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Conscientious Objector

Conscientious Objector

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Walter Griffin, a conscientious objector during the First World War, recalls one experience of standing up to his military superior due to his beliefs.

I was up against a sergeant major, a brute. He sort of tried to bully me in that way. He came right up to me and tried to shout as hard as he could to me, right within a yard or two. And I looked him straight in the eye and told him, I said, ‘I respectfully refuse to obey your orders,’ and he went barmy. Absolutely barmy.1

Conscientious objectors were often vilified and shamed for refusing to fight during the two world wars. Many were imprisoned for resisting military authority, like Walter Griffin. For this reason, conscientious objection has been regarded as within the category of crime and punishment rather than warfare. Let's take a closer look at who the conscientious objectors were and what happened to them.

Conscientious Objector Photo of conscientious objectors in Scotland 1916 StudySmarterFig. 1 A photograph of conscientious objectors in Scotland, taken in 1916 when conscription was introduced in the First World War.

Conscientious Objector Meaning

The history of conscientious objectors goes back to Roman times when a young man named Maximilianus refused to become a soldier in the Roman army due to his Christian beliefs. As a result, the Roman authorities executed him. The Church later recognised Maximilianus as a martyr and a saint.

Conscientious objector

Someone who refuses to serve in the military on the grounds of conscience, religion, or freedom of thought.

Martyr

Someone who is killed because of their religious beliefs. Church institutions often view Christian martyrs as particularly holy individuals.

Although conscientious objectors were much less likely than Maximilianus in later centuries to be executed for their beliefs, they were still often ostracised, criticised, and sometimes punished for refusing to serve their countries as soldiers.

Quakers and Conscientious Objectors

The Quakers are a denomination in Protestant Christianity known as the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers opposed slavery, practised teetotalism, dressed plainly, and refused to participate in military service. They were well-known for being committed to pacifism from the industrial era onwards. In 1757, a clause in the Militia Ballot Act enabled Quakers to be exempt from military service.

Pacifism

The belief that any sort of violence, including war, is unjustifiable and that all disputes should be resolved using peaceful means.

Teetotalism

The practice of refusing to drink alcohol.

During the two world wars, many Quakers were conscientious objectors. Some served in ambulance units on the front, and others were conscripted into the Non-Combatants Corps, where they carried out work such as building, cleaning, and loading heavy items.

Conscientious Objectors WW1

In 1916, Britain introduced conscription through the Military Service Act. This made military service compulsory for the vast majority of men in Britain. The Military Service Act included a clause that enabled people to argue at a tribunal that they were exempt from fighting on the grounds of conscientious objection. Between 16,000 and 20,000 men applied for a tribunal to become Conscientious Objectors.

Conscription

A law that states that if someone is legally able to fight, they must complete military service for their country.

However, the tribunals were rigged against the men applying to become conscientious objectors. The vast majority had their cases refused. These men were conscripted into the army despite their wishes. Once this occurred, there were generally three routes that a conscientious objector's life could take:

RouteExplanation
1. Non-Combatant CorpsAbout 10,000 men who were refused exemption from military service were put into Non-Combatant Corps (NCC). Members of the NCC carried out manual labour for the army but never handled munitions.
2. Medical Staff Others became medical staff on the front line, carrying wounded soldiers to safety and treating them. Many Quakers joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit.
3. Imprisonment Approximately 6000 'absolutists' refused to obey any military order. They were sent to prison for resisting military authority.

Conscientious objectors were generally vilified or ridiculed both on the fighting front and at home. Soon, they received a derogatory nickname - 'conchie'. Sometimes, conscientious objectors were perceived as the enemy or cowards shirking their duty.

Gender Norms

One of the accusations facing conscientious objectors was that they were not 'manly' enough to do their duty. In propaganda posters and public discourse, conscientious objectors were often portrayed as 'sissies' and 'pansies' to reinforce the idea that they were not real men. Sometimes, they were even depicted wearing aprons and carrying out women's chores, such as sweeping.

This highlights how the history of gender is very closely linked with the history of warfare. Conscientious objectors were resisting the dominant cultural image of a stereotypical man. In doing so, they challenged the nature of masculinity.

WWII Conscientious Objector

By the time of the Second World War, conscientious objection was no longer vilified in quite the extreme manner it had been during the First World War. Four times as many men applied for conscientious objection during the Second World War - a total of 67,000. This helped to normalise conscientious objection.

