Every year on 15 May, pacifists and anti-war activists gather in London’s Tavistock Square in front of a massive slate memorial that was unveiled by composer and conscientious objector Michael Tippett in 1994. The stone commemorates ‘All those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope.’
Those who first established that right were the conscientious objectors of the First World War. When war began in August 1914, recruits flooded into the army at the rate of 300,000 a month, but, as casualties mounted into their thousands, recruitment dropped. With field marshal Horatio Kitchener demanding more men, in January 1916 the British government passed the Military Service Act, introducing conscription into Britain for the first time.
Perhaps surprisingly, at a time when most of the country felt it was a man’s duty to fight for king and country, the new act contained a ‘conscience clause’ allowing men to apply for exemption if they had ‘a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combat service’.
At least 16,000 and, according to new research, probably nearer 20,000 men, took a stand as conscientious objectors. It is a small number compared with the five million or so who served with the army but it was significant – and far higher than the authorities had anticipated.
So: who were these conscientious objectors or ‘conchies’, as the press insultingly dubbed them? Clearly they were all of military age, with many in their twenties. All shared, on grounds of deeply-held principles, the belief that it was wrong to pick up arms to kill their fellow men, and profoundly wrong of any government to compel them to do so. Beyond that there was no such thing as a ‘typical’ conscientious objector.
COs came from all social classes and from a wide range of occupations. They included prominent members of the No-Conscription Fellowship: Fenner Brockway, who spent 23 months in prison, eight of them in solitary confinement; Clifford Allen, who was probably only three weeks away from death when he was finally released from prison; and Stephen Hobhouse, son of a highly-privileged family, who became a Quaker and worked with the poor in London’s East End.
Printer Fred Murfin, who later wrote his experiences in the unpublished Prisoners of Peace, and John (Bert) Brocklesby, a teacher and Anglican lay preacher, were both COs. So too were journalist Hubert Peet; David Thomas, teacher and co-founder of the ILP in North Wales; Henry Sargent, later the highly respected curator of Bexhill Museum; and Quakers Corder Catchpool and Richard Porteous, who served with the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU).
The reasons why these men took their stand varied.
Some, such as Brocklesby and Alfred Salter, whose passionate portrayal of Christ on the battlefield thrusting a bayonet into a German soldier was quoted by many, did so on religious grounds. For them ‘thou shalt not kill’ meant exactly what it said. Most religious objectors were Quakers but there were also Anglicans, Methodists, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few Jews, including writer Stephen Winsten (Weinstein).
Many however took their stand for political, humanitarian or moral reasons: for socialists such as Brockway, the belief in what they called ‘the brotherhood of man’ was profound so to take up arms was inconceivable. Political objectors included ILP members, Marxists, socialists, anarchists and some Liberals.
At least 6,000 were absolutists, not prepared to compromise in any way at all. Around 1,000 of them served consecutive prison sentences. Others were ‘alternativists’, prepared to do alternative civilian duties, or even enter the Non-Combatant Corps provided they did not have to pick up arms or contribute to killing.
First World War COs suffered for their beliefs. They were socially ostracised, lost their jobs, were vilified in the press and by the public, brutalised in the army and imprisoned. At least 73 died and many went insane. Despite this treatment, by far the majority maintained their position. By doing so, they proved it was possible to make a nonviolent stand against war, militarism and the state. They provided extraordinary role models for the COs who followed 20 years later, and for all subsequent war resisters.