A conscientious objector is someone who claims the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. In general, conscientious objector status is considered only in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.
Before the First World War, there had never been compulsory military service in Britain. The first Military Service Bill was passed into law in January 1916 following the failure of recruitment schemes to gain sufficient volunteers in 1914 and 1915. From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependents, medically unfit, or ‘those who could show a conscientious objection’. This later clause was a significant British response that defused opposition to conscription. Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions, and raised the age limit to 50.
There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as conscientious objectors (COs) to armed service during the First World War. This figure does not include men who may have had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations, or had joined the forces anyway. The number of COs may appear small compared with the six million men who served, but the impact of these men on public opinion and on future governments was to be profound.
Broadly speaking, there were four reasons why men objected to armed service. The most common ground was a religious one. Pacifism was a time-honoured tenet of the Society of Friends (Quakers), although some Quaker men did enlist. Other individuals, including Christian fundamentalists, took the Bible at its word: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The next largest group of COs were political activists of the left who saw the First World War as an imperialist war and an example of the ruling classes making a war that the workers had to fight. The left was split over support for the war and those who opposed it on the radical left were not necessarily pacifists – they reserved the right to fight for a cause in which they believed. Thirdly, there were those who might be termed ‘humanists’, who felt it wrong to kill but not on religious grounds. A former naval rating, for example, had worked as a butcher and became a conscientious objector because, as he said, “l know what it is to kill a pig – I won’t kill a man.” The fourth group were those who generally objected to government intervention in their lives; some thought the war had nothing to do with them personally, but might have fought if they felt the United Kingdom was directly threatened.
The usual procedure for a CO was to apply to his local tribunal for exemption from military service. The tribunals’ members were poorly briefed and, in many cases, merely used the hearings to state their own views. One applicant was asked his age and, on hearing that he was eighteen, the tribunal chairman said: “Oh in that case you’re not old enough to have a conscience. Case dismissed.” The CO was sent to prison. At the tribunal’s discretion exemption could be absolute, from combatant service only, or conditional on undertaking work of national importance; but COs were frequently rejected by the local tribunal or offered an unacceptable position. They could then go before an appeals tribunal and if they were refused again they could appeal to the Central Tribunal in London. Once a CO was refused exemption, he was considered to have enlisted into military service.
A problem for the CO was determining where to draw the line in his stance and whether there was a difference in principle between combatant and non-combatant service. Some COs would take on alternative civilian work or enter the military in non-combatant roles in the Royal Army Medical Corps or Non-Combatant Corps, for example. COs in prison were offered so-called ‘work of national importance’ in a scheme put forward by the Home Office. This was generally agriculture, forestry, or unskilled manual labour. Other conscientious objectors – known as ‘absolutists’ – refused to do any war-related work or obey military orders.
For those imprisoned, severe physical brutality towards COs seems to be a First World War myth. A number experienced or witnessed very harsh treatment, and 73 COs did die as a result of physical abuse. The primary punishment – in many cases the most severe – was psychological rather than physical. The most fortunate COs were those who could devise ways to cope with loneliness, doubt, depression and loss of ability to concentrate. Some COs took an active role in challenging the situation in which they found themselves. Some participated in covert activity, whilst tthers coped through mental exercise. One COs, a musician, played an imaginary piano on his knees and even did some composition. Some COs learned Esperanto, many recited poetry from memory, and several went on long, imaginary, remembered walks. One man held races on the floor between bits of cobbler’s wax and another gained comfort from talking to the spiders on the cell wall and the bolts on its door.
Whether in prison or not, COs and their families did have a common experience in many respects, especially from the pressures they felt from society. Britain’s public support for the war was almost unanimous, and society tended to view men who would not fight – and the men and women who supported them – with suspicion and loathing. To become a conscientious objector in 1916 was a difficult decision, which apparently involved rejecting the whole of conventional British society and everything it stood for. Wartime domestic propaganda made it all too plain that a person was either with the national effort or against it; and if against it, he was by implication either not concerned with the sacrifices of others or was undermining their willingness to serve. The conscientious objector was trapped psychologically: he felt guilty if he shared the soldiers’ ordeal and guilty if he did not. COs were not released until about six months after the end of the war, in order to give most soldiers a head-start when looking for jobs. They were also stripped of the right to vote until 1926. With time most did find a way to fit back into society – some very successfully.
Despite the fact that institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and the Council of Europe (CoE) regard and promote conscientious objection as a human right, it still doesn’t have a legal basis in most countries. Among the roughly one-hundred countries that have conscription, only thirty countries have some legal provisions, 25 of them in Europe. In Europe, most countries with conscription more or less fulfill international guidelines on conscientious objection legislation (except for Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Finland and Russia) today. In many countries outside Europe, especially in armed conflict areas (e.g. Democratic Republic of the Congo), conscientious objection is punished severely.
While conscientious objectors used to be seen as deserters, traitors, cowards, slackers or simply un-patriotic, their image has changed drastically in the Western world in past decades. Especially in Europe, where objectors usually serve an alternative civilian service, they are regarded as making an equally important contribution to society as conscripts. Parallel to that, the number of objectors has risen significantly, too – in Germany, for example, where conscientious objection is a constitutional right, from less than one percent of all eligible men to more than fifty percent in 2003.
Conscription doesn’t exist in 21st century Britain (at least, not at the moment – let’s hoping that continues), so I’ve never had to serve in the military. Two of my uncles were conscripted during the fifties, although my dad and his younger brother never were; both my grandfathers fought very bravely during the Second World War. Could I do the same? Would I have the courage to fight if I needed to? Well, I like to think I could; I don’t have any conscientious objection to fighting a just fight, but I wouldn’t necessarily be any good – being willing isn’t the same as being any good, of course.
If I had the courage of my convictions, then of course I would object and stand up – although I’d be just one man amongst many standing against the military machine, I’d be comforted by the other people who were bravely standing up and saying “no”. But I wouldn’t; I wouldn’t hide behind a fake conviction, although I suspect some people would do that – which is sickening. If you have a view, then defend it certainly, but don’t lie; that annoys me more than I can possibly say.