the men who said no



NCCGroup of Non-combat corps men in in Aldershot



The Non-Combatant Corps is one of the least-known parts of the Conscientious Objector story. Neglected, sometimes entirely forgotten, Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) Objectors struck a balance between Conscience and Conscription and thousands of men took up the difficult position of being a soldier while refusing to kill. Neither one thing nor the other, NCC men had to define their own labour and resistance according to their own moral compass.

The NCC arose from the Military Service Act which, in it’s provision for Conscientious Objectors to be granted “Exemption from Combatant Service Only”, created a new type of soldier by the thousand - the official non-combatant. Non-combatant soldiers had existed in the army before 1916, often in the form of medical workers, but prior to conscription it had never been a problem on this scale, and never without the Army having a specific reason for allowing men to serve in a non-combatant capacity.

As Conscription had a single aim - to get more men into the army - the presence of Conscientious Objectors willing to join the military, but not to kill, created a resource the Army could draw from, and the NCC was formed with the deliberate aim of freeing up soldiers behind the lines from routine labour and logistics tasks, giving the army more effective fighting men for the front lines.

Objectors were sent to the NCC under the Military Service Act after being granted “Exemption from Combatant Service Only” by their local Tribunal hearing. They would be expected to report to barracks, either directly to an NCC unit, or to a combatant one, there hopefully to be redirected into the NCC. For those that did not refuse, wartime service with the Army beckoned.

Taking up the NCC meant that a CO was clearly stating that he would not be forced to kill, but would provide support for the Army. There were many reasons to do so, religious, political and nationalist, and the decision was a personal one. Refusal to kill, but acceptance of orders. Abhorrence of war and violence, but acceptance of conscription. The NCC was a compromise - and often contradictory.

NCC Work
March and April 1916 saw the creation of the first NCC units, and by June 1916, 1500 men were officially soldiers in the NCC. Companies of the NCC were organised by the regional home commands, and in all, 34 were raised. The high point of NCC numbers would be towards the end of the war, when with an expansion of Conscription, more men were directed to the army, and by August 1918 around three and a half thousand men were in the corps.

As the NCC was intended to free up soldiers for the front by replacing men doing war work behind the lines, much of the work that the NCC took up was transportation, construction or logistics based. Whether at home or abroad, manual labour was the major part of their war service, often loading and unloading materiel and food, or doing road, water and sanitation works. The companies of the NCC sent to France were largely employed in road building, repair and sanitation. They were legally protected from orders that would contravene their commitment to have no active part in combatant service, and were guaranteed that:
"Companies of the NCC will be trained in squad drill without arms and in the use of various forms of tools used in field engineering. The privates will be equipped as infantry except that they will not be armed or trained with arms of any description”
This “Non-Combatant Assurance” sums up many of the tensions that were felt by both the NCC men and the wider Army. They were, definitively and without a doubt, soldiers. NCC COs worked and trained in the same standard infantry regiment uniform as the rest of the army, distinguished by their cap and shoulder badges which read “NCC”. For many men, the uniform symbolised their willing acceptance of conscription - Absolutists sent to the NCC would often make their first act of refusal when told to put it on. They held ranks - every Conscientious Objector in the NCC was officially a Private as no CO could be placed in a position of authority over a combatant soldier, and were led by regular Army officers. Officers and NCOs commanding the Companies of the NCC were combatant soldiers, often wounded regulars either permanently or temporarily unable to take up their normal duties. This would prove a source of tension and clashes between Conscience and Military authority, as many soldiers seconded to the NCC found it distasteful to be associated with objectors.

