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White Feather

Written by Richard Hughes

The outbreak of war in August 1914 witnessed a huge wave of patriotic enthusiasm as thousands of men rushed to join up and fight in a war that was supposedly going to be over by Christmas. But by the end of 1915, as the true nature of the war became apparent, the surge of volunteers had sharply declined. In order to replace the huge losses that were being sustained the government introduced the highly controversial and unpopular Military Service Act, which came into force on 2 March 1916. For the first time in British history, compulsory military service became law. All single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41 were liable for conscription, except those in employment ‘essential to the war effort’, the sole supporters of dependents, or those medically unfit. Later revisions to the Act included married men and raised the age limit to 50, as well as reducing the number of ‘essential’ jobs.

Uniquely in Britain, the government also allowed possible exemption for those who objected to military service on grounds of conscience. This new class of conscientious objectors or ‘Conchies’, as they were disparagingly referred to, came from different classes and social backgrounds. The majority were motivated by religious or philosophical beliefs, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers) for whom pacifism was a central tenet of their religion. Others objected for political reasons, regarding the war as an imperialist conflict in which they would take no part, although they might be prepared to fight for a cause they believed in.

Between March 1916 and the end of the war, over 16,000 men registered as conscientious objectors. The claimants appeared first before a local tribunal and were allowed to submit a statement of their beliefs and reasons for seeking exemption. The merits of each case were then assessed by a panel of civic dignitaries and a military representative, who opposed the granting of any exemption. If, as often happened, the claim was rejected, the case was then passed to an Appeals Tribunal and ultimately to a Central Tribunal in London.

Most conscientious objectors fell into three broad categories. ‘Alternativists’ were those willing to undertake some form of non-military work as an alternative to military service. Around 750 of these men were directed to work of ‘national importance’ under a Home Office Scheme which employed them on the land or in work camps across the UK.

At least 3,500 conscientious objectors agreed to join the newly formed Non-Combatant Corps. Although in uniform and subject to military discipline they only undertook general labouring duties and were not required to bear arms or handle munitions. Others volunteered to serve in non-combatant roles such as stretcher bearers, medical orderlies and drivers with the Royal Army Medical Corps or the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Those who refused to join the Non-Combatant Corps or undertake war work were labelled ‘Absolutists’. For them, any contribution to the war effort was deemed unacceptable. Many refused to recognize the legitimacy of the tribunals and 1,350 were subsequently arrested and imprisoned. At first, they were sent to military prisons but later were allowed to serve their sentences in civilian jails. However, even there they were still regarded by the authorities as being under military jurisdiction and liable to be sent overseas at any time.

To prove the point, in May 1916 a group of forty-two ‘Absolutists’ were taken to a camp in Boulogne, France and ordered to join their regiments. They refused and in June thirty-five of them were court-martialled and sentenced to death, although the sentences were swiftly commuted to 10 years penal servitude in Britain. Although the exercise was not repeated, it acted as a clear warning to all conscientious objectors of what might happen if they continued to resist.

Over one-third of the 16,000 registered conscientious objectors went to prison at least once and some ‘Absolutists’ spent most of the war behind bars. Conscientious objectors generally received the maximum sentence available of 112 days hard labour, which included work such as breaking stones, sewing mailbags and picking oakum. Food and living conditions at this time were generally poor for all prisoners, but conscientious objectors were often singled out for particularly harsh treatment. At least 70 died as a result of their imprisonment. They also suffered verbal and physical abuse from both staff and fellow inmates, although a few did manage to gain a more sympathetic hearing for their beliefs.

On completion of their sentence, conscientious objectors were routinely re-arrested as ‘deserters’, court-martialled and sent straight back to prison. A similar ‘Cat and Mouse’ tactic had been used against another group of protestors, the Suffragettes, prior to the outbreak of war.

News of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 did not result in conscientious objectors being allowed to go free. Many were not released until the majority of demobilized ex-servicemen returned home in 1919, further stigmatizing them and perpetuating the divide between those who had fought and those who had chosen not to.

Even in the post-war world, hostility to conscientious objectors continued. They were routinely discriminated against in the job and housing markets and continued to receive abuse and hostility, particularly from those who had served or lost relatives in the war.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, those who had been conscientious objectors during the First World War were faced with the same dilemma. However, the situation facing the country in 1939 was markedly different from that in 1914, and for some at least it required a fundamental re-evaluation of their beliefs and convictions.


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