Conscientious objectors

World War I (England)

Around 16,000 men refused to take up arms or fight during the First World War for any number of religious, moral, ethical or political reasons. They were known as conscientious objectors. Godfrey Buxton found that some of his fellow Christians questioned the war from the outset.

One met people who didn’t quite know which way to go and some who felt very strongly for religious reasons – others for political reasons – that they wouldn’t take part. I think really at that stage I was so young that I wasn’t really thinking it through. There were some who were purely political conscientious objectors. But from the Christian point of view I think people took that phrase ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’. And therefore the matter of ‘kill’ did seem to be final to some people.

In late 1914, the No-Conscription Fellowship was set up in Britain. Its members opposed the introduction of compulsory military service. Fenner Brockway remembered how and why he started it.

It was my wife who suggested that those of us who would refuse military service should get together. I didn’t feel I could advocate this in the columns of the Labour Leader, although I was Editor, because in a sense it was unconstitutional action and I didn’t want to commit the party to that as a party. So I got my wife to write a letter to the paper and she did and as a result of that names poured in of young men who would refuse to fight in the war. The interesting thing was that it was not only young socialists it was young religious people, mostly young Quakers but others as well – Methodists, primitive Methodists. And as all these names poured in, those who had been most active in bringing them together formed themselves into an ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Clifford Allen.

In 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship successfully campaigned for a ‘conscience clause’ in the Military Service Act, introduced that year to legally force men to enlist. The clause allowed conscientious objectors, or COs, to argue at a tribunal for their exemption from conscription. Harold Holttum was a Quaker and, as such, was one of the small number of men who were given exemption.

I had to put my name down as a conscientious objector in some way, I’m not quite sure of the details as to how that was done. But I was notified that there would be a public hearing, similar to a magistrate’s court; that the local solicitor had been appointed an army officer and he was in effect as you might say prosecuting on account of the Army. The tribunal, who I think must have all – or most of them – been local magistrates, decided in their wisdom that this bloke might as well be exempted, provided he did useful work. But in some cases it might have been that the tribunal was more rigorous than mine was. Because I’d been known locally, I’d lived in that village 18 months, you see. In a big town I can quite imagine that all the young fellows that came up before them were strangers. What the tribunals had to decide was, is this chap genuine or isn’t he? In my case they decided I was.

PODCAST: Voices of the First World War