But then, on the other hand, they could not be made to carry or use weapons, meaning in effect that they could not be made to actively participate in the slaughter of war. They would not kill their fellow human beings, and strikes, work stoppages and slowdowns characterised much of the NCC’s record as COs refused to take up work that could be directly supporting the war effort. A large and sustained strike at Newhaven port in 1916 led to a reassurance that NCC men could not be made to carry or load munitions or components intended for weapons. The work that the NCC did was non-combatant, but what exactly constituted non-combatant work was determined by the COs involved, according to their own Conscientious principles. To some, loading munitions was unacceptable, an example of directly contributing to the murder of another human being, but to others this line could be drawn far earlier - perhaps refusing to construct a road to help soldiers get to the front more quickly. Though taking up an “Alternative” to Military Service, they were still in the military, and work they carried out had to be approved under their own sense of what constituted killing in warfare.

This balance posed many difficult moral questions for NCC men. Taking up the role of a soldier - but not a combatant soldier - was difficult to achieve. In refusing to kill in war, they would have to balance their official involvement in the military with the dictates of what they believed to be right.

Many NCC men served in the military from 1916 through to 1920. Again caught between the position of the Army and the Absolutists, they were among the last to be demobilised and returned home. Though officially soldiers, they were not treated as such when it came to pay and leave, and were deliberately kept in the Army until the combatant soldiers - considered more worthy of an early demobilisation - had returned home. 33 would not return from war service, and are buried in Commonwealth War Graves in France, Belgium and the UK.

The NCC and the CO Cause
Some Conscientious Objectors willingly and happily accepted NCC service, and found the provision to obey both conscience and law acceptable. Others found it a difficult balance - firmly part of the war effort, but decidedly not a soldier, they could not satisfy their conscientious objection to warfare. NCC service fulfilled only part of an objection to war, and COs who accepted it grudgingly would have to strike a difficult balance between orders and conscience.

Accepting or rejecting the NCC was not a blind and instinctive choice for many men. Several hundred Conscientious Objectors endured the conditions and compromise of the NCC for months before deciding to resist any further military orders and accepting a prison sentence. Others stayed with the NCC for the duration, uncomfortable with the requirements and expectations of non-combatant service, but unwilling to break the law or be seen to not do their duty to the country. However agreeable or disagreeable NCC men found working within the structures of the Army, they carried out their resistance to war and militarism as they believed they should, and consistently retained the right to protest. They could not, would not and did not kill. Thousands of men believed that, uniform or no uniform, this was the guiding moral principle of their lives, and they remained dedicated to it.

The story of the NCC tends to be dominated by those men who passed through it temporarily on their way to an Absolute stand against war through imprisonment, but it deserves better than that. Tellingly, though the Absolutist story dominates our understanding of Conscientious Objectors today, NCC men would consistently protest and agitate for better conditions for their Absolutist brethren from 1916 until the end of the war - something the Absolutist side of the movement would not do until 1919.

The challenge of the NCC and of other Alternativist viewpoints of Conscription is to understand that Conscience is both individual and evolving. What is unacceptable to one person is not to another. For thousands of men a refusal to kill in war was enough - an explicit condemnation of war, militarism and conscription that stated clearly that while the law could force them into uniform, it could not force them to kill. This stance saw them decried, mocked and often simply ignored by both the Army and those pacifists who saw their position as inconsistent, or even implicitly supportive of the war.

Trapped in a limbo between Soldiers and the Absolutists, NCC men in many ways remain ignored today. Nevertheless, their stories, and their ability to reconcile the law and their consciences, are important to understanding the morality of Conscientious Objection and the anti-war movement. They negotiated an ethical maze of moral, legal and military ambiguity, doing what they felt was right by their own consciences - refusing to take life in war.



Spoof coat of arms
From Daily Mirror 20/4/1916

“Many of the men in the NCC have been for some time past reconsidering their position with growing uneasiness... In clear and honest thinking, and the fearless following of conscience lies the only way to peace”
Catherine Marshall on the NCC, December 1916

“In that parody of a combatant regiment, the 3rd Eastern NCC for the first time I met with Military totemism...the principle military totem was a small round button which had to be polished till it shone like the sun”
George Baker, NCC 1916-1917

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