Refusing to kill, available from the PPU.
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Through text, audio and video you can learn what it was like to be a CO in wartime or what it was like for supporters to run a ‘secret’ press under the noses of the authorities or about the publishing of clandestine newspapers in prison.
Voices for Peace also explores proposals and activities against war made over the course of human history and gives the lie to the view that we are an inescapably warlike species.
CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION IN BRITAIN
An introductory guide
For whom is this written?
If you are trying to find out about conscientious objectors (COs) in your family or in local history, or are doing a school project or undergraduate dissertation on the topic, or are just interested in finding out more about COs, but have no foundation knowledge or sources, then this is for you. The guide comprises answers to a series of basic frequently asked questions.
What is conscientious objection?
Although the phrase has sometimes been used for other issues, such as abortion or religious education, conscientious objection has mainly related to the refusal, on grounds of conscience, to fulfil a legally imposed obligation to join and work in one of the armed forces – navy (including marines), army or air force. | back >
Why have people objected?
There are three main motivations for people finding that a military obligation conflicts with their conscience. Historically, the main motivation was religious: people felt that war and killing were inconsistent with the basis of their faith, even if, as sometimes was the case, the main body of their church or religion accepted war. In the 20th century, partly as the result of increasing secularisation, some people began to object to military service on humanitarian or internationalist grounds – humans should simply respect each others’ essential humanity, and the barriers which divide people should be broken down. The third main group have objected on political grounds; war, for example, is argued as having no place in a truly socialist society; or a Scottish nationalist cannot legitimately be expected to fight for an English-dominated government.
These three broad groups of COs are by no means mutually exclusive, and elements of more than one strand may be found in any one CO’s statements. A special point should also be noted in relation to political COs. Some of them are described as ‘selective objectors’, meaning that, for example, they would never fight for a ‘capitalist’ government, but would reserve the right to fight for a ‘socialist’ one. | back >
When has conscientious objection been an issue in Britain?
Conscientious objection has mainly been an issue when the state has imposed a legal obligation – conscription – to join the armed forces. From around the 16th century to the 19th century there was a compulsory part-time army called the militia. Conscription became a major issue in March 1916 when men in Britain (conscription was not applied in Ireland) between 18 and 41 (later extended to 51) became liable for call-up to full time service in the army for the duration of the First World War. The system was wound down in 1919, but reinstituted in June1939, when young men in Britain (again, conscription was not applied in Northern Ireland) became liable for six months military training. In September 1939 men again (and from 1941 some women) became generally liable for full time service in one of the three armed forces until the post-war settlement. This system remained until 1948, when it was replaced by the call-up of young men for a fixed period of military service. That system finally ended in 1963. Conscientious objection has also been an issue for some volunteer members of the armed forces who have changed their minds about being part of an organisation preparing for, or actually involved in, war and wish to leave despite being tied by a long-term contract. | back >
How many COs have there been in Britain?
In WW1, 16,000; WW2, 60,000; Post-WW2, 10,000; in the regular armed forces since 1970, about 40, and still counting; this figure almost certainly under-represents the number of armed forces personnel with conscientious concerns – actual numbers are not published, and the right to claim a conscientious discharge is little known and therefore little exercised. | back >
What provision has been made for conscientious objectors?
The earliest official recognition of conscientious objection in Britain was in 1757, when Quakers were specifically allowed exemption from the militia. This precedent was cited in 1916, when Parliament debated the new concept of full-time conscription for Britain – it was widespread on the European continent, where conscientious objection was unrecognised. After intense debate, the Military Service Act 1916 provided that exemption could be obtained on the ground of “a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service”. Similar provisions were made in the Military Training Act 1939, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, and its successors which continued conscription into the post-war period. No statutory provision has been made for conscientious objection in the regular armed forces, but it is included in Queen’s Regulations for the Army, and in other internal documents in the Navy and Air Force. | back >
Who implemented these provisions?
In both conscription periods (1916-19 and 1939-63), Tribunals (a tribunal is similar to a court, but less formal and limited in function) were set up to consider and decide upon applications. There were, however, important differences in the arrangements for the two periods.
In WW1, the responsible government department was the Local Government Board (now the Department for Communities and Local Government). Under the Board, Borough and District Councils were required to set up Military Service Tribunals for applicants in their area. However, these Tribunals did not deal only with applications from COs: the majority of cases arose from matters such as key workers in employment, domestic hardships, and even health grounds. Although Tribunals were intended to be impartial, there was no means of ensuring a quality of objectivity in the character of members.
