But the term Pacifist also described the moderates who believed that war could be abolished by improving international law and arbitrating disputes between states. These conscientious objectors/COs accepted that, until such abolition was achieved, military force could legitimately be used only to defend the nation’s own soil against foreign attack. Or perhaps for enforcing international obligations.
Each young CO stood, alone, in front of a tribunal of establishment gentleman
Darlington Military Service Tribunal, 1916
The No-Conscription Fellowship/NCF was a British pacifist organisation which was founded in London in Nov 1914, after WW1 had failed to reach an early conclusion. The activities of the NCF clarified what was faced by those who refused to take up arms: from social ostracism to imprisonment and even capital punishment.
There are three important books to read: Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith by Martin Ceadel (Oxford UP 1980), No More Soldiering: Conscientious Objectors of the First World War by Stephen Wade (Amberley Publishing, 2016); Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance by Ann Kramer (Pen & Sword Books Ltd 2015).
Early in the war, active opposition to WW1 took many forms in British society: public meetings, demonstrations, fights, personal protests, mutinies and trade union strikes, and artistic expression in painting and literature.
How were COs shamed? A white feather was given by women to shame individual British men not in military uniform. But there was no way for the woman to know if the recipient was: on leave from the front, wounded, in a protected industry, too old, was the sole support of many children or was indeed a pacifist. Even the Suffrage Movement was split over mandatory conscription.
It was not until Jan 1916 that the Military Service Act was enacted in Parliament, bringing in conscription after the large-scale loss of manpower in the major Western Front campaigns. The Act created a formal site of confrontation between the military establishment and the pacifists and COs. Across Britain, young unmarried men who would not fight found themselves hauled before tribunals of elderly men, appointed to decide their fate. Then married men were also conscripted.
Martin Ceadel wrote that in Britain, the Military Service law had actually been quite liberal. In principle it exempted those of any or no religious affiliation from fighting. Some pacifists were prepared to work in war zones as long as it was in non-combat roles eg medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers. Others were prepared to do alternative, non-combatant or civilian work of national importance at home eg farming, forestry or community service like The Red Cross. A small number refused to do anything that might help the war effort.
Clearly many Britons particularly disapproved of tolerance being shown by military-service tribunals that recognised secular objections. As a result the tribunals were said to have hounded atheists and socialists, believing they were lazy, degenerate, ungrateful shirkers, seeking to benefit from the sacrifices of others. [This was not true for every one. Lady Ottoline Morrell was already sharing the Bloomsburies' Fitzroy Square gatherings where she met the regulars. She was herself a pacifist, so during WW1 she found jobs on her Oxford estate so that COs from the Bloomsbury Group could gain exemption from serving in the army. Secondly she welcomed injured soldiers to her home, to support their pacifism and to get their literature published].
Imprisoned COs given manual labour in Dartmoor
There were 16,500 COs in 1916, most awarded some kind of moral acknowledgement by their tribunals. But because religious men who accepted the literal truth of the Bible wanted total exemption, they had a worse struggle. Only 985 British objectors held out against ANY type of alternative service, yet they attracted most public attention. Their prison sufferings were widely publicised.
c6,000 objectors were inducted into the army, though after a few weeks of harsh treatment they were usually handed over to the civil authorities. Despite the 34 capital punishment sentences, none carried out, most objectors compromised by undertaking non-military work of national importance under a new Home Office scheme. Did anyone see the bitter irony of handing out death sentences to men because they objected to killing men?
Stephen Wade described the traditional accounts of COs that painted them as at best cowards, and at worst traitors and collaborators. He focused on the history leading up to the introduction of the 1916 Act, and the forced conscription of civilians into the British Army. He too described the 16,000 British men who refused conscription on grounds of conscience, and believed it wrong of any government to force them to kill.
At least 500 of the objectors were imprisoned under brutal conditions, some spending long sentences locked up. Of course nothing that the authorities did broke the determined resistance of these men. Ann Kramer looked at who the men were, why they took their stand and how they were treated. To bring their voices and experiences to life, Kramer used contemporary interviews, memoirs and newspapers articles. She thus described what it was like for COs to face hostile tribunals, be forced into the army, defy army regulations, be brutalised and endure repeated terms of imprisonment.
When discussing WWI now, attention is still focused on those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice: men who fought and died in the trenches so that future generations could live in a democracy. Yet the level of scorn aimed at those who made every attempt to avoid killing continues. Was it ever deserved? Ceadel, Wade and Kramer proved that those who refused to kill were also courageous.
Many of those who had called themselves COs before 1914 continued to regard themselves as COs after, despite participating in the war effort in some way. And not surprisingly pacifism became widespread as a reaction to the WW1 massacres and to universal male conscription. My grandfather was a passionate supporter of the Russian Revolution in 1917, yet by 1930 was a total pacifist.
Two WW1 recruiting posters.
One tugged at the heart of the family man who loved his wife and children
and the second ridiculed the lazy man who did not enlist.
People Power: Fighting for Peace is an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London until late August 2017. From conscientious objectors to peace camps and modern day marches, hear the stories of passionate people since 1914 on, and the struggles they endured for the anti-war cause.