the men who said no





Many terms use in the documents on this site may be unfamiliar to many. We hope that the glossary below will help to a clearer understanding. Any remaining questions or related issues can be sent to us here


A conscientious objector who not only refused to accept or co-operate with military service, but also refused to accept or co-operate with any alternative, non-military, compulsory service. The Military Service Act provided for Absolute exemption to be allowed by Tribunals, but it was in practice very rarely granted – perhaps 300 cases out of 20,000. A few COs began their absolutist stand by refusing even to apply for exemption, arguing that the state had no moral right to impose conscription. On the other hand, some men who began as absolutists compromised by accepting the Home Office Scheme.

A conscientious objector who, while refusing to accept or co-operate with military service, was prepared to undertake compulsory civilian work instead. There was a sub-group of alternativists who were prepared to accept a compromise between full military service and compulsory non-military service; this was the Non-Combatant Corps.

Brace Committee
Committee chaired by William Brace MP to supervise running of the Home Office Scheme; completely distinct from the Pelham Committee.

British Socialist Party (BSP)
Small political party distinguished from the Independent Labour Party by its Marxist tendency (essentially a forerunner of the Communist Party), but opposed to WW1 and supportive of conscientious objectors.

Central Tribunal
Overarching Tribunal to which an appeal could be made from a County Appeal Tribunal, but only by ‘leave’ (permission) of the relevant County Tribunal, which was rarely granted. The Central Tribunal was given a new function under the Home Office Scheme, whereby, sitting in prison, it interviewed CO prisoners to assess whether, despite previous rejection of CO status by local or Appeal Tribunals, they were, after all, “genuine” COs, and therefore qualified for offer of the Scheme.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Originally set up after WW1 to assume responsibility for the vast cemeteries of British and Commonwealth soldiers in western Europe and other war zones, its remit includes graves or memorial inscriptions of 49 British WW1 COs. Most died as members of the NCC, but there are also men compulsorily transferred from the RAMC, and members of FAU and FWVRS. Geographically, WW1 CO graves extend from Britain to east Africa.

Conditional Exemption
Tribunals had power to exempt a CO from compulsory military service on condition that he undertook civilian Work of National Importance.

County Appeal Tribunal
Each county council was required to set up an Appeal Tribunal, to which an applicant for exemption could appeal if he was dissatisfied with the decision of a local Military Service Tribunal. The Military Representative also had the right to appeal to the County Appeal Tribunal against a decision of a local MST.

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR)
Founded in December 1914 in direct response to WW1, it brought together Christian pacifists of all denominations to co-operate in opposing the war and supporting conscientious objectors. It also co-operated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the No-Conscription Fellowship. FoR continues today, now a worldwide movement.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU)
At the start of WW1 some Quakers felt there should be some positive alternative to the impassioned calls for Army enlistment and queues at recruiting offices. It was decided to form a body of volunteers without weapons to offer medical and humanitarian assistance immediately behind the battle lines, The British Army was cautious in response, and FAU mainly worked with the French Army, particularly providing paramedic/nursing staff for hospital trains bringing wounded soldiers from casualty clearing stations at the Front to more established hospitals well out of the way. The work was not without risk, and a few FAU members were killed when unexpectedly caught in firing. With the introduction of conscription in 1916, some FAU members rethought their position and decided their work effectively freed other men for the Front, and resigned, leading to rejection of an absolutist CO stance at a Military Service Tribunal, compulsory enlistment, disobedience and imprisonment.

Friends Ambulance Unit – General Service
Despite the ‘absolutist’ resignations in 1916, the number of COs applying to the FAU was more than could be managed for service in France, and a ‘General Service’ section was created, in which men were sent to work in hospitals in Britain, including civilian hospitals, as well as on farms, as forms of Work of National Importance. Originally FAU admitted non-Quakers, provided they accepted Quaker values, but Quaker CO requests became so numerous that General Service was restricted to Quakers. Although the FAU was recognised by the Society of Friends, the official Quaker body, it was not formally attached to the Society.

Friends’ War Victims Relief Service (FWVRS)
The Quakers have a long tradition of offering practical help at times and in places affected by war and armed conflict, so in WW1 a system was set up for helping the too-often overlooked victims of war - civilians, children, women, men, the elderly, the sick, refugees, the enforced homeless … FWVRS worked in France and Belgium during the war, and, less well known, in Austria, Poland and Russia after the war into the early 1920s. Many of the volunteers were COs.

