the men who said no


Digging in DartmoorPointless and punitive manual digging when a machine would have done the job quicker.



What was Work of National Importance?
“Work of National Importance” (or WNI) was one of the many alternatives to military service that COs were made to take up after appearing before a local Tribunal to secure exemption from Conscription. It took the form of regular employment, but the mechanisms and rules of WNI ensured that it was also a punishment, and WNI was neither the easy nor the simple option.

Accepting WNI meant making it a compromise and accepting a part, however small, in the war effort. Working in a “Nationally Important” industry was necessarily one that was vital in sustaining the country during the war. While this took many forms, all of them by very definition supported the war in some way - creating a constant source of tension for Conscientious Objectors who took it up.

How did COs get WNI?
Work of National Importance was an official category of alternative service that encompassed many industries and occupations. It did not mean that a CO could simply declare that he was exempt due to his work, but had to be secured through the Tribunal system. A CO applying for exemption could be directed to do WNI as a condition of his exemption, the usual verdict being “Exemption from Combatant Service provisional on finding Work of National Importance”. Provided that a CO could find (or would be found) WNI, then they would be exempted from the military for the duration of that work.

This form of qualified exemption could be given by local and appeal Tribunals, and was decided on a case by case basis. Throughout the war despite frequent industrial manpower crises, no attempt was made to conscript COs into industry on a widespread and organised basis.

COs were often left to their own devices to find WNI, and especially in the early months of Conscription in 1916, could secure work in their local communities and report back to the Tribunal that granted them exemption. If the Tribunal approved, the exemption could be considered secure. If not - and Tribunals frequently disagreed on what was and was not considered “Nationally Important” - then the CO would be forced to find other employment. This was usually under time constraint, and Tribunals could specify exactly how long a CO had to find WNI, usually around 21 days. Tribunals could also rule that a CO would have to work at a certain distance from their home, usually an arbitrary ruling designed to make finding and keeping WNI a punishment.

The Tribunal system lacked oversight or a consistent way of dealing with WNI COs. It also left WNI exemptions open to appeals against them - both from Conscientious Objectors and the Tribunals themselves. Exemptions could be revoked, changed or qualified, with Tribunals withdrawing exemption for any infraction - a wage they considered too high, or that a CO was working too close to home. The arbitrary and nature of the Tribunal system caused significant hardship and difficulty for the COs it affected.

The Pelham Committee
Work of National Importance quickly became more codified and organised as the numbers of COs sent to do WNI increased beyond the initial expectations of the Government. The Pelham Committee, officially the “Home Office Committee on Employment of Conscientious Objectors” was founded to organise and monitor Conscientious Objectors taking on WNI. It both organised their labour, finding work for COs and approving occupations they had found themselves, and monitored their employment, making rulings on wages, conditions and what was and was not considered “important” work.

The Pelham Committee operated under the unwritten rule of the “Principle of equal sacrifice”. This concept, initially put forward in debates in the House of Commons, stated that a CO taking on WNI would have to make an equal sacrifice to a soldier on the front. Lethal danger being largely absent in most occupations a CO could take up as WNI, this usually meant deliberately poor pay, harsh living conditions and work at a significant distance from home. For all that the Pelham Committee provided the oversight and organisation that the Tribunal system had lacked, guided by the “Principle of equal sacrifice”, it oversaw small, petty punishments inflicted on COs for the sole reason that they refused to kill.

Who were WNI COs?
For all that the story of Conscientious Objectors who took up Work of National Importance is an often ignored one, it is also potentially the most varied single experience of Conscientious Objection, and certainly one of the largest. Of Britain’s 18,000 known First World War COs, a quarter - around 4,500 - of these men were sent to do WNI, and they came from every single area, class and motivation that produced COs.

As a result, there is no single “WNI CO”, and both the men themselves and the experiences they had were extremely varied. Though this variation and the relative lack of data on WNI COs makes generalising which men took up this option difficult, some broad trends can be seen.

Of the 4,500 WNI COs, an astonishing 1,150 of them were members of the Christadelphian sect. This dissenting protestant community produced many Conscientious Objectors, and their creed and beliefs on war and conscription made WNI an attractive choice to many. In holding to their faith, Christadelphian COs could not take an active role in warfare, but as a sect they believed that civilian work in war-related industries was morally acceptable. This stance had been laid out in an officially distributed leaflet “The Teachings of the Christadelphian Faith on War”, which many Christadelphian COs took to their Tribunal hearings. The leaflet, explaining Christadelphian positions and their doctrinal willingness to take up WNI may go some way towards explaining how and why so many Christadelphian COs took it up; to the overworked and out-of-their-depth Tribunals, a clear statement not just of conscience but also a suggestion of a suitable verdict would have been seized upon. With ample evidence of both their objection and a solution to it, WNI would have become the obvious answer to a Christadelphian CO.

