the men who said no



AngelBarlach's Angel



With Conscription in force by March 1916, thousands of men around the country made the courageous decision to reject war and refuse participate in the killing. It meant going against the popular mood, defying both the military and the government and facing hostility, even assault, from the public and press.

So what was it that made 20,000 men decide to become Conscientious Objectors?

Religious faith seemed to have been the main motivating factor for most COs. 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.

Conscientious objection however was by no means a religious movement. Many 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?

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.

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 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.

"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 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.


Independent Labour Party
Trade Unionists
Adult School Union
Calvinistic Methodist
Church of Christ
Church of God
Church of England
Exclusive Brethren
Christian/Open Brethren
Free thinker
International Bible Students Association
Jehovah Witnesses
Open Brethren
Peculiar People
Pentecostal Brethren
Plymouth Brethren
Primitive Methodist
Roman Catholic
Salvation Army
United Methodist
Wesleyan Methodist


Wesleyan, prtimitive and united methodists came togethe in the methodist church of great britain and ireland 1932. Aattempt to unite with church of england failed


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For many religious people fundamental tenets can become less than fundamental when exposed contradictory values or the so called ‘real world’.

Dr Alfred Salter who supported WW1 CO’s wrote a few weeks after Britain declared war in 1914:
‘If in my bottommost heart I want to know what I would do under any given circumstances I must ask myself what is God’s command and what would Christ do in my place . . . Am I do answer the national call, make myself proficient in arms and hurry to the Continent to beat the Germans off?

Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting His bayonet into the body of a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun, ambushing a column of German infantry, catching then unawares in a lane and mowing them down in their helplessness. Hark! The man of Sorrows in a cavalry charge, cutting hacking, thrusting, cheering. Jesus of Nazareth dropping bombs on barracks, railways junctions, ports, concentration of soldiers or in reprisal on open towns. No! No! That picture is impossible.


After the first world war turned into the Second World which in turn turned into the Cold War Albert Camus a French philosopher, author, and journalist asked a similar question this way:

‘Do you, or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to be killed or assaulted? Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to kill or assault ?' All who say No to both these questions are automatically committed to a series of consequences which must modify their way of posing the problem.’



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