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CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION
in Britain during the First World War

 
 
 STUDY AND TEACHING
 RESOURCES
   
     

World War One conscientious objectors

 
 

PART ONE
World War One - Britain

- conscription
- unwilling soldiers
- alternatives and dilemmas
- prison
- Harold Bing's story
- The story of the Harwich 
'Frenchmen
'
- Mark Hayler's story
- Dartmoor
- Horace Eaton's story




PART TWO
World War Two - Britain

 


Unwilling soldiers

3,400 COs accepted call-up into the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) or the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as non-combatants. The NCC (the 'No-Courage Corps' as the press rudely called it) was set up in March 1916, part of the army and run by its regular officers. The COs assigned to it were army privates, wore army uniforms and were subject to army discipline, but didn't carry weapons or take part in battle. Their duties were mainly to provide physical labour (building, cleaning, loading and unloading anything except munitions) in support of the military.

The NCC may have been a shock to the COs who agreed to join it. But for the absolutists and alternativists who were forcibly enlisted into the NCC it was much worse. They immediately faced the question of whether to agree to wearing uniform. The men who decided to refuse were formally charged and court-martialled. Often they were treated harshly, bullied, deprived of basic needs and rights, and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. So were the men who refused to perform duties like handling munitions or building rifle ranges. Some broke down, physically or mentally, as a result of their ill-treatment.

In fact, the military were handicapped: they had no precedents or guidelines for dealing with conscripts at all, never mind conscripts who refused to fight. It had been difficult enough in 1914, arranging adequate training for a million volunteer soldiers. For centuries the army had been governed by what has been called 'the discipline of fear'. Career soldiers might be expected to accept its principles, even if they didn't always abide by them; men snatched unwillingly from quite different occupations couldn't be (and shouldn't have to). But by July 1916, the time of the Somme offensive (420,000 British dead: more than twice the number of the entire army in 1914), most of the old British army had been killed. The scale and manner of warfare was new and shocking, and this war seemed unstoppable. Whose side, wondered the frustrated and angry military, were these 'conchies' on?

 
 






Wakefield Manifesto

 



Alternatives and dilemmas

At the beginning of the war a group of young Quakers, trained in first aid, set up a humanitarian project in France, which they called the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). Most of its 1,200 members were pacifists; they were all civilians; and they worked closely with the fighting soldiers. 'Our ideal as a voluntary unit is to ease pressure on overworked or inadequate staff.' The FAU provided its COs with a way to support the wounded but not the war. They cared for anyone they found wounded, including Germans - 'One has to help the latter mostly by stealth, but it is lovely to be able to do so now and then'. To the French army, the FAU seemed an organisation of 'amiable and efficient cranks'. There's no doubt that the drivers of the FAU ambulances and the workers at their hospital and dressing stations on the front line were brave and dedicated, feeling, as one said, 'privileged to try to patch up some of the results of this ghastly mistake'.

But after conscription was introduced, for many COs (a number of whom were given exemption on condition that they served with the FAU) the complexity of the situation became increasingly problematic. In 1914 some FAU workers had feared they might be taking potential non-combatant work away from volunteer soldiers, who consequently went to their deaths instead. In 1916, it was unwilling conscripts whom the FAU's presence might be forcing into the front line. FAU staff also thought that their exemption was unfair to other COs, whose hardships they felt they should be sharing. Many resigned, and soon joined their 'refusing' colleagues in prison.

Even in prison, choices created dilemmas. Some apparently innocent prison tasks turned out to be part of the war effort, and had to be resisted. Those who refused to do any work at all were punished with solitary confinement and bread-and-water diets for long periods.

Another kind of dilemma concerned the 'Home Office Scheme': work camps set up by the government in1916 after the Central Tribunal had decided that, on re-examination, 4,378 prisoners were 'genuine' objectors after all. Was agreeing to go to these camps actually an act of war-support? Some COs thought it was, and stayed in prison. Others thought it might be a progressive move, possibly leading to enlightened penal reform, and went. The camps varied. Some were relatively comfortable, others barely habitable. Work varied, too, from the unpleasant (making fertiliser from dead animals) to the utterly futile (manual labour for non-existent projects). continue...

 
   

 

 
       
 

 

 

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