100 years ago today, the Military Service Act received the Royal Assent, introducing mass military conscription in the UK for the first time.
The Act stipulated that, from 2nd March, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales would be deemed to have enlisted in the armed forces. In May, the Act was extended to married men.
As a result, thousands of people were sent to needless deaths, while thousands who resisted found themselves in prison.
Those who claimed exemption were required to go before a tribunal to put their case. Most exemptions were on grounds of occupation, health or responsibility for dependents. The Act allowed for the possibility that some could be exempted on grounds of conscientious objection. In reality, this provision was largely ignored, with almost nobody being given total exemption on these grounds.
The “conscience clause” in practice
Many conscientious objectors were turned down altogether, while others were told they could join the “Non-Combatant Corps” (NCC). This was a unit of the army that did not carry weapons and was supposed to satisfy the consciences of objectors. It was absurd. Its members were required to swear the military oath, obey orders and observe military discipline. It played a direct role in facilitating the war. Despite this, there were several instances of NCC members refusing orders when they came too close to participating directly in warfare.
Others were allowed to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), a body set up by Quakers (by mostly upper middle class Quaker men, on the less radical wing of the Movement). However, many objected, saying that everyone who joined the FAU freed up someone else to go and fight. Later in the war, some were sent on the “Home Office Scheme”, a form of “alternative service” that seemed not dissimilar to being sent to a prison camp.
It used to be estimated that there were just over 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One. Most scholars of the issue now accept that this is an underestimate, with the figure likely to be above 20,000.
Many of these were forced into the army against their will, where some refused to put on uniform, drill or obey orders. They found themselves in military detention and later in civilian prisons. Over 6,000 COs spent some time in prison during the war. Forty-two were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted. However, more than eighty COs died in prison or military detention, or shortly after being released on health grounds. Others never recovered their physical or mental health.
These numbers sound low compared to the millions who died fighting. The pacifists were the first to insist that they had not suffered as much as the soldiers had. They were suffering precisely because they were trying to stop the war in which these soldiers – and many civilians – were dying.
The COs were only part of the peace movement. They were by definition male and relatively young. But women and men of varied ages campaigned alongside them, liaising with opponents of war in Germany, France and elsewhere to resist the unspeakable mass slaughter.
Marking the centenary
This evening, I’ll be going to a reception at Parliament to mark 100 years of conscientious objection to conscription in the UK. It’s run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who played a major role in resisting conscription a century ago, although the Society in 1916 was more divided than is sometimes thought (between firm pacifists and government sympathisers).
In 1916, some right-wing (or relatively right-wing) Quakers insisted that pacifists should “thank” the government for recognising the right to conscientious objection. Others replied, rightly, that no thanks were due when the right was not being observed in practice. Furthermore, the right not to kill is so basic that we are in a grotesquely twisted world when we have to thank our rulers for acknowledging it. While this evening’s event will, I’m sure, celebrate the resistance to conscription, I hope there will be no praise for the government of the time for inserting the largely meaningless “conscience clause” into the Act. As much as anything else, its inclusion was a sop to Liberal backbenchers who supported the war but were reluctant to vote for conscription.
The resistance to World War One was as global as the war. Only a small part of it was in Britain. It was resisted in France, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil and beyond. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that overthrew the royal rulers of Germany and Russia. A century later, we are still resisting conscription. This is literal in the cases of countries such as Israel, Eritrea, South Korea and Turkey, which still force people to kill. In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted. Instead our taxes are conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our minds are conscripted, with militarist ideology so engrained in us that we believe that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict. Our very language is conscripted, so that we talk of “defence” when we mean “war” and “doing nothing” when we mean “doing something other than fighting”.
We need to learn from those who resisted war a century ago. Their struggle is as relevant and vital as ever.