Active opposition to the First World War took many forms in British society: public meetings and demonstrations - some of these leading to pitched battles - personal protest and conscientious objection, mutinies and trade union strikes, and of course artistic expression in painting, poetry and literature.
Nevertheless, the opponents were far outnumbered by enthusiasts for the war. By 1916 there were still more men volunteering than could be equipped, according to A.J.P.Taylor, but politicians wishing to give the impression that they were helping the war effort decided that conscription was the way to demonstrate this.
The Military Service Bill (the proposal in parliament to make a new law introducing conscription) was debated in the House of Commons in January 1916. The government, led by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, knew the Bill would be very controversial and that there would be fierce opposition to conscription from some MPs - particularly Quaker MPs and members of the Independent Labour Party. To deal with the expected opposition to conscription, the government had included a section in the Military Service Bill known as the ‘conscience clause’. This allowed people exemption from conscription ‘on the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service’. The government knew there would also be strong opposition to the conscience clause from a large number of MPs.
MPs debated long and hard about which types of conscientious objector the new law would recognise. On the day of the final vote on the Military Service Bill there was great tension in parliament. Everyone knew the seriousness of the proposed new law and knew what a dramatic
change it would be for Britain (Ireland was not included in the Bill). Out of 630 MPs in the House of Commons at the time 165 of them were already in the army or navy and most of those had come wearing their military uniform. Only 36 MPs opposed the Military Service Bill and so, on 27 January 1916, the Bill received the Royal Assent and became the law of the land.
The new law would come into operation on 3 February 1916 and from 2 March all unmarried men aged 18-41 would be ‘deemed to have enlisted’ in the army. In just a few months conscription would be extended to married men also.
Over 16,000 men claimed exemption from military service. They were required to attend a tribunal (an interviewing panel with legal authority) to have the sincerity of their claims assessed.
Conscientious objectors were usually offered non-combatant work in the army, or civilian work (for example, working on the land) that was useful to a country at war. Men who turned down these alternatives, and men who had not even been offered them but still refused call-up, were then arrested and sent to military barracks. Here they faced court martial, like any soldier who disobeyed orders - as indeed the COs did, refusing to wear uniform or respond to any commands. The court martial would give a prison sentence, to be served in a civilian prison. When the CO had finished his time in prison, he would be called up again a day after his release and arrested when he failed to obey: this was known as the ‘cat and mouse’ process. It was all very tough on the men who endured it. More than eighty COs died in prison or as a result of their experience there. Some became physically or mentally ill, and of these some never fully recovered.
In May 1916 about 50 COs being held at Harwich, Seaford and Richmond Castle were sent to France, and threatened with the death penalty. On the ‘Front Line’ they could be court-martialled and executed for disobeying orders.
They were transported in secret by night to Southampton, but one of them managed to drop a note from the train as they crossed London. This was picked up and somehow the information reached the No-Conscription Fellowship (and their families) that they were on their way to France. Once there they remained defiant, despite the intimidation and brutal treatment - including in some cases field punishment such as being ‘crucified’ for several hours on a wooden frame or barbed wire. In June 1916 they were court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, though this was immediately commuted to ten years penal servitude. It meant being sent back to England.
COs faced the unpleasant and severe consequences of their actions with responses as varied as themselves. Their only backing came from peace organisations and a small group of Members of Parliament, and above all from the sustained vigilance of the No-Conscription
First Published 2013 by Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi,
Peace Pledge Union, Quaker Peace
Social Witness,Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom