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Why did men Object to War? CO Analysis

With an ever growing database covering thousands of individuals, the PPU has a vast amount of information on Conscientious Objectors in World War One. In this series of articles we will delve a little deeper into the patterns hidden away in our database with some informal data analysis. This week, let’s look at the motivations of Conscientious Objectors in London. graph

Something we’re often asked when talking to people about Conscientious Objectors is exactly why men became COs - what reasons did they have for refusing to fight and kill in the First World War?

We know that many COs had religious, political and ethical grounds for objecting, and some of the most commonly known facts about COs are on this subject. It’s widely known that the Quakers were the largest single group of Objectors, and that left-wing political men, mostly Socialists and members of the Independent Labour Party were another major group.

If we look into the PPU records we can see there are 2,083 London COs with a known reason for their objection (there are around 1,000 more that have unknown motivations at this point!) These can be roughly divided into six main groups (read clockwise).

Religious Objectors (blue) are by far the largest group at 1,074 men. A Religious CO may have come from many different groups and denominations active in London. Christian denominations are in the overwhelming majority, reflecting the mostly Christian demography of London at the time. Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, Christadelphians and other Non-Conformists are very common - and the stories of Non-Conformist COs are often well known.

Other Christian groups are less well represented. For example, there are comparatively few Church of England and Roman Catholic COs. These men may have found it more difficult to successfully argue their case in front of Tribunals, which were keen to catch men out by referencing a pro-war figure in their tradition. Many men were faced with the opinions of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“it was finely said a few weeks ago that the religion of peace cannot hold it’s ground unless it is prepared, when occasion arises, to transform itself into the religion of strife”
(Randall Davidson Archbishop of Canterbury, reported in “Christ and the World At War”)

Non-Christian Religious COs are a small group of only around 100 London men. Most of these men were from Jewish communities in the East End, both Orthodox and Liberal, though there are a number of Buddhist COs from central London. A very small number of Muslim, Hindu and Theosophist COs were often recorded together as “Eastern” religions. The reasons these men had for their objection are as varied as their religious beliefs.

Political COs (green) form the second largest group overall, with 610 men registering a solely political objection. Nearly all of these men were socialists or members of the Independent Labour Party. Their views on the war varied, but were well summarised by Albert Inkpin, Secretary of the British Socialist Party:
“As a socialist and internationalist I am strongly opposed to war, which I regard as arising from the conflict of capitalist interests and as inimical to the welfare of the working class”
recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

A number of other COs who expressed political objections were Anarchists, men for whom any form of state compulsion, let alone war, was unacceptable. A varied and sometimes wild group, they caused uproar in their Tribunals as many members who sat in judgement on their cases simply could not understand their arguments which were often inspired by Russian and Central European political thinkers.

Religious and Political COs (yellow). Many men applied for exemption from Combatant service on both religious and political grounds. The men included in this category are merely those that made both of these reasons for objection clear. Many men in both the religious and political categories should probably be placed into “Religious and Political COs”, but at present lack evidence for one of their motivations.

Men who were both politically active and religious were common in the CO movement, and  it’s probably true to say that the line between politics and religion was even more indistinct in 1916 than it is today! “Religious and Political COs” include men who were active members of political parties and churches, often working as both Union or Party secretary as well as a lay minister (busy!). The prevailing attitude of this group is best summed up by the leaflet “Repeal the Act” which appealed to both religious and political CO alike:
“Militarism will fasten its iron grip upon our national life and institutions. There will be imposed upon us the very system which our statement affirm that they set out to overthrow. What shall it profit the nation if it shall win the war and lose it’s own soul?”
Repeal the Act, NCF Leaflet 1916

Ethical COs” (orange) a much smaller group was men who registered their objection to war on ethical, humanitarian or even artistic grounds. This is possibly the most eclectic group and the small amount of “Ethical COs” range from all walks of life. It’s possible that some of these men also had religious or political reasons - the sometimes patchy nature of CO records make it difficult to be sure.

Two significant groups of COs who objected to war on Ethical grounds are men associated with the Bloomsbury group, an artists collective which was active during the early 20th century and a number of men who stated they could not be part of the war as they were vegetarians and opposed to killing any and all animals.

