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The History Column

Dauntless

In November 1914, a new war resisters’ organisation came into being in Britain – through a letter to the press (as the Peace Pledge Union did 20 years later).

Lilla Brockway prompted her husband Fenner Brockway to place a letter in the Labour Leader (which he edited) inviting responses from men of enlistment age who would refuse to be combatants. 300 replies arrived by return. According to Brockway, the response was ‘so immediate and the earnestness of the writers so moving that it at once became clear that there was a need for a fellowship in which the prospective resisters might unite.’

The No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was launched, initially operating out of the Brockways’ home. As membership grew – it eventually reached around 10,000 – the NCF shifted headquarters to London. Supporters and members included well-known pacifists and war resisters such as philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Some members, such as Harold Bing, formed local branches, so creating a support network that stretched around Britain.

Fenner Brockway wrote that membership ‘extended beyond absolute pacifists’ and included ‘Socialists, Anarchists, Quakers, and other religious objectors’.

As conscription approached, the NCF spearheaded a tremendous anti-conscription campaign, including distributing more than a million leaflets.

When, in August 1915, compulsory registration was introduced, the NCF stated that, while respecting the courage of soldiers, it and its members ‘bound by deep conscientious conviction’ would resist conscription, whatever the consequences.

When conscription was finally introduced in 1916, the NCF became the hub and voice of the conscientious objection movement, within which 16,000 men, most if not all of them members of the NCF, took their stand as COs, experiencing abuse, ostracism, prison and great hardship as a result.

From the first, the NCF was more than just a personal objection to military service on grounds of conscience; it was also a profoundly political organisation. The NCF challenged the state by consistently refusing to accept the state’s right to force men into military service.

According to David Boulton, author of Objection Overruled, with conscription the NCF ‘fashioned itself into the most efficient instrument the British peace movement ever had, before or since.’ Its organisation was remarkable: it kept meticulous records of every conscientious objector in the country, with details of their statements, tribunal hearings, treatment, imprisonment and so on. Duplicate records were kept as a safeguard against police raids.

NCF members attended tribunals, supported the families of COs and maintained up-to-date information about what was happening to objectors. When, in May 1916, groups of objectors were taken in secret to France, to be threated with execution, it was the NCF who were the first to know, passing information straight to the government. And, from March 1916, the NCF published a weekly journal, The Tribunal, which, despite constant police surveillance and raids, was published until January 1920.

Women resisters

As NCF officials were imprisoned, their places were filled by reserves, many of them women whose support for COs and war resisters is often overlooked. Several had been active in the women’s suffrage movement and were not only skilled organisers but also highly experienced in evading police surveillance. They included Catherine Marshall, Violet Tillard (who was imprisoned for 61 days for refusing to tell the police the name of the NCF printers), Jean Beauchamp (who served two prison terms), and Lydia Smith who worked in the press department.

By and large, the NCF took an absolutist line, refusing to compromise with the 1916 Military Service Act in any way. Many members, including Brockway and Clifford Allen, served repeated terms of imprisonment, some suffering severe physical hardship.

However, when the NCF held its final convention in November 1919, which was attended by more than 400 delegates from all over the country, Allen paid tribute to all COs, absolutists, alternativists, those in the Non-Combat Corps and those who had accepted what was known as the Home Office Scheme.

In a long and moving speech, he spelled out the great achievement of the NCF and its conscientious objector membership, namely that they had ‘shattered the infallibility of militarism.’

Ann Kramer’s latest book Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance will be published by Pen & Sword in November 2014.

Topics: History