Home Office Scheme
Scheme set up in August 1916 to deal with the problem of thousands of COs refused recognition by a Military Service Tribunal, consequently forcibly enlisted in the Army, refusing to obey military orders, being court-martialled and clogging up civil prisons. All CO prisoners were taken to Wormwood Scrubs Prison (Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, for COs in Scotland), where they were interviewed by the Central Tribunal, and, if found “genuine”, would be offered admission to the Scheme. This entailed agreeing to perform civilian work under civilian control in specially created Work Centres/Work Camps. Refusal to accept the Scheme meant remaining in prison to complete the sentence, then returning to the Army, where renewed disobedience would entail another court-martial and another prison sentence.

Independent Labour Party (ILP)
A forerunner of, and original founding component of, the Labour Party, being a means of organising the election to Parliament, men of working class, trade union, background, and espousing socialist principles. The ILP had a strong pacifist element (its leader, Keir Hardie, famously spoke at a Trafalgar Square anti-war rally on 2 August 1914) so that membership generally was opposed to WW1, opposed conscription, and supported conscientious objectors. By the tome of WW1 there were ILP MPs able to speak for COs in Parliament and sometimes take up individual cases.

Military Representative
The War Office was empowered to appoint a Military Representative to attend each Tribunal and Appeal Tribunal hearing and cross-examine each applicant in an attempt to demonstrate that the Army’s need for the applicant should override whatever “excuse” the applicant was offering. The Representative also had the power to appeal against a decision of a local MST. Military Representatives varied in their personal status. Some were serving Army officers, perhaps based in the local Recruiting Office, some were retired officers, and some were civilians, but obviously sympathetic to military ideas and principles.

Military Service Tribunal (MST)
The Military Service Act 1916 required each borough, urban district and rural district council to set up a tribunal of local “worthies” to adjudicate upon the applications for exemption for military service for which the Act provided. Conscientious Objection accounted for only around 5-6 % of all applications, which contributed to the generally dismissive way in which CO applications were treated. A particularly oppressive aspect was the Military Representative hectoring each applicant. There was an appeal system involving County Appeal Tribunals and the Central Tribunal.

No-Conscription Fellowship
Founded in November 1914, at the initiative of Fenner Brockway as editor of the ILP newspaper, its original purpose was to try to avert the threat of military conscription. When conscription was nevertheless introduced, it contributed to the inclusion of conscientious objection in the Military Service Act, and became the main means of keeping COs in touch with one another and giving them a collective voice. It was dissolved in 1920 after abolition of conscription, but in 1921 its core members founded the No More War Movement as an ongoing successor, which merged in 1937 with the Peace Pledge Union, still continuing a century after WW1. | more

Non-Combatant Corps (NCC)
An Army Corps specially created in 1916 for COs so allocated by Military Service Tribunals. Such COs were formally enlisted in the Army, were subject to military discipline, wore Army uniform, but were guaranteed not to use or even handle weapons. Officers and NCOs were seconded from other Army units, Some COs, with varying degrees of reluctance, accepted allocation to the NCC, and performed required work, such as handling non-lethal stores, road or railway making, transport etc, in Britain or in France. Other COs disobeyed, leading to court-martial and imprisonment in civil prisons.

Pelham Committee
Committee, chaired by T H W Pelham, senor civil servant, set up by the Board of Trade to find suitable Work of National Importance and supervise its allocation to individual COs. Its official title was the Committee on Work of National Importance; it was entirely distinct from the Brace Committee, supervising the Home Office Scheme.

Political COs
The Military Service Act 1916, incorporating the ‘conscience clause’, did not define “conscientious objection”. This did not prevent many Tribunals refusing recognition to applicants whose statements as a CO were deemed to be ‘political’. This included membership of the British Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Party, advocacy of socialism generally, or rejection of the war as “capitalist”. Nevertheless, occasionally such COs were exempted, and, in any case, there was not a hard division between political COs and the other main category, religious COs, as a significant number of COs advanced religious as well as political motives.

