For the initial couple of years of the First World War, the British armed forces relied on volunteers, although immense social pressure was put on young men to sign up. By 1916, though, it was clear that this wasn’t enough to compensate for the high death-rate, and the Military Service Act of March 1916 introduced conscription for all men in England, Scotland and Wales between 18 and 41.
Many exceptions were built into the Act, however, and tribunals were set up across the country to rule on claims for essential occupation, medical unfitness and conscientious objection. The last had been allowed for Quakers since the 18th century, in recognition of the pacifism built into their religion, but the Act empowered the tribunals, if they saw fit, to permit anyone to either do non-combatant work within the military, to do civilian work of national importance, or to receive a complete exemption.
This was the theory, at least, but the tribunals tended to be hard to convince, reflecting public hostility to conscientious objectors, who were widely viewed as shirkers and cowards, despite many undertaking work at the front, such as stretcher-bearing, which if anything was more dangerous than being a soldier. Even men granted non-combatant status sometimes found this ruling ignored once they were in the hands of the military.
Others maintained their objection even when sent to fight. Many of these were repeatedly court-martialled, imprisoned and then sent back to fight when they were freed, only to go through the same process again. It was claimed that some were imprisoned up to five times for what was essentially the same offence.
Some fared even worse. In 1916, a group of thirty-five men who refused to fight on conscientious grounds were condemned to death by firing-squad, eventually commuted to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour. In addition, many conscientious objectors were disenfranchised for five years after the war.
This treatment caused a certain amount of unease in circles not naturally sympathetic to conscientious objectors. Even the flag-waving periodical John Bull ran an article on 15/7/16 by the novelist Marie Corelli calling this treatment “un-British” and comparing it to “Prussian militarism”. Corelli showed little real sympathy for conscientious objectors, but suggested that they should be regarded as “mentally unfit” for service.
Hertfordshire, with a strong Quaker tradition in certain areas, had a number of conscientious objection cases coming before its tribunal. The official tribunal records were destroyed after the war, but hearings were reported by the local press, especially in the Hertfordshire Mercury, and the Quaker archives held at HALS include a number of press cuttings of such reports. These include a good many word-for-word exchanges, illuminating the various arguments and stances of objectors, together with the way these attitudes were regarded. I’ve reproduced here as many as I’ve been able to find, although the stories aren’t always complete.
I’ve also attempted to trace both backgrounds and later history of the various conscientious objectors, through censuses, birth, marriage and death records, and military records if the person was refused any exemption or only given non-combatant status. They haven’t always been easy to track down, though. The reports often just give an initial and surname and mention only the nearest substantial town, while some objectors seem to have completely disappeared afterwards. Maybe the public attitude led them to go abroad or change their names.
For the most part, no photographs of the conscientious objectors have survived, though I've tried to illustrate the articles with roughly contemporary images of where they lived. If anyone has photos of these men, or any further information about them or other Hertfordshire conscientious objectors, we'd be very interested to hear from you.
It's probable that a few people did use conscientious objection as an excuse to get out of fighting, as public perception believed. However, most of these men were willing to suffer abuse, brutal treatment and imprisonment, and even the possibility of death, for their beliefs, and many undertook extremely dangerous work as an alternative. Whether or not you agree with their stance, they were heroes of their own consciences, and shouldn't be forgotten in the centenary of the Great War.