Resources 1

World War I

The 1st World war was a war between imperial powers. A thriving and expanding German economy was trying to get cheap raw materials and move into markets in the world, which since the 18th century had been colonised and controlled by the older imperial powers, especially Britain and France.

At the start of the war in 1914 there was a wave of nationalism and patriotism that saw hundreds of thousands of young men join up with enthusiasm.

The government established a very well funded committee of writers and artists, including Arthur Ransome and Rudyard Kipling which created powerful propaganda.

However, very quickly the armies on opposing sides got bogged down in terrible trench warfare. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides could be killed or seriously injured in a few hours when the generals ordered the men to go ‘over the top’ of the trenches, and face the other side who could literally mow them down with the new machine guns.For example, there were over 58,000 British casualties in the 1st Battle of Ypres in October/November 1914, and over 59,000 in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April/May 1915.

With so many deaths and injuries, more men were needed. Propaganda increased.

But by late 1915 the death toll was so high that it was obvious to the British government that they could only get more soldiers by bringing in conscription.

Conscientious Objectors

The COs came from all walks of life with only a handful receiving full exemption, and many were denied any form of exemption at all.

The COs fell into three categories, all providing difficult choices for them to make:

◊ Some were ‘absolutists’, opposed to conscription as well as war, upholders of civil liberty and the freedom of the individual – values thought to be respected in Britain. Absolutists (most of whom were committed pacifists) believed that any alternative service supported the war effort and in effect supported the immoral practice of conscription as well. The tribunals had the power to give these men complete and unconditional exemption.

◊ Some were ‘alternativists’, prepared to undertake alternative civilian work not under any military control. Tribunals had power to exempt them from military service on condition that they actually did this work.

◊ ‘Non-combatants’ were prepared to accept call-up into the army, but not to be trained to use weapons, or indeed have anything to do with weapons at all. Tribunals had power to put these men on the military register on this basis.

But the tribunals didn’t use their powers with much judgement or sympathy. Not only did they rarely grant unconditional exemption, they also often allocated absolutists or alternativists to non-combatant duties. In many cases applications were turned down altogether, which meant that the men were liable for call-up as ordinary soldiers. These unwilling conscripts could be arrested and handed over to the military; if they disobeyed military orders they would be court-martialled and sent to prison.

Even in prison, choices created dilemmas. Some apparently innocent prison tasks turned out to be part of the war effort, and had to be resisted. Those who refused to do any work at all were punished with solitary confinement and bread-and-water diets for long periods.

Prisons in those days were still run on inhumane systems inherited from the 19th century. The silence rule was particularly harsh: almost impossible to keep, yet invoking severe punishment when broken.

Ref: CO Project

Conscription and tribunals

Conscription came into operation on 3rd February 1916, so that all unmarried men aged 18-41  would be ‘deemed to have enlisted’ in the army.

Conscientious Objectors could apply for exemption from military service and had to appear before a civilian tribunal, made up of several powerful local people such as magistrates and councillors. There was also always a military representative sitting on a tribunal.

The COs came from all walks of life. Many were International Socialists, who believed that the working men of the world should unite, not obey orders to kill each other. Many others were pacifists who belonged to religious groups such as Quakers and Christadelphians which forbade taking human life.

The COs fell into three categories:

  • ‘absolutists’, who were opposed to any direct or indirect involvement in the war
  • ‘alternativists’, prepared to undertake alternative civilian work not under any military control.
  • ‘non-combatants’ prepared to accept call-up into the army, but not to use weapons

Tribunals decided on the fate of each conscientious objector.

As the demand for more men increased 4 more versions of the Military Service Act came in so that by April 1918 all men aged from 17 – 51 could be called up. By the end of the war, more than 5 million men had been in military service, half of them conscripted.

But the tribunals rarely grant unconditional exemption, especially in Derbyshire.

20,000 – approximate number of COs nationally

7,000 –  granted non-combatant duties

3,000  – sent to special work camps

6,000  – COs imprisoned

Forty two were sent to France to potentially face a firing squad.

Thirty five were formally sentenced to death, but after pressure from the anti-war movement were reprieved, with ten years penal servitude substituted.

In many cases applications were turned down altogether, which meant that the men were liable for call-up as ordinary soldiers. These unwilling conscripts could be arrested and handed over to the military; if they disobeyed military orders they would be court-martialed and sent to prison.

Prisons were run on inhumane systems inherited from the 19th century. The silence rule was particularly harsh: invoking severe punishment when broken. Absolutists who refused to do any work connected to the war were punished with solitary confinement and bread-and-water diets for long periods.

The Military Tribunal System

The Military Tribunal system was set up under the Military Service Act 1916 which set down terms for mandatory military service. This updated the Derby Scheme, a voluntary recruiting scheme devised by Edward Stanley, 17th Lord Derby, whereby men who ‘attested’, or voluntarily registered to serve in the military, would only be called upon for service when necessary. That scheme was unsuccessful and soon abandoned in December 1915. The new Military Service Act required all adult males, aged 18-41, to register for military service unless they possessed a certificate of exemption. By April 1918, the age range was extended, so that men aged from 17 to 55 could be called up, and exemptions were further restricted.

From 1916, men seeking exemption from military service could apply to various tribunals. There were three types: Local Tribunals, Appeal Tribunals and a Central Tribunal based in London.

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