the men who said no






With Conscription in force by March 1916, thousands of men around the country made the courageous decision to reject war and refuse to kill. It meant going against the status quo, defying both the military and the government and facing hostility, even assault, from the public and press. So what was it that made 18,000 men decide to become Conscientious Objectors?
Applying for exemption was a relatively simple process. After filling in the everyday details of life required by the bureaucracy, an applicant would be required to outline the reasons why they should be exempted. While some COs simply wrote “Conscientious Objection”, others submitted letters, leaflets and even books attempting to explain their motivation behind applying. The motivations of the thousands of men who applied make for fascinating reading and show the full spectrum of political and religious dissent in early 20th century Britain. The motivations of the around 2,000 Greater London COs are best known, and are likely to provide a reasonable indicator of the types and numbers of COs elsewhere in the country.

Religious faith was the main motivating factor behind Objection for over half of the COs in Greater London. Christian COs were by far the most numerous group and shared much common ground. Typically from non-conformist denominations, though Roman Catholics and Church of England men also registered their opposition to the war, they took Christian pacifist teachings as absolute justification for an anti-war stance. Quakers, Jehovahs Witnesses (then the International Bible Students Association) and Congregationalists make frequent appearances in the surviving records, and remain groups that are strongly committed to pacifism and the right of individual Conscientious Objectors. Representatives of other minority faith groups can also be found. A significant Jewish CO community existed in East London, while men from London’s small Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities also became conscientious objectors on religious grounds. While from often very different religions, they shared the same essential motivation; that their participation in war on a personal level and the nation’s participation on a wider level was against the tenets of their faith.

Until we accept in all it’s literal meaning ...“thou shalt not kill” until then we shall not only have war but fail in all duty before God and Man”
Quaker CO reported in John Graham, Conscription and Conscience

“If Germany wins it is God’s will, and if He desires them to win, then they must”
Guy Lawrence Tod recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

“I have honestly tried to live so as to benefit my fellow creatures as befits a Theosophist”
Charles Edward Ball, recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

While religious COs make up the largest group, Conscientious objection was by no means a religious movement. Around 40% of London’s COs were instead motivated by political and labour issues. Political COs were overwhelmingly left-wing, having some connection to the Labour, Socialist, Communist and Independent Labour parties - often to several!. The ILP and BSP were the largest and certainly most vocal groups of political COs, who usually objected to the war both on socialist grounds - as one London CO put is “I have no intention of fighting the capitalist’s war” - and on international grounds, seeing the solidarity of the working class as superseding any national boundaries. Why fight your fellow worker at the behest of your employer?

“As a socialist and internationalist I am strongly opposed to war, which I regard as arising from the conflict of capitalist interests and as inimical to the welfare of the working class”
recorded by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal

Other forms of political objection are less common. Away from the far left, Unaffiliated and Liberal COs tended to object against conscription as infringing on civil liberties, rather than as against war per se, an argument that was expanded upon by the extremely visible and vocal minority of Anarchist and Libertarian men.

Socialist COs

While all COs faced varying degrees of discrimination and hardship throughout the war, Political COs seem to have had a generally tougher time than religious objectors. The religious position, while often seeming alien to the opponents of Conscientious Objection was at least theoretically within their ability to grasp. An argument tying the war to international capitalism, exploitation of the working class or to a shadowy cabal of bourgeois warmongers was a little more difficult for them to grasp! Political COs advancing sometimes complex, and sometimes offensive arguments to a Tribunal stood a good chance of being turned down altogether.

The last significant group of conscientious objectors were motivated by nationality. Pre-war Britain was home to thousands of economic, religious and political migrants from mainland Europe. Whether moving into industry and hospitality or fleeing religious persecution, Austrian, German and Russian families had long since settled, raised families and often anglicised. For some men, conscription would mean taking up arms against a fondly-remembered home country, or fighting (potentially at least) against family members. Sons of German and Austrian immigrants, born in Britain, were subjected to a torrent of racist abuse from 1914-1916 - how and why would they then be expected to fight for a nation that encouraged their abuse? For Russian immigrants and their families, the situation was very different. Largely immigrants fleeing from religious persecution, especially in the case of the significant Jewish immigrant populations of London, their explanations to the Tribunals read angrily - the prospect of being forced to fight, kill and die in support of the tyrannical autocracy of Tsarist Russia seemed an absurd joke to some, and a terrifying threat to others.

“If it is wrong for an Englishman to have a conscience, then for a German’s son it is a crime for which he should be damned a thousand times”
Walter Hohnrodt, Haringey CO

In reality, these divisions between religious, political and national COs were rarely clear cut. Not only would many men list multiple reasons for objecting to war and conscription - Walter Hohnrodt, a Haringey CO was a Christian, Socialist and the son of a German immigrant - but the nature of their surroundings made it likely that they held many different and sometimes conflicting views. In the communities that make up the bulk of Conscientious Objectors - working and lower middle class labourers and clerks - religion and politics were closely aligned. In addition to this, the nature of a CO’s wartime experiences often left much time to think and discuss their own, and other’s, motivations. It is not unusual for a CO to have entered the system by registering a religious objection, only to come out of prison, work camp or non-combatant army service a committed atheist and Communist - and vice versa.
“Militarism will fasten its iron grip upon our national life and institutions. There will be imposed upon us the very system which our statement affirm that they set out to overthrow.

"What shall it profit the nation if it shall win the war and lose it’s own soul?"
Repeal the Act, NCF Leaflet 1916

There appear to be no clear cut social divisions that suggest what may have motivated a man to become a CO. British objectors came from a wide spectrum of social classes. Lower middle and working classes predominate, but there were significant groups of upper and upper middle class COs. Religious, political and national COs could have come from any strata of British society, and every local authority, profession and background produced at least some Conscientious Objectors. Only rough patterns can be discerned - more political in the great union cities of London, Glasgow, Sheffield and Manchester, and more religious in the rural districts of the home counties and northern Scotland - but these are by no means prescriptive.

Studying CO motivations gives a significant insight into the “who’s-who” of dissenting opinions during the First World War, but gives more of an insight into the startling array of individuality in what can appear to be a fairly cohesive movement. From anarchist and communist dockworkers through to Oxbridge-educated Liberals, poets and philosophers, the startling array just of reasons why men refused to conscripted into the army shows something very important about Conscientious Objectors in general - that they could well have been anyone. It might be tempting to write off the story of COs as a few political and religious extremists, but the plurality of motivations suggests that just about anyone of any political stripe or faith could become a CO. COs were often very ordinary men and their motivations and principles give a clear example of how ordinary people can arrive at an anti-war mindset, and how that can translate into action that resists militarism and works towards peace.


The Way to End War

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