The other major group of WNI COs were Quaker and Salvation Army men, both religious organisations that also ran aid agencies requiring significant numbers of employees. Widespread networks within both groups allowed Conscientious Objectors to apply for exemption at a Tribunal with war-related work already organised, making it simple for Tribunals not only to agree to let them do it, but also to make the decision relatively simple. Work with Quaker or Salvation army agencies could be clearly explained as vital to the war effort, providing medical or humanitarian assistance at home or abroad. Both sects ran large organisations that required a range of expertise and a large number of men, producing a body of COs cleared for acceptable WNI.

The absence of significant numbers of political COs does not suggest that political COs were any more or less likely to accept the compromise that WNI entailed. In the eyes of the Tribunals, WNI was certainly the most generous verdict, and was seen by Tribunal members as the “easy option”. A clear and well evidenced Conscientious Objection based in religious belief was significantly easier to swallow - and therefore easier to grant WNI - for the Tribunals than a political one. In fact, many Tribunals believed that only religious objection was a “conscientious” objection, and that WNI could only go to this narrow understanding of what COs were. While political COs can and did take up WNI after their Tribunal hearings, they are by far the minority, out of all relation to the proportion of political COs in the wider movement.

Working on WNI
WNI work encompassed many different occupations. The hundreds of different roles taken on by COs during the war could not hope to be covered here, but many individual stories can be seen as part of the biographical section of the Men Who Said No project.

Farming and Market Gardening were the largest single “types” of WNI, and thousands of Conscientious Objectors, many with little or no farming experience, were sent to small holdings around the country to agricultural work. The variety of experiences of farming COs is almost as large as their numbers. Large farms and Market Gardeners could employ dozens of men, and colonies of Conscientious Objectors undertaking WNI could be found in the major farming areas, especially in Kent and around Letchworth. Smallholdings typically employed one or two COs, often those with some prior relation to the owner. Pay varied, but was usually pinned to the salary of a Private in the army, and conditions were often extremely basic.

Few COs were allowed to continue in their current employment. Farmers and Post Office workers made up the majority of these men, though the system still dictated some kind of punishment was owed to them; often expressed in lowered wages and work far from home. The Post Office, then the world’s largest single employer, held on to hundreds of COs on WNI but usually distributed them around the country, making an unpopular and unnecessary decision to send COs out of their local areas to undertake the same work at a distance from home and family.

Factory work was comparatively rare among WNI COs, though large industrial firms such as British Dyes did employ hundreds of men in a range of positions. One of the least common forms of factory work was munitions and aircraft manufacture, positions that pose an interesting question as to the moral decisions they involved. COs who accepted WNI in a munitions factory were as directly involved in the war effort as it was possible to be and still remain an Objector. Employed in the manufacture of weapons, these COs continually faced a challenge to their personal morality and had to find their own individual balance between objection to and involvement in the war. Producing weapons meant acquiescing to the murderous nature of war while preserving an individual objection to personal involvement. While these men are rare, they provide an interesting glimpse into the complexity and individual nature of Conscientious Objection.

All WNI to some extent involved this compromise. The very definition of Work of National Importance pointed towards a difficult decision. All WNI contributed to sustaining the war effort in some way. In the midst of a war of industry and blockade, making a contribution to the economic or agricultural security of the country meant supporting efforts to continue the war. Twenty years after the last WNI CO was sent home, “Dig For Victory!” campaigns would sum this up, making explicit the unspoken agreement that agricultural work supported the war.

Many COs who took up WNI would have been aware of this contradiction between their actions and objection. For many it would be a source of constant conflict and tension, but for others it was an acceptable compromise. There was no single way to resolve the difficulty, and responses ranged from agricultural WNI supporting a population that could otherwise be reduced to starvation, to the munitions workers’ acceptance that only the personal act of killing went against their conscientious principles.

WNI was not difficult simply due to the conditions, or pay or the “principle of equal sacrifice”, it was a difficult decision due to the morality of making a compromise agreement with civil and military authority. The questions of how far WNI contributed to the war effort, and to what extent a CO was personally responsible for their contribution, would have hounded WNI men and speaks to the difficult moral decision they had made.


red line