“I must refuse to have anything to do with the army or navy, having been brought up to regard human life as sacred”
Henry Herbert Clement recorded by Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

“My sensibilities are outraged by the atrocities of peace as well as war”
Thomas William Gavin recorded by Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

“NCF” COs A large number of Conscientious Objectors have been recorded as having an “NCF” motivation. NCF in this context means that they explained at their Tribunal that they were a member of the No-Conscription Fellowship.

This category is a good example of why CO research can sometimes be difficult. Was the motivation of 230 London Conscientious Objectors purely because they were members of the NCF? Why did they become members in the first place?

The No-Conscription fellowship was a very broad movement, accepting men with any reason for resisting conscription. A CO citing their membership of the NCF as motivation for objection, then, could have had any other motivation! At a Tribunal, mentioning the NCF would have stood as almost a shorthand for “I am against Conscription and therefore  am a Conscientious Objector”.

In the case of many of these men, we may never know exactly what their reasons for objection were. Only a lucky find of a newspaper report, Tribunal transcript or letter would let us go beyond “NCF” to look at the underlying reasons for objecting to war.

“National” COs Only 12 COs in London said their nationality or ethnicity was their reason for their objection. We know that many German and Austrian families lived in London and that many had sons of military age who refused to join up to kill men who could have been family. We also know that there are a large amount of COs with Russian ancestry, who objected to fighting for the Tsar and Russian Empire - often because their families had fled to Britain to escape persecution.

Why, then, is this number so low? Many of these men will have had other reasons for objecting that they, or the Tribunal secretaries taking minutes, thought were more significant.

For example, Walter Hohnrodt, a CO from a German family living in Haringey describes himself as a socialist, but is described in his Tribunal notes as “a German”. The majority of COs from Russian Jewish families describe themselves as “Russian” but are described by the Tribunals as “Jewish”.

We’ll look into the men claiming Exemption from Conscription for reasons of Nationality later in the month. In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that many men would not want to mention their nationality, or possibly an extended family in Germany and Austria. Persecution of COs was commonplace and extremely damaging, but pales in comparison to the newspaper-stirred hysteria that surrounded people, places and businesses with even a vaguely “German” name. Where possible, “Germanic” ancestry was covered up - no better example than the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha!

“If it is wrong for an Englishman to have a conscience, then for a German’s son it is a crime for which he should be damned a thousand times”
Walter Hohnrodt, Haringey CO

What can we learn from this quick analysis?
One of the most common assumptions about COs is that they were all religious. Even this very quick count shows that this is not the case - the nearly 50/50 split in the London data between religious and non-religious motivations is likely echoed around the country. It’s a more complicated, and more interesting, picture of what it meant to object to war than to simplify all men into a single group.

In addition to this, I think it’s important to see how varied CO motivations were. Not only are there many different groups, but as we’ve seen, each group has a variety of different types of objection within it. Not only did COs with different motivations and opinions coexist, but they also formed a mutually supporting framework. If we look at the chart it seems as if the CO movement was fragmented into different types of CO. For analysis, this is quite useful (and hopefully you’ve found it interesting!) but it does hide an important point. First World War Conscientious Objectors were varied, but they were all COs - and treated each other as such. You can see in our articles on the Tribunal newspaper that COs from different backgrounds wrote in support of each other frequently, and equal weight was given to opinions from all backgrounds.

I think this says something very important about conscientious objection, and the peace movement today. There are many “ways in” to peace, and nearly as many different reasons for objecting to war as there are objectors! Then, as now, Anti-War movements have space for hundreds of different opinions to coexist.



“Until we accept in all it’s literal meaning ...“thou shalt not kill” until then we shall not only have war but fail in all duty before God and Man”
Quaker CO reported in John Graham, Conscription and Conscience


“If Germany wins it is God’s will, and if He desires them to win, then they must”
(Guy Lawrence Tod recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal)


“I have honestly tried to live so as to benefit my fellow creatures as befits a Theosophist”
Charles Edward Ball, recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

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