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5 NO-CONSCRIPTION FELLOWSHIP

OBJECTING TO WAR
FIRST CO TO DIE
2 EUROPE GOES TO WAR
3 COUNTDOWN TO CONSCRIPTION
4 FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE IN SOCIETY
5 NO CONSCRIPTION FELLOWSHIP
6 THE SECRET PRESS
7 MANY TRADITIONS
8 THE TRIBUNALS
9 TRANSCRIPTS
10 THE 'won't-fight-funks'
11 THE COST OF CONSCIENCE
12 UNWILLING SOLDIERS
13 ALTERNATIVES AND DILEMMAS
14 PRISON
15 THE MEN SENTENCED TO DEATH
16 COERCION FAILS
17 DYCE
18 DARTMOOR
19 THEY WORK IN OVERCOATS
20 THE MEN WHO DIED
21 WINDING DOWN
21 SELECTION OF BOOKS
22 FROM CALL UP TO DISCHARGE


WHY WAR? supplement





How the press portrayed the objectors >




The No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was formed to support those who objected to taking up arms in the First World War. These men became known as 'Conscientious Objectors'. The grounds of objection varied with some, such as Quakers, objecting on religious grounds, whilst others were opposed on political grounds as socialists and internationalists and others on humanitarian grounds. The movement began in the autumn of 1914 when, at the suggestion of his wife Lilla, Fenner Brockway - editor of the strongly anti-war ILP newspaper Labour Leader - invited those who were not prepared to render military service to get in contact. There was an immediate response that led to the establishment of an organisation, the No Conscription Fellowship, in November 1914 with 300 initial members and most of the secretarial work being done by Lilla from their cottage in Derbyshire. Its Statement of Faith declared it an organisation of men 'who will refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms, because they consider human life to be sacred and cannot therefore assume the responsibility of inflicting death'.

Few believed that the government would introduce conscription, which had never happened before in any previous war in Britain. Small groups were established and by the beginning of 1915 the membership had become so large it was necessary to open an office in London. Most of the work was now done by Clifford Allen who was eventually sent to prison where he developed tuberculosisis of the spine and was released in December 1917, after 16 months inside. Fenner Brockway was also sent to prison in 1916.

By July 1915 it was becoming clear that the government was going to introduce conscription. In August it took the first step with compulsory registration of men and women up to the age of 65. The government then introduced the Derby scheme of enlistment, which although nominally voluntary, aimed to persuade all men to take the military oath and enormous pressure was put on them to comply.

Despite the millions who had joined up in the first months of the war, the unprecedented military losses suffered by Britain were rapidly thinning the ranks. It was also clear that the war was going to last a long time.

:: members of the NCF national committee on their way to prison, July 1916
left to right: Walter H Ayles, J P F Fletcher, WJ Chamberlain, A Barratt Brown, Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway

The NCF established a network of branches across the country to campaign against the military Service Bill. Members declared their intention not to render military service or perform war-work.

Delegates pledged themselves to fight for their beliefs and for peace. In June conscription was extended to married men between 18 and 41 and later extended to all men up to 51.

The NCF was organised meticulously, keeping records of every CO, the grounds of his objection, his appearance before tribunals, civil courts, courts martial, and even which prison or Home Office settlement they were in. They also maintained contact with COs, arranging visits to camps, barracks and prisons across the country. Pickets of prisons were held. The NCF also had a press department, which constantly sought to draw the attention of the public to what was happening to COs and the ill-treatment and brutality many were subject to. They also published leaflets and pamphlets and from March 1916 a weekly newspaper called The Tribunal. The Political Department briefed MPs and drafted questions to Ministers. The NCF worked with two other organisations: the Friends' Service Committee and Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Ranged against them they had the full might of the government, the police, the army, most churches and the jingoist press which whipped up public opinion against COs or 'conchies' as they were labelled. Immense personal pressures were put on COs not just by the state, but also by communities, neighbours, friends, even families. They also had to withstand the pressure to conform when isolated in barracks, army camps and prisons. Some 50 men were shipped to France in May 1916 as the government and army attempted to break the movement, of whom many were actually sentenced to death after court-martial, although the sentences were commuted to 10 years imprisonment as the NCF got publicity for what was going on. Seventy three men died after being arrested, the first ten whilst still in prison. About forty suffered mental breakdowns. Some 20,000 men refused to fight altogether. According to NCF figures 6312 men were arrested for resisting conscription. Over 800 served more than two years in prison. Thousands of other COs refused to bear arms but accepted service in ambulance units, the Friends Relief Committee or "work of national importance".

Women were extensively involved in the NCF. Firstly as mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends and friends of the men who often had to face hostility from family and neighbours. Secondly as workers in the organisation itself, especially as male members were imprisoned. These included Catherine Marshall, who acted as Parliamentary Secretary; Violet Tillard who worked in the Maintenance department, acted as General Secretary for a period and was sentenced to 61 days imprisonment for refusing to tell the police who the NCF printers were; Ada Salter; Gladys Rinder; Joan Beauchamp who was also jailed twice; Lydia Smith who worked in the Press Department; and Edith Smith who served 6 months for printing a leaflet without submitting it for censorship.

The government tried very hard to suppress The Tribunal, raiding the first printers, the National Labour Press, and dismantling their printing machinery. The NCF had made preparations and had a secret press which continued to bring out the paper. The police raided the offices repeatedly, followed office staff and also took Joan Beauchamp to court. She was eventually imprisoned for 10 days in January 1920.

The final convention of the NCF took place at the end of November 1919 at Devonshire House and was attended by over 400 delegates from branches all over the country.

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