It is sometimes stated that a CO was “imprisoned as a conscientious objector”, or “for his beliefs” or something similar. These are shorthand terms for saying that a CO was convicted and sentenced for a specific offence, most frequently in WW1 for refusing to obey a technically lawful order of an Army officer, after being forcibly taken and placed under Army control. Courts martial in WW1 (as now) had power to sentence such an offender to imprisonment, served in an ordinary civil prison, even though the offence would not be deemed “criminal’ in ordinary civilian terms. By the time of WW1, the addition to a prison sentence of the Victorian “with hard labour” had withered down to deprivation of a (rudimentary) mattress for the first 28 nights of the sentence and restriction of association with other prisoners and of certain privileges for the same period. If some actual hard labour could be found it was also imposed for that period, but isolation from other prisoners often made that impractical. The main difference of penal servitude from imprisonment, with or without hard labour, was a minimum term of three years (as against one day for imprisonment) and differences in earning remission. More than the technical terms “hard labour” and “servitude” (both abolished in 1948) the burden for imprisoned WW1 COs was cold, damp, isolation (association even for those allowed it was limited), monotonous, minimal and poor quality food, little exercise, not to mention scant medical care: ten COs died in prison. | more

Religious COs
COs presenting religious grounds varied widely in their allegiance: not only the broad stream denominations, Church of England, Baptist, Congregational, Independent, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, as well as the Quakers, but also a range of smaller groups: Christadelphians, Churches of Christ, International Bible Students (now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses), Peculiar People, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarians; there were Jews. Religious affirmation was not automatically accepted as a conscientious ground, even for Quakers, and some applicants were cross-examined on their disagreement with prominent pro-war advocates of their church.

Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC)
The medical unit of the Army, providing medical and nursing care, including transport (ambulances, hospital trains, hospital ships) for sick and injured Army personnel, at all times, not only in warfare. Under the Geneva Convention, applicable during WW1, medical personnel wearing the Red Cross symbol are to be treated as non-combatants, not engaged in battle, but such personnel are entitled to carry weapons for use solely in defence of themselves and their patients. This relatively fine distinction has caused some confusion in relation to COs, it often being assumed that RAMC service would be a comparatively easy option for many alternativist COs. In practice, in WW1 only a few COs were allocated to the RAMC, and there was never any legal test as to whether that qualified as non-combatant service within the meaning of the Military Service Act conscience clause. Conversely, a number of men in 1914 and 1915, before conscription, volunteered for RAMC, on the basis that they wanted to help, but specifically as non-combatants; however, by 1918 the Army’s demand for men in the firing line was such that some of these RAMC volunteers were redirected to infantry regiments - legally permissible on the premise that voluntary enlistment is to the Army, placement within the Army being ultimately discretionary. When such men began to refuse orders, they were court-martialled and imprisoned, becoming conscientious objectors.

Union of Democratic Control (UDC)
Founded in 1914 at the initiative of Charles Trevelyan MP, who had resigned as a junior minister on the Liberal government’s declaration of war, it campaigned for openness in government and international relations, in contrast to secret treaties held to be a major factor in the European rush to war. Though the UDC was not committed to pacifism, some leading members were, such as Ramsay Macdonald (who had resigned leadership of the Labour Party because of its support for the war), and the Union was often critical of war policies and the conduct of the war. Edmund Dene Morel became secretary, and was imprisoned in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act for sending a UDC pamphlet to the prominent French pacifist Romain Rolland, then living in Switzerland. The UDC continued to publish pamphlets up to the 1960s.

War Office
The government department responsible for the Army, equivalent to the Admiralty for the Navy. Both were merged into the Ministry of Defence in 1964.

Work Centres/Work Camps
These were set up around the country to provide accommodation and work for COs admitted to the Home Office Scheme. Four were provided by clearing prisons of ordinary prisoners – Wakefield, Knutsford, Warwick. Princetown (Dartmoor) – removing locks on cell doors and renaming them rooms, and allowing Scheme inmates to wear civilian clothes and to go outside in the evening and on Sundays. Work ranged from granite quarrying, to road making, waterworks, farming and more. The first camp was at Dyce, Aberdeen, opened in August 1916 and closed in October after the scandal of the death of Walter Roberts in a leaky tent. Others also died in Home Office Centres.

Work of National Importance
A phrase inserted into the Military Service Act to satisfy popular pressure that any compulsory civilian work undertaken by COs in lieu of military service had to be arduous and in the “national” interest. The choice and allocation of such work was supervised by the Pelham Committee.




Many COs died and are buried in France. | map

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