August 1917

August 1917 Tribunal
The meetings and conferences of July 1917 clarified some of the issues that had been building in the CO movement throughout the year. The Tribunal in August 1917 reflects this moment of clarity and (relative) calm within the NCF, and returns to it’s roots as a source of news and reports on the situation of Conscientious Objectors around the country and, increasingly, the wider world.

2nd August - Beneath Big Ben
Though the NCF produced it’s own “COs Hansard” focused on discussions in Parliament around Conscientious Objection related issues, “Beneath Big Ben” was a regular column throughout 1917 that gave condensed news from the House of Commons. While the COs Hansard reported verbatim from the floor of both Houses, Beneath Big Ben allowed for comment and discussion as well as contrasting the letter and the working of the law as it applied to COs around the country.

Big BenThe August 2nd column was dominated by the case of James Brightmore and John Grey, two COs who had faced exceptionally brutal treatment at the hands of the army. While the situation of COs under direct military control had improved since the dark days of the Frenchmen in 1916, both Brightmore and Grey faced life-threatening treatment. James Brightmore had been kept in solitary confinement in a pit ten feet deep and three wide while refusing orders at Cleethorpes Camp, while Grey had been stripped, bound and thrown into deep water several times over two days. Brightmore’s case was incontrovertible, but Grey had (understandably) succumbed to the pressure and joined the army.

These were exceptional but significant cases and the Tribunal would continue to pursue them for some time. Brightmore’s case became a cause célèbre in the national press and officers involved in both incidents were cashiered. It was noted that the pointless and brutal treatment the men had received had “done more damage and produced more sympathy for the revolutionary and pacifist movements in this country than any other incident in the past 12 months”.

16th August - A Day in the Record Office
Though the Tribunal was produced in-house by the NCF, it all too rarely contains much information on how it was made or how the NCF worked in the day-to-day. “A Day in the Record Office” gives us a glimpse into the COIB (Conscientious Objector Information Bureau) where NCF staff worked to keep accurate records on every single Conscientious Objector under the Military Service Acts. For a researcher and archivist working on Conscientious Objectors, the COIB takes on an almost mythical importance - the largely lost treasure-trove of all the information anyone could possibly want to know about COs, who they were, what happened to them and when. Reading an article like this is a little like drawing back the veil and seeing the NCF offices for what they were - not a vast and significant archive, but a receiving office for information.

The NCF received letters and updates from individuals around the country, allowing them to keep up political pressure, look after COs rights in prison (and inform them of their rights) and disseminate news of individuals around the movement. This involved skills that archivists and researchers still prize today - recognising the author of a letter by their handwriting, stringing together a narrative from scraps of information and the patience to endlessly index!

The NCF, as astute as ever, didn’t write this article for the comfort of researchers in 2017. As nice as that idea may be, it was deliberately chosen as a way of informing readers and local branches as to the best ways to send in information. In name-checking some of the famous events of the CO movement - “the tiny scrap of sanitary paper covered with almost illegible writing smuggled out of Harwich Redoubt” and “the Brightmore letter... in a clear, firm hand” the writer reminds the reader that the work of the NCF, indeed the very lives of COs themselves, relies on accurate and clear information. The common errors are highlighted - “You would be astonished at the number of reports we received with no dates or addresses and signed with initials only” and the subtext of the article is gently chiding. The article ends with a specific request - “it is surprising how rarely records is notified when a man has accepted work under the Home Office Scheme” - and COs on the HoS were increasingly becoming the focus of the NCF’s work. This work relied on regular and accurate reporting - and articles like this helped the NCF to obtain it.

23rd August - The International Situation
The August 23rd issue of the Tribunal is largely focused on the situation for COs and Anti-militarists worldwide, spurred on in part by the efforts of Pope Benedict XV who issued, on the 1st of August, a seven-point peace plan. Though it was spurned by nearly all the combatant nations - Bertrand Russell pointing out in his usual heavy irony that “the opposite criticisms are a tribute to the Pope’s fair-mindedness” and therefore, due to equitable treatment of all sides, doomed to failure. With the attention of the NCF on the international situation, the issue touches on many different positions around the world.

Though American, Australian and New Zealand anti-militarists had appeared frequently in the pages of the Tribunal from the beginning of the year, this broad survey takes in updates from less well-known anti-war movements from Sweden, India and Russia.

A more detailed look at the situation in the US accompanies this overview. The American situation had become of pressing interest to the NCF, as with the debate over the effects of the US entry into the war - now increasingly apparent in Britain, few members had much inkling of the anti-war movement over the Atlantic. The update is positive in tone, surveying the broad scope of political, union and religious opposition to conscription, but the situation is depressingly familiar. Despite the image of widespread opposition and broad support for COs presented in the article, American COs would face the same persecution and punishment as their comrades in the UK.


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Record Office