Conscientious Objectors (COs):
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Who were the Conscientious Objectors?

These were people who simply did not want to fight in WWI; they became known as 'conscies' or C.O's and they were a sign that not everybody was as enthusiastic about the war as the government would have liked; battles such as Ypres and the Somme had cost Britain a vast number of casualties and by 1916 the British Army had lost 528,227 soldiers, who had been killed, wounded or were missing presumed dead and volunteers to 'Kitchener's Army' had dried up.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener & Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was one of the few men to foresee a long war, one in which Britain's victory was far from secure, he organised the largest volunteer army that Britain and indeed the Empire, had seen and a significant expansion of materials production to fight Germany on the Western Front; his commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding "Your country needs you!", remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day; he died in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine.

In response to the lack of volunteers, the government introduced conscription through the Military Service Act in 1916, where the law stated that you had to serve your country in the military for a certain period of time; this was soon nicknamed the "Batchelor's Bill" as to start with conscription only included unmarried men aged between 18 and 41, but it was widened in May 1916 to include married men as well and by April 1918, it had been expanded to include men up to age 51.


A 'conscience clause' was added to the Act, whereby those who had a "conscientious objection to bearing arms" were freed from military service; there were several types of conscientious objector; some were pacifists who were against war in general; some were political objectors who did not consider the government of Germany to be their enemy and some were religious objectors who believed that war and fighting was against their religion, such as Quakers and Jehovah Witnesses.

Some conscientious objectors did not want to fight but were keen to 'do their bit'; these people were willing to help in weapons factories and some went to the trenches to become stretcher bearers, etc, though not to fight; other C.O's, known as 'absolutists', refused to do anything that involved the war.

The whole issue of conscription was a thorny issue even in the army; the British Army commander in South Africa , Lord Roberts, wrote "Compulsory service is, I believe, as distasteful to the nation as it is incompatible with the conditions of an Army like ours, which has such a large proportion of its units on foreign service. I hold moreover, that the man who voluntarily serves his country is more to be relied upon as a good fighting soldier than is he who is compelled to bear arms."

Those who claimed to be conscientious objectors had to face a tribunal to argue their case as to why they should not be called up to join the army; however, even this clause was not enough for some who wanted the act withdrawn in full; the No-Conscription Fellowship was founded as early as 1914 and it produced the following leaflet: Repeal the Act.

The No-Conscription Fellowship was an organisation made up by members of the Socialist Independent Labour Party and the Quakers; the men who signed the above leaflet were Clifford Allen, Edward Grubb, A Fenner Brockway, W J Chamberlain, W H Ayles, Morgan Jones, A Barratt Brown, John Fletcher, C H Norman and Rev. Leyton Richards; all of them were charged under the Defence of the Realm Act and they were all fined; those who decided not to pay the fine were sent to prison.



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