the men who said no





Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances can show us that even in the darkest of times it is possible to resist the call to war. The stories on this site are of men who in the First World War resisted the propaganda, the peer pressure and the full and sometimes brutal force of the state and refused to take part in war: the killing of strangers - of men like themselves. These men and their supporters are the forerunners of today’s nonviolent resistance movements.

what is a conscientious objector?
Many have objections to a variety of things including participating or supporting war in any way. Here however conscientious objection has a very specific and precise meaning. The Military Service Act of 1916 automatically deemed all men between 18 and 41 to be a soldier and therefore available to the army and bound to present themselves at a local army depot. Those not wanting to be part of the war machine responded in various ways. Some absented themselves, some simply did not turn up and were eventually arrested by the police and taken to the army depot, many made their case at Tribunals set up for this purpose. It is the men who went through the Tribunal process - successfully or not - that we call conscientious objectors. In the First World War there were some 20,000 of them.

attest now posterConscientious objectors are opposed to war and killing for a variety of reasons - some moral, some religious, some political. It is not simply that they prefer not to do military service, that they are scared to fight, or that they have something better to do with their time: they believe it is wrong to hurt or kill other people. Killing men like themselves makes no sense. Wars are not inevitable and conflict can be fought without the mass expenditure of organising men to kill each other.

Arthur Creech Jones was a conscientious objector in the First World War and later went on to be a government minister. At his Court-martial he stated his views about the stupidity of war - views which many COs shared:

‘I believe in human brotherhood and in the common humanity and common interests of all nations. I believe in co-operation, and not competition to the death, between individuals and nations. I view war as merely the test of might... It is a stupid, costly and obsolete method of attempting to settle the differences of diplomatists, in which the common people always pay with their blood, vitality and wealth. I believe there is a better way... I cannot, therefore, participate in any military organisation, every part of which is designed to make the machine of militarism efficient, and the method of which is the destruction of human life. I claim liberty of conscience and, therefore, cannot obey military orders.’
31 August, 1916. Arthur Creech Jones - Court-martial.

It was not easy to be a conscientious objector during the First World War. You had to be willing to stand out from the crowd no matter how unpopular it made you or how hard life would be as a result. To dare to be different you had to be convinced you were right to stick to your principles. You also had to be willing to accept both physical and mental hardship.

Most conscientious objectors in the First World War were treated quite well, if you ignore being wrenched out of your life, moved around the country and forced into often pointless and backbreaking work only because you refused to train to kill. Many, however, suffered terribly due to the harsh treatment they received in prisons and work camps. Solitary confinement drove some mad and many died during their term. We do not know exactly how many but a figure of around 100 is the current best estimate. We do not know how they all died but we do know that many died as a result of the appalling conditions they were placed under as well as from serious neglect by the prison doctors and authorities.


Artthur's Cell

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