In WW2 and after, the responsible government department was the Ministry of Labour and National Service (now the Department for Work and Pensions). Local Tribunals, as they were called, covered much wider areas (e.g., one for the whole of London, another for the South West - Land’s End to Bristol). The members were appointed by the Minister, and the Chair was always a County Court judge (without robes). These tribunals dealt only with COs, other issues being taken care of by entirely separate bodies. | back >
How did these provisions work out in practice?
It needs first to be understood that in neither the WW1 system nor the WW2 system was there a simple choice between being registered as a CO or not being registered as a CO. Under both systems there was a 3-tier gradation of conscientious objection, whereby COs could be registered unconditionally, or registered upon condition of doing useful civilian work, or registered only as non-combatants, meaning that they would serve in the army as soldiers, but not be required to use or handle weapons. A few of the latter group served in units such as the Medical Corps or Pay Corps, but the majority were placed in a specially created Non-Combatant Corps (NCC). The applicant could request exemption at one level, but the Tribunal, apart from refusing the application altogether, could grant exemption at a lower level. In the case of dissatisfaction by the CO, there were appeal systems for both periods.
Tribunals necessarily had a very difficult job – how does anyone judge another person’s “conscience’? In WW1, however, COs faced an additional hurdle. As well as, frequently, aggressive questioning by members of the Tribunal imbued with a strong sense of “patriotism”, there was always present at every Tribunal a Military Representative, officially appointed to argue the case for the Army, and to try to demolish the CO’s arguments without even the pretence of impartiality or objectivity. It was because of the notorious failure of WW1 Tribunals to deal fairly under the law with large numbers of COs that a conscious attempt was made in WW2 to devise what was generally agreed to be a better, although by no means perfect, system. | back >
What actually happened to COs?
In WW1 large numbers of COs were either refused recognition at all, or granted only non-combatant status in the army. This partly arose from a direct confrontation between two diametrically opposed standpoints. On the one hand, many COs took the view that any compromise at all with the conscription system, even accepting organised civilian work, was to allow oneself to become a cog in the war machine: calling themselves “absolutists”, they demanded absolute, or unconditional, exemption. On the other hand, tribunal members tended to feel that everybody owed a duty to the state in a time of emergency, and anyone trying to get out of such a duty was a “slacker”, if not an outright “coward”; such men were either refused recognition at all, or, at nominal best, ordered to join the NCC, which they were bound to refuse.
The appeal system rarely resolved such an impasse, which meant that a day came when a civilian policeman called at the CO’s home, arrested him, and brought him before the local Magistrate’s Court, on a charge of being a deserter from the Army. The CO was fined, usually £2 (to be deducted from his Army pay), and “handed over” to a military escort to be taken to his designated barracks. There he was ordered to put on a uniform; the CO refused, and was then charged with disobedience and remanded for Court-martial, a military trial with army officers serving as judge and jury. The Court-martial would ignore the CO’s defence that he still regarded himself as a civilian, and award a sentence of imprisonment which could be up to two years, but usually in the first instance a few months. The sentence would be served in a civilian prison, even though the offence was a purely military one. On release, the CO would be returned to the Army, where a fresh order would be given, refused, and the whole cycle would be repeated, perhaps up to three or four times.
The large numbers of men imprisoned – 6000 in total – created a scandal in the Press and Parliament, so a new scheme was devised to resolve the impasse. Imprisoned COs were offered the opportunity of a release from prison and the army on the condition of entering the ‘Home Office Scheme’ a series of Work Centres and Work Camps where COs would live communally and be engaged in arduous work, but would wear civilian clothes and be allowed to go outside the centre in the evenings and on Sundays. The most notorious of these Camps was at Dyce, Aberdeenshire, where the men were housed in leaky tents and one died from pneumonia, leading to rapid closure of the camp. Another place was the former Dartmoor Prison, which became Princetown Work Centre. Some COs refused to accept the Scheme, and some, having tried it, voluntarily left it to return to prison and the cycle of courts-martial; they felt that their compromise with the state weakened resistance to the whole idea of conscription.
On the other hand, there were a considerable number of COs who, with varying degrees of reluctance, accepted exemption conditional upon performing civilian “work of national importance” – often labouring on farms, sometimes menial work in hospitals or other institutions. Some Quakers and other religious COs volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit, which assisted with immediate care for wounded soldiers, and sometimes civilians, behind the lines in France and Belgium. There were also COs who, again usually reluctantly, accepted the role of soldiers in the NCC, assisting with transport and stores for food, clothing and the like, or road or railway maintenance.
