The UN Commission on Human Rights did not recognise the right to conscientious objection until 1987, and there are still plenty of places where it isnt acknowledged or is made difficult to claim. Now seems a good moment to remember the first conscientious objectors: trail-blazers for a necessary freedom.
In 1914, after 20,000 casualties in the first two weeks of the war, conscription for British men looked increasingly likely. Pacifist members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, set up in 1915, successfully campaigned to secure the conscience clause in the 1916 conscription Act, allowing men the right to claim exemption from military service. 16,000 made that claim. More than 70 of them were to die as a result of harsh treatment.
The tribunals set up to assess the claimants were a very mixed bunch. Often they consisted of men of not very great depth of vision or understanding. Perhaps it was not very surprising that such scratch bodies, composed of miscellaneous Borough Councillors, without any judicial training, without any defined procedure, armed with immense powers and subject to the most violent animus, should find it difficult to interpret the conscience clauses of a fairly complicated Act of Parliament.1 COs were asked about their religious beliefs and (a favourite one) what they would do if their sisters were threatened with rape by a German soldier. Once past the tribunals, COs faced a variety of unpleasant consequences, which they faced with responses as varied as themselves.
3300 accepted call-up into the Non-Combatant Corps (an army-run labour resource), and immediately addressed the question of whether to submit to wearing uniform. Refusers were subjected to all kinds of military bullying: prison, deprivation, inhumane treatment, hard labour. So were those who refused to perform duties such as handling munitions or building rifle ranges. Some broke down as a result of their treatment: at least 31 became insane.
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 on moral grounds. It had been difficult enough in 1915, arranging adequate training for a million volunteers. 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 didnt always live up to them; men snatched from quite different occupations should not. But by the time of the Somme offensive (420,000 casualties: more than twice the number of the entire army in 1914) most of the old British army was dead. And to everyone the scale and manner of warfare was quite new, and shocking.
So it seems right to remember not only the COs but also the soldiers old-style, voluntary and conscripted who faced undreamt-of horrors and found that they, too, had to refuse. During the fighting on the Somme, one young private was ordered to crawl out into no-mans land to a listening post. The private civilly objected. He explained that he was unwell and that his nerve had gone; his father had recently been killed in action; he was anxious about his mother; he would, he believed, be a danger to other men as well as to himself. Recommending his death sentence (for cowardice), the army commander said, If toleration be shown to private soldiers who deliberately decline to face danger, all the qualities which we desire would be debased and degraded.
Harold Stanton of Luton was sent to France with about 50 other COs. In Harfleur he experienced 28 days of field punishment, first tied by the arms to a kind of crucifix, then roped face-forward to a barbed wire fence. Yet he didnt feel they had special grounds for complaint. We were exceptional cases, and militarism was making an effort to break down our resistance. What did seem to me shameful was that any voluntary soldier, who was offering his life in what he believed to be his countrys service, was liable to such a punishment for quite a trivial offence.
The soldier who reluctantly told Stanton that he was to be sent, via Boulogne, to the front line you can be shot if you still disobey orders added indignantly, I would sooner shoot the officer who gave me the order than shoot one of you fellows. Im not here to murder Englishmen.
Apprentice piano tuner Alfred Evans went to Boulogne too. We were handcuffed with our hands behind our backs and 17 of us were put into a dark underground cage about 12 feet square. With us was one latrine bucket no lid.
In the event, the French party were not taken to the front line. They were sentenced to death by shooting. This was commuted to penal servitude for ten years. In all, more than 6000 conscientious objectors were court martialled and sent to prison, where they endured privations both mental and physical. Harold Bing recalled:
Some died in prison; some went mad; some broke down in health completely and never really recovered; some were discharged because they were on the point of death; some suffered terribly from insomnia....For many people it was extremely hard.
1200 COs obtained exemption by serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit. One of these was Corder Catchpool. The poor men are so grateful for the little service one can render sometimes it is merely to make them more comfortable to die, or the even humbler service of making them a little cleaner. The FAU cared for all 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.
For many COs the complexity of the situation became increasingly problematic. Just as some had realised, early in the war, that they held jobs which could keep other men from being called up, so FAU workers later began to realise that their presence forced conscripts, who might have served as medical orderlies, into the front line. They also felt that their exemption was unfair to other COs. Many resigned, and joined their colleagues in prison. Even in prison, choices created dilemmas. Apparently innocent tasks were revealed to be part of the war effort. Those who therefore refused to do any work were punished with solitary confinement for long periods.
Another kind of dilemma concerned the work camps set up by the government late in 1916. Was agreeing to go there a measure 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. The camps varied. Some were relatively comfortable, others barely habitable. Work varied, too, from the unpleasant (making fertiliser from dead animals) and futile (digging for non-existent projects). Alfred Evans was posted to a waterworks, found that the employer was creaming off the wages, went on strike and was back in prison within a week. Harold Stanton, although he had refused to work, was sent to Dyce Camp, a quarry works near Aberdeen, where a CO died (the first) because of the appalling living conditions.
Dyce Camp was immediately closed but not before the men had managed to produce a couple of editions of The Granite Echo (annual subscription 1s 6d), an outlet for these most argumentative men. There are two possible lines of action in the face of evil. There is the spirit of rigid moral rectitude an attitude that has one overmastering motive, that of avoiding every action which might involve a compromise with evil. The other is that of meeting evil with well-doing in the sense of doing good to the evil man even while he is engaged in evil actions, wrote Herbert Runacres, coming down heavily on the side of pragmatism, and Alternative Service, in four strong paragraphs.
And after the Armistice? Most of the imprisoned COs werent released until April 1919, and were deprived of the vote for 10 years. Many found it hard to get a job. (Alfred Evans was lucky: there was a shortage of piano tuners.) But these brave and committed men and their experiences became an essential contribution to the advance of penal reform, the growth of the peace movement, and the establishment of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, of whom, next time around, there were 60,000 more.
Ralph Partridge, described by a fellow undergraduate as noticeably more intelligent, quick-witted and forceful than most of his contemporaries, was a young infantry officer in the first world war, wounded twice, once nearly buried alive. In his statement to the Appeal Tribunal for Conscientious Objectors in 1943 he spelled out what war had taught him:
I joined the Army in 1914 because I was persuaded that I should be fighting for civilisation in a war to end war. During the course of that war I had plenty of time to reflect on why I was trying so hard to kill my fellow men. All civilised values had disappeared, my country was dominated by fear, hatred, anger and revenge, and the object of the war was reduced to punishing the Germans. The war to end war had degenerated into a war to stave off the next war by punitive peace terms. I resigned my commission as soon as the war ended and became a pacifist.
I have the firmest belief in the sanctity of human life and the brotherhood of man, and I am convinced that no civilised life can endure in this world until these universal conceptions override national jealousies and mistrust, and are accepted by the governments of states as well as private individuals.
Private individual Alfred Evans: If there is any progress in this world at all it is of the heterodox and not the orthodox. Im satisfied that I did my bit and I dont regret a single thing of it.
CO commemorative stone
Military conscription today
War we say no
 Michael Holroyd: Lytton Strachey (Heinemann 1968)
 Anthony Babington: For The Sake Of Example (Paladin 1985)
[3 Frances Partridge: A Pacifists War (Hogarth Press 1978)
Other quotations: Felicity Goodall: A Question of Conscience (Sutton, 1997)