shall it profit the nation if it shall win the war and lose it’s own soul?”, which is adapted from the Bible (Matthew 16:26). Political groups and Trades Unions would have noticed the mention of civil liberties under attack from the government’s imposition of conscription. “Our hard-won liberties have been violated” is the clearest example of this type of appeal. Even people in favour of conscription could be swayed. The Government expected each and every man to accept that they were already part of the army, an attempt to remove all elements of choice. “The monstrous assumption by Parliament” paints this decision in an extremely negative light and shows how alien conscription was to the normal lives of British people. Many individuals would have been heartened by the strong affirmation that members of the NCF would resist conscription. Many had become disillusioned after the Military Service Act was passed and felt defeated. The NCF were careful to make a strong declaration that the struggle against conscription was not over.

What effect did it have?

Repeal the Act did not succeed in it’s main goal – the Military Service Act would continue and in fact would be extended in 1917 and 1918.The main effect was one of gathering massive publicity and support behind the No Conscription Fellowship. The leaflet was seen around Britain – mainly because it’s writers were arrested. Writing and distributing the leaflet was not illegal – the Home Secretary had stated that protesting against the Act was allowed. However, under the government’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which allowed press censorship and prosecution of protestors, eight members of the NCF who appeared on the leaflet were arrested. Printing and distributing the leaflet was judged to be working to obstruct the government’s attempts to impose conscription and was deemed illegal. They were summoned to court on May 17th 1916. Five refused to pay the £100 fine – around £5,500 pounds each in 2013 – and were imprisoned.

Prosecutions involving NCF leaflets were very common from 1916 onwards, and the Government, using DORA would pursue the writers, printers and distributors relentlessly throughout the war. Unfortunately for the government, the arrests has an unintended effect – newspaper articles listing the contents of the leaflet and the arrests of the five NCF members were printed in the millions! This managed to spread the leaflet far further than the NCF could have managed on their own and “Repeal the Act” became the most widely-known explanation of Conscientious Objection for the general public.

What we’d like to know:

Do you have a copy of this leaflet, or the newspaper articles written about it? With three quarters of a million copies made, we hope that some readers may have a copy hidden in family records or family history archives. We’d like to know where you are! Where did these leaflets get to? Who read them? Who kept them after the war?

Do you have any conscientious objectors in your family history? Would they have read this leaflet?

What do you think about Repeal the Act? Is it convincing? Do you agree with the points made? Would it have been effective to the general public in the First World War?