2) WW2 and after
Partly because of a conscious effort by the government, there was much less of an impasse than in WW1. Tribunals were more generous in allowing unconditional exemption, but, on the other hand, more COs were prepared to accept conditional exemption. In the event, the majority of COs had conditional exemption, some had unconditional exemption, and others accepted non-combatant service.
Nevertheless, 3000 WW2 COs did go to prison. In the majority of these cases the pattern was that the CO had been refused exemption at both local tribunal and at appellate level, or allowed only non-combatant service. A notice to attend a medical examination was then sent, which was refused, and eventually the CO would be arrested by the civil police and charged in the Magistrates’ Court with the offence of failing to attend the medical. If a fine was imposed, the CO would refuse to pay and be imprisoned, or a sentence of up to 12 months imprisonment could be imposed in the first instance. A sentence of at least three months imprisonment gave the right to a further hearing by the Appellate Tribunal, which could deem the willingness to risk imprisonment to be evidence of sincerity, and grant exemption. There were a few cases where such appeals did not succeed, leading to repeated imprisonment.
The majority of COs’ given conditional exemption worked on the land in agriculture or forestry. Some COs formed communities in which they bought empty farms cheaply and worked them together, combining ideas of self-sufficiency and a practical microcosm of an idealised peaceful, sharing world with removal as far as possible from the total warfare state. Other COs worked in hospitals and institutions. Some COs already working for the community in local authority departments or teaching were allowed by tribunals to stay in their jobs – only to find that their reactionary councillor employers dismissed them. Quaker and other COs revived the Friends Ambulance Unit, which this time worked mainly for relief of civilians in war zones from Finland to China.
As in WW1, some men accepted service in the Non-Combatant Corps, undertaking similar duties, but a new role for which some 400 of them volunteered was bomb-disposal work. | back >
Is it true that some COs were shot?
No. It is true that in WW1 some 50 COs were shipped in 1916 in batches to France, where their continued refusal to obey orders “in a theatre of war” led to 35 of them being formally sentenced to death by court-martial. However, the sentences were immediately commuted to 10 years penal servitude, and the men were returned to British prisons, the sentences being further commuted in 1919, when they were released. It is debatable whether there was any real intention to shoot COs, rather than simply trying to frighten them into obedience, but it is noteworthy that news of the COs’ despatch to France created a great stir in government, and Parliament, where members in both houses spoke vociferously for them.
However, it is also true that in WW1 81 men died as a result of their treatment in the army, prisons, or work centres. A plaque commemorating them hangs in the PPU’s CO Resource Centre. Some COs also died in WW2; two were killed when the prison in which they were detained was bombed, and some members of the FAU died from diseases contracted in tropical climes. | back >
What about women COs?
Women were brought into the ambit of the National Service (No 2) Act 1941. However, married women and women with dependant children under 14 were excluded, and it was also provided that no woman could be required to use a lethal weapon unless she consented in writing to do so. The implementation of the Act was further restricted, in that only one cohort of women was actually called-up under the Act, those aged between 20 and 24, and in practice it was arranged that women already performing what was deemed to be socially useful work such as nursing or teaching would be exempted.
The net result of all these restrictions on the call-up of women for military service was that the number of those who actually became due for call-up was very small in comparison with men called up, and therefore the number of women applying for recognition as conscientious objectors was also very small – about 1000. Of those 1000, about half were imprisoned. This apparent disproportion, in comparison with the number of male COs who were imprisoned, arose from the fact that most of women imprisoned were “absolutists”, who not only rejected conditional exemption, but also as a matter of principle refused possibilities of informal exemption. | back >
Were there any other kinds of conscription?
In WW2 there was what is sometimes called industrial conscription. Under Defence Regulation 58A, May 1940, the Minister of Labour & National Service had power to “direct any person to perform such services which in the opinion of the Minister the person directed is capable of performing”. This far-reaching power, an essential tool of a state committed to total war, raised two problems for conscientious objectors. There was the problem, for absolutists at least, of direction per se; and there was the problem that the Regulation made no provision for conscientious objection, whether to an order in principle, or to any particular directed work. There was an appeal system, in which conscience could be cited, but practice indicated that, without the force of it being a specific ground, Local Appeal Boards gave it scant regard, and, in any case, a National Service Officer, acting on behalf of the Minister, was required only to take into account an Appeal Board’s recommendation, not necessarily to abide by it. Inevitably, a number of men and women were prosecuted, and imprisoned, for refusing directed labour.
