First World War and Conscription: The Conscientious Objector

The First World War was the first use of compulsory military service in Britain, when in January 1916 the Military Service Bill was passed, and all men aged 18-41, later increased to 50 – apart from those in certain professions such as ministers of a religion, or medically unfit – were expected to be involved in military service. Initially married men were not included in this legislation- however within a few months conscription was amended to include those who were married. Early sign-ups for the war they thought would end by Christmas couldn’t hold the fort by 1916. The famous Lord Kitchener campaigns of ‘Your Country Needs You’ had gotten over one million men to volunteer in the First World War, but by the end of the year, this was not enough.

The dwindling morale of much of the public meant numbers of volunteers were declining from the initial rush. A long drawn out war was now the reality for Europe and growing casualties resulted in the government introducing conscription. As such the governments decision to introduce conscription shows the challenge the British government faced in attracting the public to fight in Europe. As such conscription was not met without controversy from the public.

Conscription was not initially met by the public with general acceptance. In April 1916 200,000 protested against it in Trafalgar Square. Many were hesitant and ignored the call-ups which the law instigated. Within the first six months 750,000 men appealed against their conscription. But it did ultimately result in an increase in individuals as by the end of the first year the bill had helped draft in over 1.1 million individuals into the army. By the end of World War One the total number of men conscripted was 2,277,623.

The Conscientious Objector

Some men, on moral grounds, were exempt from fighting in the war. If called upon, some men refused on one of a number of grounds.

  1. On religious grounds – some men refused because of their Christian beliefs, taking the Bible’s instruction of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ for their reason behind their refusal of participation- individuals were placed in prison who refused to participate in the war at all
  2. On political grounds – a large number of Conscientious Objectors were those who were against the War politically, and saw it as an imperialist war. Among this group, men felt that the war was an example of the ruling class forcing the workers to fight, and refused to fight because it was not a cause they believed in.
  3. On humanist grounds – these men were not religious, but refused to join on the grounds they could not kill another human being- an individual who had previously been a butcher claimed ‘I know what it is to kill a pig- I won’t kill a man’.
  4. Being against government intervention in their lives – a number of men felt the war didn’t affect them directly, and thus did not see the need for their involvement.

It’s supposed there were about 16,000 Conscientious Objectors, but it wasn’t exactly as easy as refusing to take part. Those who objected had to go through tribunals. Cyril Pearce, creator of a database of objectors from the First World, claimed that ‘most tribunals took a very aggressive view, trying to catch men out and ridiculing them’. And those whose appeals were dismissed were still expected to answer their call up. Some Conscientious Objectors put in work in other areas of the war – working in medical areas, or helping with at home. However, there were some who refused to take part at all, and those who did faced imprisonment. Of all the conscientious objectors only 6,000 were sent to prison, this included 35 who received a death sentence but was eventually changed to a ten year prison sentence instead. Of course, once enlisted disobeying the army meant facing the court-martial, and face getting shot for desertion.

The bringing about of Conscription had certainly left its mark on Britain, with the Second World War also relying on conscription. But a more sympathetic of conscription was introduced and a greater awareness and understanding of conscientious objectors was present. From 1949, Britain  even had conscription in peace time – 18 months of National Service was required of all healthy men between the age of 17-21, which was extended to two years in 1950. It ended gradually in the late 1950s – with all those born on or after the 1 October 1939 not required to take part. Since then, Britain’s Army has been made up completely of volunteers.

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