March 1916

Looking just at the first month of the Tribunal, two types of articles dominate - serious introductory articles outlining the principles behind CO issues and a (sometimes) more lighthearted look at the actions of the Military Service Tribunals that usually focuses on incompetence, ignorance and malice!

“Conscientious Objectors and Non-Combatant Service”

The first issue of the Tribunal was printed not long after the machinery of Conscription had swung into action. Most COs wouldn’t have gone to their Tribunal hearing when reading this issue. The NCF took advantage of this, printing the aims, objectives and opinions of the No-Conscription Fellowship on their Front page, as an easy to understand guide to the central organisation’s stance on Conscription.

The introduction clearly lodges a complaint over the unjust nature of both the introduction and workings of conscription. It also ltroduces some individuals which will become constant figures in the Tribunal; Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway and W. J Chamberlain. As the Chairman, Hon Secretary and Hon organiser of the NCF, the early issues of the Tribunal are full of their writings.

The opposition of the NCF to the Tribunal system is clearly laid out in the introductory article:

The Tribunals are ignoring the rights given to COs in the Military Service Act

No provision is being made for “Absolutist” COs who can do no work to aid the military

The Tribunals are unclear, inconsistent and arbitrary.

The article ends on an ominous note that foreshadows many of the problems COs would face in their principled stand:

“No penalty will make our members false to their belief”

The editors and writers of the Tribunal, members of the NCF and Conscientious Objectors around the country were about to find out just how terrible some of these penalties would be.

“What the Tribunals are doing”

Throughout the rest of the month, the NCF focus on displaying some of the inconsistencies, ignorance and bigotry of the Tribunals, though tempered by the acknowledgement that some Tribunals were doing a difficult job well - the first issue notes absolute exemption had been granted to 18 COs.

The rest of this article is devoted to covering some of the more ridiculous and extreme Tribunal statements on Conscientious Objection. The collected anecdotes from COs around the country show some of the attitudes they faced at the hearings:

“A member of the Oldbury Tribunal remarked to a CO: It seems to me there are two things you possess, cowardice and insolence. That is all I have to say”

“At Nairn tribunal the Chairman told a CO that the bible had told him to fight the devil and added: “if the German Emperor is not worse than the devil, I’m a Dutchman!”

“In the case of another CO Colonel Pearson was even more polite and called the applicant a traitor, adding that he “was only fit to be on the point of a German bayonet!”

These quotes would have been included both to help convince casual readers that the Tribunal system was a ridiculous farce, but also to add some humour into the paper. Many COs were facing, or were about to face, prison, military confinement and much worse. Adding these quotes, showing the ludicrous nature of the Tribunals boosted morale and helped to remind COs that they were facing a hard road ahead - but one where they could know in all certainty that they were doing the right thing.