When the First World War was declared two pacifists, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) has pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"
The group received support from public figures such as Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, C. E. M. Joad, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Duncan Grant, Wilfred Wellock, Herbert Morrison, Maude Royden, and Rev. John Clifford. Other members included Eva Gore-Booth, Esther Roper, Catherine Marshall, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson, Ada Salter, and Max Plowman.
Over 3,000,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces during the first two years of the war. Due to heavy losses at the Western Front the government decided to introduce conscription (compulsory enrollment) by passing the Military Service Act. At first only single men were called up but by 1918 married men of fifty were being conscripted into the army.
After the passing of the Military Service Act, the No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. About 16,000 men refused to fight. Most of these men were pacifists, who believed that even during wartime it was wrong to kill another human being.
Alfred Salter formed a Bermondsey branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship. After making several anti-war speeches the local newspaper asked: "Is Dr. Salter Pro-German?" Several of his patients sent letters to the newspaper defending their doctor. One wrote: "When my father and I were both so ill that we thought there was no hope for either of us. Dr. Salter attended us night and day, although he knew his chances of being paid were very small. There are many other poor people in Bermondsey who have cause to be grateful to him." This general affection for the doctor among the people led local editors and political opponents to refrain from the viciousness which they voiced towards other opponents of the war.. As the author of Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (1949) pointed out: "The truth was that the main feeling in Bermondsey was respect for Salter as a man and a doctor rather than as a pacifist... This general affection for the doctor among the people led local editors and political opponents to refrain from the viciousness which they voiced towards other opponents of the war."
By July 1916, nineteen members of the Bermondsey ILP were in prison as conscientious objectors. Others agreed to work as farm labourers. This included Herbert Morrison, who became a land worker at Norton, near Letchworth. When he was asked by the Wandsworth Tribunal if he belonged to any religious denomination, he replied, "I belong to the ILP and Socialism is my religion."
Later that year Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen were arrested for distributing a leaflet criticizing the introduction of conscription. When they refused to pay their fines, they were sentenced to two months in Pentonville Prison. Soon after being released, Brockway was re-arrested under the Military Service Act. As if he were a traitor, Brockway was held for one night in the Tower of London. He was later transferred to a dungeon at Chester Castle and finally served his sentence in Walton Prison in Liverpool. Brockway continued to write, and after meeting a soldier imprisoned for desertion, wrote an account of the Battle of Passchendaele. The article was discovered and Brockway was sentenced to six days on bread and water.
C. H. Norman, the treasurer of the Stop the War Committee and a member of the National Committee of the No-Conscription Fellowship, was arrested and on 27th June 1916, The Times reported that Norman had been confined to a straightjacket and was being forced-fed through a nasal tube. Norman was transferred to a detention centre in Dartmoor. On 8th February 1917 Norman was back in court charged with persuading other conscientious objectors detained at Dartmoor from carrying out their work. Found guilty of organizing a strike he was sentenced to a year with hard labour.
Martin Ceadel has argued that after the introduction of conscription the No-Conscription Fellowship changed " from being a small propaganda body it became a substantial movement - though never as substantial as implied by its grossly exaggerated boast of 15,000 members in the summer of 1916 - and the acknowledged voice of the whole conscientious objection movement."
Alfred Salter visited members of the No-Conscription Fellowship in prison. This included Isaac Hall, the grandchild of a slave on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, who was sent to Pentonville Prison: "I was horrified at the spectacle of a living skeleton-a gaunt, bent, starved, broken man, a coal-black man with ashen lips and sunken eyes. But he was broken only in body; his soul land spirit were as resolute as ever. One of the warders told me that Isaac Hall was the bravest man he had ever met." Salter took up Hall's case and after successfully obtaining his release he took him home to Storks Road where "he was sheltered for nine months until a passage back to the West Indies could be secured."
Alice Wheeldon, Willie Paul, John S. Clarke and Arthur McManus, established a No-Conscription Fellowship network in Derby to help those conscientious objectors on the run or in jail. This included her son, William Wheeldon, who was secretly living with his sister, Winnie Mason, in Southampton. On 27th December 1916, Alex Gordon arrived at Alice's house claiming to be a conscientious objectors on the run from the police. Alice arranged for him to spend the night at the home of Lydia Robinson. a couple of days later Gordon returned to Alice's home with Herbert Booth, another man who he said was a member of the anti-war movement. In fact, both Gordon and Booth were undercover agents working for MI5 via the Ministry of Munitions. According to Alice, Gordon and Booth both told her that dogs now guarded the camps in which conscientious objectors were held; and that they had suggested to her that poison would be necessary to eliminate the animals, in order that the men could escape.
Alice Wheeldon agreed to ask her son-in-law, Alfred Mason, who was a chemist in Southampton, to obtain the poison, as long as Alex Gordon helped her with her plan to get her son to the United States: "Being a businesswoman I made a bargain with him (Gordon) that if I could assist him in getting his friends from a concentration camp by getting rid of the dogs, he would, in his turn, see to the three boys, my son, Mason and a young man named MacDonald, whom I have kept, get away."
On 31st January 1917, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason were arrested and charged with plotting to murder the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labour Party. At Alice's home they found Alexander Macdonald of the Sherwood Foresters who had been absent without leave since December 1916. When arrested Alice claimed: "I think it is a such a trumped-up charge to punish me for my lad being a conscientious objector... you punished him through me while you had him in prison... you brought up an unfounded charge that he went to prison for and now he has gone out of the way you think you will punish him through me and you will do it."
Sir Frederick Smith, the Attorney-General, was appointed as prosecutor of Alice Wheeldon. Smith, the MP for Liverpool Walton, had previously been in charge of the government's War Office Press Bureau, which had been responsible for newspaper censorship and the pro-war propaganda campaign.
The case was tried at the Old Bailey instead of in Derby. According to friends of the accused, the change of venue took advantage of the recent Zeppelin attacks on London. As Nicola Rippon pointed out in her book, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009): "It made for a prospective jury that was likely to be both frightened of the enemy and sound in their determination to win the war."
The trial began on 6th March 1917. Alice Wheeldon selected Saiyid Haidan Riza as her defence counsel. He had only recently qualified as a lawyer and it would seem that he was chosen because of his involvement in the socialist movement.
In his opening statement Sir Frederick Smith argued that the "Wheeldon women were in the habit of employing, habitually, language which would be disgusting and obscene in the mouth of the lowest class of criminal." He went on to claim that the main evidence against the defendants was from the testimony of the two undercover agents. However, it was disclosed that Alex Gordon would not be appearing in court to give his evidence. Basil Thomson, the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, argued in his book, The Story of Scotland Yard (1935) that Gordon was an agent who "was a person with a criminal history, or he had invented the whole story to get money and credit from his employer."
The judge disagreed with the objection to the use of secret agents. "Without them it would be impossible to detect crimes of this kind." However, he admitted that if the jury did not believe the evidence of Herbert Booth, then the case "to a large extent fails". Apparently, the jury did believe the testimony of Booth and after less than half-an-hour of deliberation, they found Alice Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason guilty of conspiracy to murder. Alice was sentenced to ten years in prison. Alfred got seven years whereas Winnie received "five years' penal servitude."
About 7,000 pacifists agreed to perform non-combat service. This usually involved working as stretcher-bearers in the front-line, an occupation that had a very high casualty-rate. Over 1,500 men refused all compulsory service. These men were called absolutists and were usually drafted into military units and if they refused to obey the order of an officer, they were court-martialled.