There was also compulsory firewatching (standing by to look out for fires caused by bombing during air raids, and doing what was possible to deal with them pending the arrival of the fire service). From 1941 men, and from 1942 women, could be required to share in firewatching either at places of work or in the street in which they lived. Some pacifists took the view that while they would always voluntarily help neighbours in distress, as in an air raid (and had already done so when occasion required), they would not register for a rota under a compulsory scheme that was part of the “war effort”. There was no provision for conscientious objection to firewatching, with the result that a number of men and women were fined and even imprisoned for refusing this legal requirement. | back >
What organisations were involved with Conscientious Objectors?
In 1914 the No-Conscription Fellowship (N-CF) was founded to try to prevent the feared introduction of conscription. When that object failed in 1916 (although it succeeded, at least, in ensuring the legal recognition of the right to conscientious objection), the N-CF concentrated on supporting individual COs through a multiplicity of local branches, and lobbying on their behalf with the government, Parliament and the Press.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) was also founded in 1914 for the mutual support of Christian pacifists and COs.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) supported not only their own CO members, but also COs in general, and joined with the other two organisations in public lobbying.
In 1939 there were a number of existing groups committed to pacifism and anti-war campaigning, including, the Quakers, FoR, PPU (founded 1934), and denominational pacifist bodies. For work around conscription they founded a federal umbrella body, the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors (CBCO), based in the PPU’s headquarters, which lobbied the government, Parliament and the Press, and ran local advisory bureaux for COs all over the country.
There was also a Fellowship of COs for mutual support, and the various constituent groups of the CBCO closely supported their own CO members. | back >
Where is more detailed information available?
1) Conscientious Objection in general
The PPU, London, has a significant archive of original documents relating to all periods of British conscientious objection, including legislation, movement campaigning and advice, periodicals, pamphlets and leaflets.
The National Archives (formerly PRO), London, include government policy documents and circulars.
The Imperial War Museum, London, has some periodicals and pamphlets.
Friends House Library, London, has records of Quaker activity around all periods of conscientious objection, and also holds the archives of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors.
The Working Class Movement Library, Manchester, has records of the Manchester Branch of the N-CF.
2) Individual conscientious objectors
The PPU, as a major contribution to the permanent recording of conscientious objection in Britain, has begun the creation of a database to include every British conscientious objector of both periods of conscription and of members of the regular armed forces who have become COs. To date, the database comprises some 5000 names, covering the range of dates, and is being continuously updated as new names are discovered or reported from all kinds of sources.
The PPU also holds original correspondence, tribunal and court-martial statements, memoirs and other documents of a small number of individual COs of all periods.
The National Archives holds official correspondence relating to a small number of individual COs. Tribunal records for both periods of conscription have, unfortunately, been destroyed, except for the records of the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal of WW1, and some sample CO documents of the Midland Region of the Ministry of Labour & National Service, 1939-62. War Office court-martial records are also held, including those of the 35 COs sentenced to death but reprieved in WW1. For COs compulsorily enlisted in the Army in WW1, the National Archives hold about 40% of ‘other ranks’ records, the remainder having been destroyed in a fire in WW2.
The Ministry of Defence Army Record Centre, Hayes, Greater London, holds records of WW2 and later Army personnel, which would include non-combatant COs, but permission of the CO or next-of-kin is required, and a search fee is payable.
The Imperial War Museum holds CO papers of a number of individual COs of all periods, and also has a significant sound archive of recorded interviews with COs; transcripts of some interviews are available.
The Liddle Collection, Leeds University Library, includes papers, and some audio interviews, of some 30 WW1 COs.
The Working Class Movement Library’s holding of Manchester N-CF Branch’s records includes notes of appearances at the Manchester Tribunal in WW1.
Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, has names of many members of the WW1 NCC held there.
The Dartmoor Prison Museum, Devon, holds the logbook of the Princetown Work Centre Medical Officer, recording brief details of some 200 COs who reported to him as sick.
County Record Offices and Local Studies departments in County and Borough libraries may hold some CO material.
Tribunals in both conscription periods were frequently reported in the local Press, and the relevant newspapers will be held in local public libraries and the British Library’s newspaper collection at Colindale, London.
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