Conscientious Objector Photo of tribunal for conscientious objectors during the Second World War StudySmarterFig. 2 A tribunal for conscientious objectors during the Second World War. Conscientious Objection was much less vilified during this world war than the in first.

Many men who applied for conscientious objection during the Second World War served in non-combatant roles on the Home Front. Many of them were respected for their work in Britain, meaning that many conscientious objectors were seen as contributing something significant to the war effort.

Furthermore, the media was much less hostile to conscientious objectors than it had been during the First World War.

However, a conscientious objector's life wasn't always easy during the Second World War. Approximately 3,000 conscientious objectors were imprisoned, and many others still faced hostility from soldiers and members of the public for their pacifist stance.

Sometimes, conscientious objectors in the Second World War were accused of being Nazis or cowards.

Conscientious Objector Punishment

During World War One, 6,000 conscientious objectors were sentenced to prison for resisting military authority. Life in these prisons was so harsh that many men developed severe physical and mental illnesses, and at least 70 men died due to their mistreatment.

Conscientious Objector Photo of gravestone of an imprisoned conscientious objector StudySmarterFig. 3 Gravestone of conscientious objector Walter Bone, who served in the Non-Combatant Corps. He had been imprisoned several times and died in Winchester Prison after catching Spanish flu.

Conscientious objectors were confined in solitary cells, and a strict rule of silence was enforced in the prisons. This had severe psychological repercussions for many of the men.

Furthermore, many of the men were not given adequate food and drink, especially those who were vegetarian. Some guards physically abused conscientious objectors, and others were exposed to harsh manual labour without medical attention.

Imprisonment of Conscientious Objectors

Conscientious objector Mark Hayler was at Dartmoor Prison. 1,000 conscientious objectors were sent there during the First World War. It was known to be a better prison than many others. Nevertheless, the conditions could still be too rough for some inmates. He remembers one incident recorded in a podcast by the Imperial War Museum:

At Dartmoor we had a young fellow who died in Dartmoor. As I was working in the hospital at the time I attended him. I was a sort of orderly, you know. He was a Yorkshire boy, he was only a boy really, a chap under 21, and he was a local preacher with the Methodists up there. He had pneumonia. He’d been badly treated at Dartmoor. He should never have been sent out on the moor in the weather because he was liable to… he should have had an indoor job. The whole of the men attended the funeral. They followed behind the coffin down to the railway station and it was put on the little train at Princetown and taken down to Plymouth. And I remember those nearly a thousand men sang a hymn, Abide With Me, I think it was or one of the hymns. Yes I think it was that. A sort of farewell.2

Conscientious Objector UK

The history of conscientious objectors often focuses on men and the past. This section broadens that understanding to think about women who were conscientious objectors in the UK and the way that conscientious objectors are remembered in the UK during the present.

Women and Conscientious Objection

Women were also conscripted into national military service for the first time in the UK's history during the Second World War. Most conscripted women were not sent to the fighting front but were ordered into industrial conscription, such as working in munitions factories.

1,000 of these women went through a tribunal to be exempted from this service on the grounds of conscientious objection.

However, the history of these women is only just starting to be uncovered now. Historian Rena Feld has interviewed several women about their experiences of conscientious objection in the Second World War. She records one observation by a woman who explained the isolation caused by being a conscientious objector in a society that supported war.

It's not easy to be a pacifist, and in wartime it's very, very difficult, it's much more difficult than supporting a war. If you're supporting war, nearly everybody else is supporting it and you get this so-called comradeship, but to be a pacifist it's very difficult.3

Remembering the Past

Historian Ann Kramer remarks on how the UK remembers conscientious objectors from the First World War. Writing at the time of the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, she observes,

...much of the attention is focused on the young men who died in the trenches...but very little attention is usually paid to those men who, in the face of enormous pressure, had the courage to stand by their principles and refuse to fight.4

Rena Feld also remarks on the difficulties of remembering conscientious objection in the Second World War. Most people agree that Hitler needed to be stopped, so it is much easier to see the Second World War as a 'good' war compared to the First World War, which is often seen as a tragedy and pointless waste of life. As someone with a Jewish background, she often found it challenging listening to people who opposed fighting Hitler, and at times remarked that it caused her 'anguish' hearing her interviewees' perspectives.5 This contrasts with Ann Kramer's portrayal of the male conscientious objectors in the First World War as victims of injustice and heroes who didn't give up in the face of brutal mistreatment.

