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Going Over The Top: Conscientious

By David Flin


In the TV sitcom Dad’s Army, it is revealed that Private Godfrey had been a Conscientious Objector during the First World War, and the characters react differently to him, until it is then revealed that he served with distinction as a stretcher bearer. Aside from being a bit of a cop-out in order to avoid dealing with the issue of a conscientious objector with the confines of a comedy programme, it was quite revealing about the issue.

What was the situation in Britain with regard to Conscientious Objectors during WWI? Before Conscription was introduced, it wasn’t a big issue. One either volunteered, or didn’t. The authorities didn’t impose any sanction against someone not volunteering, although there was considerable effort made to encourage people to volunteer. There was also considerable social pressure placed on people to volunteer.

It was only with the introduction of conscription in 1916 that there was a need for exemptions on the grounds of conscience. Conscription, under the terms of the Military Service Act of 1916, applied to unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41, apart from those excepted by the Act, or who were exempted by local tribunals.

Those excepted by the act were: Soldiers, sailors, and Royal Marines; men already discharged or rejected as unfit for military service; clergymen, priests, and ministers of religion; and visitors from the Dominions.

Those who could be exempted by local tribunals included:

  • Men more useful to the nation in their present employment.

  • Men with exceptional financial, business, or domestic circumstances.

  • Men who were ill or infirm.

  • Men with conscientious objections to military service.

If the tribunal accepted the genuineness of the conscientious objection, it could exempt from combatant services, or exempt from all military service provided the man did work of national importance.Conscientious objectors fell into three categories:

Absolutists were opposed to conscription as well as war, and believed that any form of service provided support to the war effort. Tribunals had the power to give these men complete and unconditional exemption.

Alternativists were prepared to take alternative civilian work not under military control. Tribunals had the power to exempt them from military service, conditional that they actually did this work.

Non-combatants were prepared to accept call-up into the Army, but not to use weapons in any way. Tribunals had the power to put the men on the register on this basis.

Thomas Moynihan, conscientious objector, Wanganui Detention Barracks 1918

In total, around 16,000 men became Conscientious Objectors (COs). Of these, around 6000 were classified as exempt from combatant roles, but served in non-combatant roles, such as stretcher bearer or ambulance driver. Another 6000 were classified as exempt from military service, and given work on farms or other essential, non-military work.

Around 4000 were what was called absolutists, and refused to do any work that was in any way connected to the war. These claimed to be opposed to the war in principle.

Reactions to these absolutists varied. Some, such as long-standing Quakers from smaller villages and towns, where they were personally known to the Tribunal, were generally accepted as being genuine. Others, especially from large cities, weren’t, and the presumption was that the individuals applying for military exemption were simply cowards.

Failure to get an exemption from a tribunal wasn’t necessarily an end to the COs options. Thomas Painting was an instructor with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in Britain in 1916, and he described the procedure.

While a party was firing on the range, the instructor reported to me: “There’s a rifleman refused to load his rifle on conscientious grounds.” I reported to the officer, who told me to give the rifleman a direct order to load. The officer was to be present as a witness. The rifleman replied: “I object on conscientious grounds.” I explained the seriousness of not complying with an order and gave him a direct order, three direct orders, which he refused to obey. I reported to the officer, who told me to escort the rifleman to the guard-room and place him under close arrest. The rifleman was tried by court martial and acquitted. His defence was that he had a conscientious objection to taking life. He was sent to be a stretcher bearer. No-one minded what he did, so long as he did something useful. He was killed as a stretcher bearer doing his duty bringing in the wounded. He wouldn’t take life, but he’d try and save life.


Conscientious objectors at a work camp in Oct 1916

Around 4000 COs were sent to prison. In July 1916, the Home Office Scheme was introduced. This offered imprisoned COs the chance to leave prison to work at labour camps around the country. This caused a division. Absolutist objectors saw this as helping the war effort, and refused. Others accepted.

According to Fenner Brockway, an Absolutist CO, there was a difference of opinion as to whether this alternative should be accepted. Some took the view that in wartime, one should be prepared to serve society in non-military ways. Others took the view that if one did any service during wartime, one was supporting the war.

Others, such as Howard Marten, decided to take up the scheme.

We hoped it might be in the national interest. Many of us felt that with all its imperfections, it might open the way to a more enlightened treatment of the penal system. Anyone who had an interest in penal reform felt that the Home Office Scheme could possibly provide the nucleus for a more enlightened method of dealing with ordinary prisoners. Unfortunately, you had a category of man who wouldn’t work the Home Office Scheme. They were just destructive for the sake of being destructive. They didn’t want the system to work, and they weren’t prepared to work it.

Conditions in different prisons for COs varied widely. Harold Bing served several prison sentences during the war.

Conditions in these civilian prisons varied a good deal. Some prisons had a reputation for being fairly lenient, others for being very harsh. Winchester Prison had a reputation for being a very harsh prison, and I heard that a number of CO prisoners got badly treated. By the time I got into Winchester, which was January 1917, the warders had become accustomed to conscientious objectors, and most of them treated us quite reasonably. There were one or two who were still very bitter, very harsh, very abusive. There were others who, in the course of time, became almost sympathetic to our point of view. I never personally experienced any physical ill-treatment at the hands of warders.

Prisoners were usually given simple, monotonous work to do, such as making mail bags. George Dutch described his experience of prison life.

I got proficient in making mail bags and used to do my quota and a bit over, and was rewarded with a mug of ship’s cocoa and a hunk of bread. This was welcome, because the diet was very poor, much worse than the army diet. I was a vegetarian, and had to reject part of the poor diet. Sometimes our diet was little more than potatoes, vegetables and bread and water. We never really had enough to eat.

What is interesting about this is that prisoners received the ration allowance for civilians.

Over the course of the war, nearly 10,000 conscientious objectors who were conscripted into the Army who refused to fight were allowed to serve in various non-combatant roles. The Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) was formed in March 1916. Members of the NCC carried out manual labour, but would not handle weapons or munitions.

Opinions of the soldiers on the members of the NCC varied. Some regarded the NCC as “cowards and shirkers, many of whom discovered their conscience when they might be at risk.” Others took a more charitable view. Private Eric Nunn didn’t have a high opinion of conscientious objectors, until he was helped by one when he was wounded in 1918.

Then they bought the ambulance up to this sunken road. Well, he was the man that bound me up, the conscientious objector. He was chatting away, I suppose to calm me down. He told me he was a conscientious objector. I thought he was a great fellow. He was right there in the middle. He wasn’t dodging the action in any way or form. I take my hat off to him. It must take a lot of moral courage to be a conscientious objector in a country at war.

From all the reports that I’ve been able to find, one thing has stood out. When the issue of courage wasn’t in doubt, such as for people filling the role of stretcher bearer or ambulance driver, the front-line soldiers seemed to have little problem with the idea of COs. Which rather suggests that Captain Mainwaring’s changing responses to discovering that Private Godfrey had been a Conscientious Objector were spot on.

A TV comedy programme having a high level of historical accuracy on a contentious issue. Who would have guessed?

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow