Conscientious Objectors – a hundred years ago

In her incredibly well-researched talk in Buriton in June, Alison Wilcox explained how the introduction of conscription in 1916 led to some significant opposition and, in some cases, imprisonment.

Local tribunals were set up to hear applications from men who believed they should be exempt, either on the grounds of conscience but also for health, economic or family reasons.

In some areas of the country this led to administrative chaos as tribunals were forced to hear many more applications than time allowed and to make decisions about conscience for which they were ill equipped. Public records show that some tribunals had a limited understanding of the spiritual, moral and political stance that Conscientious Objectors (COs) were taking.

Tribunals came under a great deal of pressure to not only get through the huge number of hearings, but also to recruit as many men as possible. In their anxiety to recruit men it appears as though some tribunals adopted rather aggressive tactics resulting in some COs being harangued and bullied.

If exemption was refused then the man could lodge an appeal to the county and then central tribunal. Ultimately, once exemption had been refused and all avenues of appeal had been covered then the man was expected to report to duty at his regiment. COs tended to report to the local police station and would be taken into custody and imprisonment.

In May 1916 a man might expect a sentence of one year hard labour mitigated to six or even four months. By the end of the war men were being handed sentences of two years hard labour, resulting in overcrowding and for some, tragic and long-term consequences for their state of health. Some men endured three prison sentences at various prisons …

Even when the war had ended there was an expectation that COs would complete their sentences. Many were released on the grounds of ill health but some remained in prison throughout much of 1919.

Alison continues to conduct research into this topic at the University of Winchester but in her talk, the latest in an occasional series of events in Buriton relating to the First World War, she gave a very real flavour of an aspect of the conflict which is sometimes overlooked.