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A Humanist’s Approach to National Service

This account by Richard Hale explains why he became a conscientious objector, in line with his humanist beliefs, when called up for National Service in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The National Services Act, December 1948, extended Second World War conscription in the form of National Service until 1957. Deferred call-ups formally ended on 31 December, 1960. The grounds for conscientious objection included freedom of thought, conscience or religion.

As a young person, about to leave school at 18 in the summer of 1956, I was liable to be called up for National Service and that proved to be the case. I received a letter instructing me to report to a military establishment on a particular date.

Prior to that I had for some time become increasingly uncomfortable at the possibility of being placed in situation where, if so instructed, I would be required to kill a fellow human being.  My study of history had persuaded me that it was a chronicle of intrigue, corruption and war. I had concluded that my conscience would not allow me to take part in military training, which, in my opinion, only increased the chances of war. 

I did not accept that preparing for war was the best way of maintaining peace. Nor did I believe that life was worth living if twice in every century millions of innocent men, women and children had to die inglorious, horrible deaths.

It was my sincere belief that war could be prevented and I considered that I would not be morally justified in killing a man (or woman), especially an innocent man, who was doing what he considered to be his duty, and that that was what modern warfare consisted of. I recognised the existence of evil in the world but held life to be a valuable thing which should not readily be sacrificed for political ideals.

I felt that by registering as a Conscientious Objector I would be making a small but positive contribution towards the peace which I so eagerly desired for the world. At the same time I would be giving myself that true inner peace and harmony which surpasses all understanding and is the soundest base for constructive as opposed to destructive living.

Finally I considered that wars were brought about by fear, ignorance and distrust. I believed that my action would alleviate these factors to a small extent and thus contribute to a more peaceful and less sordid atmosphere in the modern world.

There were three broad categories for objecting to military service:

  1. Objecting to undergoing military service and taking state direction for alternative civilian work (absolutists). This could result in imprisonment.
  2. Objecting to military service but agreeing to undertake work of a civil character under civilian control.
  3. Objecting to military service in its fighting sense but agreeing to undertake other duties within the military (non-combatants).

I chose the second category in my Statement of Application of 4 September 1956 and this was heard and accepted on 18 February 1956 by the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors constituted under the National Service Acts. Their Notification of Result of Application was dated 18 February 1957. The Certificate of Registration in the Register of Conscientious Objectors was issued by the Ministry of Labour and National Service on 15 February 1956. I spent the next two years and two months working as a Ward Orderly in hospitals in London, Aylesbury and Cheltenham. Since that time I have rarely, if ever, found cause or reason to doubt or regret my September 1956 application to be provisionally registered on the Register of Conscientious Objectors on humanity grounds. 

5 May 2019