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First World War - British Conscientious Objectors

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Conscientious Objectors (COs) Britain during the First World War

A conscientious objector (CO) is an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. Conscientious objection is usually the refusal to collaborate with military organisations as a combatant in war or in any supportive role.

Please link Geni Profiles of British COs from World War One to this project.

See also Geni Project Concientious Objector

History in Britain

The United Kingdom recognised the right of individuals not to fight in the 18th century following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. The Militia Ballot Act of 1757 allowed Quakers to be excluded from service in the Militia. It then ceased to be a major issue, since Britain's armed forces were generally all-volunteer.

First World War

The right to refuse military service was introduced during the First World War. Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act of March 1916. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army's Non-Combatant Corps, according to the extent to which they could convince a Military Service Tribunal of the quality of their objection.

From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18 to 41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependents, medically unfit, or ‘those who could show a conscientious objection’. Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions and raised the age limit to 50.

There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as COs to armed service during the First World War (excluding men who perhaps had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations, or had joined the forces anyway).

To get an exemption certificate men could apply to a tribunal, and if they were refused they could still attempt to be excluded from Military Service by going to the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal.

Although many men were permitted full exemption from military service in any form, most were expected to serve non-directly, i.e. in other than a combat capacity, either at home (in occupations such as farming) or in non-combatant or army medical corps as cooks, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, etc.

Men who refused to serve in defiance of the ruling of a tribunal were invariably court-martialed and sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths; public shame was almost always heaped upon them. In Britain COs who had totally declined to serve were deprived of their right to vote for five years, although this was not always enforced.

The main reasons why men objected to armed service during the First World War were -

  • Morality a belief that killing another man was not acceptable under any circumstances.
  • Religion. Pacifism was a time-honoured principle of the Society of Friends (Quakers), although some Quaker men did enlist. Other individuals, including Christian fundamentalists, took the Bible at its word: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
  • Politics - political activists of the left saw the First World War as an imperialist war and as an example of the ruling classes making a war that the workers had to fight. The left was split over support for the war and those who opposed it on the radical left were not necessarily pacifists – they reserved the right to fight for a cause in which they believed.
  • Humanism. Humanists felt it wrong to kill but not on religious grounds.
  • Objection to government intervention. Some thought the war had nothing to do with them personally but might have fought if they felt the United Kingdom was directly threatened.

Alternatives for objectors

Some COs were unwilling to serve the military in any capacity, while others accepted noncombatant roles during conscription or military service.

Alternatives to military or civilian service included -

  • The 'Home Office Scheme': work camps set up by the government in 1916 after the Central Tribunal had decided that, on re-examination, 4,378 prisoners were 'genuine' objectors. Some COs thought that agreeing to go to these camps was actually an act of war-support, and stayed in prison. Some camps were relatively comfortable, others barely habitable. Work varied from the unpleasant (making fertiliser from dead animals) to the utterly futile (manual labour for non-existent projects)
  • Prison. More than 6,312 conscientious objectors were arrested; 5,970 were court-martialled and sent to prison enduring privations both mental and physical (819 spent over two years in prison). At least 73 COs died because of the harsh treatment they received; a number suffered long-term physical or mental illness. 1,330 'absolutists' refused to do any kind of alternative war work, but never won exemption for this principled stand. Some agreed to join the Home Office Scheme, but later changed their minds and went back to prison.

Dartmoor prison was originally built for French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. At the end of 1916 it was reopened to house over 1,000 British COs and renamed 'Princetown Work Centre'. 200 of the COs were put to work inside the ex-prison's walls. The rest were sent out to the moors, either to farm (crushing grain) or to work in the quarry (carting granite) for 9 hours a day. In the midst of the moor the COs cleared a rectangular patch and built round it a 7-foot-high drystone wall. It had no use or purpose, and decades later was still known as Conchies Field'.

  • The Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) which was set up in March 1916 as part of the army run by its regular soldiers. The COs who agreed to be assigned to it were army privates, wore army uniforms and were subject to army discipline, but didn't carry weapons or take part in battle. Their duties were mainly to provide physical labour (building, cleaning, loading and unloading anything except munitions) in support of the military. any absolutists who objected to wearing a uniform were formally charged and court-martialled. Often they were treated harshly, bullied, deprived of basic needs and rights, and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. So were the men who refused to perform duties like handling munitions or building rifle ranges. Some broke down, physically or mentally, as a result of their ill-treatment.
  • The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was a volunteer ambulance service, founded by individual members of the British Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in line with their Peace Testimony. The FAU operated from 1914–1919, 1939–1946 and 1946–1959 in 25 different countries around the world. The Unit was founded as The First Anglo-Belgian Ambulance Unit at the start of World War I in 1914 and later renamed the Friends' Ambulance Unit. Members were trained at Jordans, a hamlet in Buckinghamshire, that was a centre for Quakerism. Altogether it sent over a thousand men to France and Belgium, where they worked on ambulance convoys and ambulance trains with the French and British armies. The FAU came under the jurisdiction of the British Red Cross Society. It was dissolved in 1919.
  • Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) operated the army's medical units and provided medical detachments for the units of infantry, artillery and other arms. The Corps was assisted in its work by voluntary help from the British Red Cross, St John's Ambulance, the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Voluntary Aid Detachments and hundreds of private and charitable ventures.


Many people campaigned in support of people's rights not to enlist - amongst them a number of women. Where these people are on GENi their profiles have been linked to the project.

The No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was formed to support those who objected to taking up arms in the First World War.

Statement of Faith The No-conscription Fellowship is an organisation of men likely to be called upon to undertake military service in the event of conscription, who will refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms, because they consider human life to be sacred, and cannot, therefore, assume the responsibility of inflicting death. They deny the right of Governments to say "You shall bear arms," and will oppose every effort to introduce compulsory military service into Great Britain. Should such efforts be successful, they will, whatever the consequences may be, obey their conscientious convictions rather than the commands of Government."

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Published CO stories

Please add these to the following list - if there are GENi profiles for them please add a bold link to the profile page.


The following books have been published on the subject.

  • Conchies: Conscientious Objectors of the First World War (One Shot) 2013 by Ann Kramer; ISBN-13: 978-1445126395
  • Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance - 2014 by Ann Kramer; ISBN-13: 978-1844681198
  • The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors - 2014 by Karyn Burnham; ISBN-13: 978-1781592953
  • Cowards: The True Story of the Men Who Refused to Fight by Marcus Sedgwick; 2013 ISBN-13: 978-1492868644
  • Remembrance - 2003 by Theresa Breslin; ISBN-13: 978-0552547383
  • Telling Tales about Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service During the First World War - 2011 by Lois S. Bibbings; ISBN-13: 978-0719069239
  • We Will Not Go To War: Conscientious Objection during the World Wars – 2010 by Felicity Goodall; ISBN-13: 978-0752458571
  • We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of WW1's Conscientious Objectors – 2013 by Will Ellsworth-Jones; ISBN-13: 978-1781311486

References, Sources and further reading