Conscientious Objectors during the First World War
A Conscientious objector is somebody who refused to join the army because of their religious or moral opposition to fighting. This group of people included those such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Quakers who objected due to religious beliefs and others who were pacifists (people who don’t want to do any harm to other people, whatever the circumstances).
Many conscientious objectors were willing to undertake non combat roles within the forces. This could include jobs such as working in military hospitals, as stretcher bearers or as a messenger. Others refused to participate in any way at all. In Great Britain there were some 16,000 people who were registered as conscientious objectors during the First World War. These people had the right to vote taken away from them for 5 years.
In order to be granted exemption from conscription a man would need to convince a tribunal that they were genuine conscientious objectors, rather than cowards. The tribunals had the power to grant exemption from military service; to allocate specific civilian roles; or to refuse the claim and enforce conscription. In the latter case the conscientious objector would then be subjected to military punishments if they failed to enlist when ordered to do so.
One third of registered conscientious objectors were imprisoned for some part of the war. Some 1500 ‘absolutists’ were locked up for the whole of the war. Few people in the public had much sympathy for conscientious objectors who were imprisoned. They were derided in the press and campaigns for peace were sometimes violently opposed by people.