the men who said no


RAMC menA group of RAMC men.



One of the great myths about Conscientious Objectors in the First World War is that they were, almost universally, stretcher bearers. Heroes who risked their lives to save others while humbly accepting their position as non-combatants in the military. The myth is a powerful and frequently repeated one, but it is far from the truth. These stretcher bearers are said to have come from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), but in reality they were rare. Few COs went into the RAMC and even fewer were involved in what could be termed “stretcher bearing”. Only around 4-500 COs went into the RAMC, and many were volunteers to the service in the days before Conscription, only later developing a Conscientious Objection in very certain circumstances. Nevertheless, the vital lifesaving work COs of the RAMC accomplished was important, and their contribution to both the myth and the history of Conscientious Objection should not be understated.

The RAMC in the First World War
The Royal Army Medical Corps was set up to provide medical services to the British Army in 1898 and has served alongside the military ever since. During the First World War it expanded to a significant branch of the military, as the hundreds of thousands of casualties the war created required an ever-growing medical corps. The RAMC provided not only front-line medical assistance but also hospitals, ambulances and rehabilitation support during the conflict.

As an organisation dedicated to saving life, it is an explicitly non-combatant branch of the Armed Forces, and as such was seen to be an acceptable position for many Conscientious Objectors. RAMC men were often issued with weapons, but they could only be used for self-defence in very limited circumstances. It was possible to either volunteer or be conscripted into the RAMC and never have to use weaponry. Even today the RAMC is a designated non-combatant unit under the Geneva Conventions.

The Tribunals and the RAMC
As an avowedly non-combatant task, and one involved with saving rather than taking lives, many Conscientious Objectors suggested at Tribunal hearings that they would be prepared to take on RAMC work. Tribunals were happy to “oblige”, recommending that hundreds if not thousands of men should join the RAMC. The concept would work out for everyone involved - COs would keep to their conscientious principles and Tribunals would be content to have sent men on to the Army. But the reality was rather different.

Perhaps one in fifty men recommended to the RAMC actually joined the corps. The RAMC could not cope with the numbers of men recommended to them. Training facilities would have been overwhelmed, a huge number of medically-untrained men would have to be brought up to standard and - perhaps most importantly - no army institution would be content to be swamped with thousands of Conscientious Objectors. Though these COs were agreeing to an Army role, their presence and principles were still implacably opposed to the military. Thousands of Conscientious Objectors, coming into contact with regular soldiers and perhaps - and this the Army feared most of all - having an influence on them, was not a situation that could be countenanced.

It was not only institutional reluctance that would bar many COs recommended to the RAMC by Tribunal hearings from taking up the work. The Tribunals, in their haste to pass COs into some form of military position, overreached. There was never a mechanism in place for Tribunals to ensure a CO got into the RAMC and no formal way of indicating that a CO sent to the Army was to be transferred to the medical corps. Many COs expecting a posting to the service were instead held in the Non-Combatant Corps, or even posted to a combatant regiment. Denied what they saw as a fair exemption, this would drive many to make a more firm stand against conscription, refusing to make any further compromise and being sent to prison as a result.

Even being recommended to the RAMC was not acceptable to many COs. It was necessarily a compromise between a refusal of warfare and an acceptance of the Army. Going into the RAMC meant obeying orders, wearing a uniform and drawing pay from the Army, making any man who took it up firmly a part of the military machine. To some men this was an acceptable decision, and helping to save lives was more important than total non-involvement with the military. For others, a recommendation to the RAMC was little better than a recommendation to a combatant regiment, and conscription to the RAMC still meant being forced into the Army, forced to support a system designed to kill.

The Work of an RAMC CO
Conscientious Objectors who were part of the RAMC fulfilled many different roles. The popular image of the stretcher-bearer CO was only one of them, and COs found themselves working anywhere between the front lines and hospital stations in Britain. The vast majority were privates and would rarely have participated in surgical or other medical work which required significant training. Both the direct life-saving work and the logistical and support tasks that the RAMC was sustained by would have been undertaken by COs. Field Ambulances and static hospitals were the most common assignment, and COs worked as orderlies, nurses and support staff throughout the war. They could be found working behind the lines in every theatre of the war the British Army fought in, and COs were sent to France, Italy, Egypt, Salonika and Africa.

Though most RAMC COs did not work as stretcher bearers, those that did were frequently exposed to the dangerous conditions of the front. The work of a stretcher bearer in the First World War was horrifying and difficult, gathering the wounded from trenches and no-man’s land and transporting them back to field hospitals, frequently exposed to fire, raiding parties and artillery barrage. One RAMC CO, Ernest Gregory from Sheffield was given the Military Medal for service in such conditions, bringing back wounded from the hell of Paschendaele through no-mans land under constant fire.

The conditions made for heroism, but also deaths. The RAMC lost 6130 soldiers during the war, and some of these men were Conscientious Objectors - both volunteers and conscripts who had decided to risk their own lives to save others.

Volunteers and the RAMC
Not all RAMC COs went before a Tribunal. In the rush of volunteering for the Army in 1914-1916, many men who felt they ought to support the war effort or simply save lives where they could, volunteered for the Army as long as they could be posted to the RAMC. The non-combatant status of the RAMC made it a possible destination for those who were against war and against killing, but felt that they could, or should, “do their bit”. Not every RAMC volunteer can be counted as a CO, but where they made their objection to war clear, either in their diaries and personal memoirs, or officially on their enlistment forms, these men must be recognised as having as legitimate an objection to war as any other CO.

Volunteering for the RAMC did not necessarily mean an end to a conscientious objection to warfare. Though many men had signed up willingly to join the Army, they had done so under the non-combatant agreement. Any attempt to break it, or to force them into a fighting unit, would be met throughout the war with resistance and the same refusal to fight showed by the Absolutist COs in prison.

The largest single incident of mass refusal by RAMC COs was in May-July 1918. A significant contingent of RAMC men had been sent to the Middle East as part of Britain’s attempts to defeat the Ottoman Empire. In May 1918, with the army both in Egypt and in France suffering from an extreme shortage of manpower, the Army attempted to draft the RAMC men into a combatant unit. This would mean transfer out of the RAMC, where they could not be forced to carry or use a weapon, into a front-line fighting unit where they would be expected to kill others - the exact opposite of their medical work and training. Around 60 men refused to fight and kill, and were swiftly sent through a process familiar to the imprisoned COs in Britain, as they were brought before a court martial and condemned to heavy sentences of hard labour. They would be largely be held in the forbidding Gabbari Military Prison, where two, Frederick Tiller and Ernest Johnson, would die in the harsh conditions of military detention. The rest of the still refusing COs would be released in October and November 1918, some to return home while others carried on their medical work.


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