These two contrasting perspectives above illustrate how the history of conscientious objectors continues to occupy a complex mental space within the UK's remembrance of the world wars.

Conscientious Objectors in the World Wars - Key takeaways

  • Conscientious Objectors are individuals who refuse to serve their country in military service based on their religion, conscience, or other beliefs.
  • 16,000 men attempted to become conscientious objectors in the First World War. Of these, most were denied the right to be conscientious objectors.
  • 67,000 men and 1,000 women attempted to become conscientious objectors in the Second World War.
  • 6,000 men in the First World War and 3,000 men in the Second World War were imprisoned for their beliefs.
  • Many conscientious objectors were vilified in the media during the First World War. However, attitudes relaxed slightly by the Second World War.

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References

  1. Walter Griffin in Imperial War Museum, 'Voices of the First World War', Podcast, (https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-conscientious-objection), accessed 16/09/2022.
  2. Mark Hayler, in Imperial War Museum, 'Voices of the First World War', Podcast, (https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-conscientious-objection), accessed 16/09/2022.
  3. Rena Feld, 'From the Interviewers' Perspective: Interviewing Women Conscientious Objectors', Oral History, (31), (2003), p.36.
  4. Ann Kramer, Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance, (2015), p.2.
  5. Rena Feld, 'From the Interviewers' Perspective: Interviewing Women Conscientious Objectors', Oral History, (31), (2003), p.33.
  6. Fig. 3 - Gravestone of Conscientious Objector Walter Bone, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bone_(Walter)_CWGC_gravestone,_Flaybrick_Memorial_Gardens.jpg), created by Rodhullandemu and Phil Nash, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Rodhullandemu), licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0, (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en_GB).

Frequently Asked Questions about Conscientious Objector

All individuals applying for conscientious objection had to go through a tribunal. Most of these were denied the right to conscientious objection and were conscripted into the army anyway. Some conscientious objectors were imprisoned for resisting military authority. Others served in medical units, or in non-combatant roles on the home front or on the fighting front.

The first type was non-combatants. These were men who would join the army on the condition that they did not use or handle weapons. The second type was alternativists. These were men who would perform alternative work, such as medical care for soldiers. Finally, there were absolutists, who refused to engage in the war in any way, shape or form.

There weren't many famous conscientious objectors in the world wars. Most of the men who were conscientious objectors were ordinary, working individuals. Many of them were confined to historical obscurity until recent years when there has begun to be more interest in the history of conscientious objection. 

The Quakers were some of the first conscientious objectors in the World Wars. They had long been opposed to war, and had even been exempted from military service in the Militia Ballot Act of 1757. 

In the First World War there were 16,000 to 20,000 conscientious objectors. Of these, 6000 were absolutists and were imprisoned. In the Second World War, 67,000 men and 1000 women were conscientious objectors. 3000 of these were imprisoned. 

Final Conscientious Objector Quiz

Question

What is a conscientious objector?  

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Answer

Someone who refuses to serve in the military on the conscience, religion or freedom of thought.

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Question

Who was the first conscientious objector?

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Answer

Maximilianus

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Question

Which Protestant denomination was well known for being committed to pacifism? 

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Answer

The Quakers/The Religious Society of Friends

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Question

What is pacifism? 

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Answer

The belief that any sort of violence, including war, is unjustifiable and that all disputes should be resolved using peaceful means.

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What is conscription? 

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Answer

A law that states that if someone is legally able to fight, they must complete military service for their country.

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When was conscription first introduced in Britain?

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Answer

1916

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How many men applied to be a conscientious objector during WW1?

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Answer

Between 16,000 and 20,000

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What was the Non Combatant Corps?

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Answer

A military division that did manual labour for the army but never handled munitions.

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How many men were forced to serve in the Non-Combatant Corps?

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10,000

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How many conscientious objectors in the First World War were imprisoned?

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Answer

6000

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What was the derogatory name for a conscientious objector?

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Answer

Conchie

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How many men applied for conscientious objection in the Second World War?

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Answer

67,000

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How many conscientious objectors were imprisoned during the Second World War?

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Answer

3000

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How many women applied for conscientious objection in the Second World War?

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Answer

1000

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Question

What did conscientious objectors have to go through in order to try and prove their case? 

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Answer

A tribunal

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