No-Conscription Fellowship

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."

A photograph taken in January 1917. Left to right: A prison wardress,Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alice Wheeldon.
A photograph taken in January 1917. Left to right: A prison wardress,
Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alice Wheeldon.

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Bertrand Russell was a pacifist who campaigned against the war. On 15th August, 1914, he sent a letter to the magazine The Nation.

A month ago Europe was a peaceful group of nations: if an Englishman killed a German, he was hanged. Now, if an Englishman kills a German, or if a German kills an Englishman, he is a patriot. We scan the newspapers with greedy eyes for news of slaughter, and rejoice when we read of innocent young men, blindly obedient to the world of command, mown down in thousands by the machine-gun of Liege. Those who saw the London crowds, during the nights leading up to the Declaration of War saw a whole population, hitherto peaceable and humane, precipitated in a few days days down the steep slope to primitive barbarism, letting loose, in a moment, the instincts of hatred and blood lust against which the whole fabric of society has been raised.

(2) Clifford Allen was the founder of the No-Conscription Fellowship. He was conscripted in 1916 but when he refused to serve he was sent to prison. While in prison Allen developed tuberculosis of the spine. Allen made the following statement at his Military Tribunal in 1916.

We are all young men, and life is a precious thing to such men. We cherish life because of the opportunities for adventure and achievement which it offers to a man who is young. They say our country is in danger. Of course it is, but whose fault is that? It will be in danger in fifty years time, if our rulers know they can always win our support by hoisting danger signals. They will never heed our condemnation of their foreign policy if they can always depend upon our support in time of war. There is one interference with individual judgement that no state in the world has any sanction to enforce - that is, to tamper with the unfettered free right of everyman to decide for himself the issue of life and death.

(3) Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980)

The No-Conscription Fellowship (N.C.F.) was founded in November 1914 by a young Labour Leader journalist, Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), initially at the prompting of his wife, Lilla, to mobilize men of military age against conscription. The members of its National Committee were mostly young, middle-class I.L.P. socialists such as Clifford Allen (1889-1939), its Chairman, who, like Brockway, worked for the socialist press, and Morgan Jones (1885-1939) and J. H. (Jimmy) Hudson (1881-1962), both schoolteachers. Only a few came from outside the ranks of socialist activists: the Revd Leyton Richards (1879-1948), for example, a Congregationalist who had already, unlike most British pacifists, found himself in conscientious disagreement with conscription in the form of the compulsory military training introduced in Australia in 1910, shortly before he came there to spend three years as minister of a Melbourne chapel and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a Whiggish individualist who had espoused 'pacifism' during the Boer War but did not join the I.L.P. until 1915 and even then insisted that he was not a socialist... Its moment of ostensible failure, the introduction of conscription in 1916, was to prove its finest hour: 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. 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, sincerely "conscientious" or otherwise, had reduced it to a demoralized state by the last year of the war.

(4) Fenner Brockway was sent to prison in 1916 for refusing to be conscripted. He was one of the most popular speakers at public meetings organised by pacifists during the First World War.

Every individual gives loyalty to something which counts more than anything else in life. In most men and women this supreme allegiance is inspired by national patriotism; if their Government becomes involved in a war it is a matter of course they will support it. The socialist conscientious objector has a group loyalty which is as powerful to him as the loyalty of the patriot for his nation. His group is composed of workers of all lands, the dispossessed, the victims of the present economic system, whether in peace or war.

(5) Arnold Ridley, The Train and Other Ghosts (1970c)

I knew one man who was very badly treated as a Conscientious Objector because he wouldn't submit to a medical examination. Had he submitted, he would have been grade 99 and they would never have had him. He was half-blind and weedy but he just wouldn't on principle.

(6) Helena Swanwick worked for the Women's International League during the First World War.

Sex before marriage was the natural female complement to the male frenzy of killing. If millions of men were to be killed in early manhood, or even boyhood, it behooved every young woman to secure a mate and replenish the population while there was yet time.

(7) Alfred Salter, Bermondsey ILP Monthly Messenger (December, 1919)

For a while it seemed as if the whole fabric of our organisation so laboriously built up in the past years, was doomed to go under. We were the most unpopular section in the borough. Our individual members were the most hated and vilified of all people in South London. On several occasions our building was only saved from destruction by a miracle. Once when Mrs. Despard and some sixty women were holding a peace service in our hall, 200 Canadian soldiers from Blackheath marched up the Old Kent Road to burn down the Institute and assault its occupants. They were diverted by the police, and directed down East Street to the J Browning Hall Settlement in Walworth. On another occasion a murderous gang on its way to smash our windows was barred and broken up on Greyhound Bridge. Our public propaganda was almost brought to a standstill; repeated attempts were made to upset our meetings and to refuse a hearing to any of our speakers. Very few people will ever know the extraordinary difficulty we had in keeping going during this terrible period of the first two-and-a-half years of the war.

(8) John Jackson, History Today (May, 2007)

Very heavy casualties in the first weeks of the war had made it clear that compulsory military service was likely. In 1915 the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was set up. The fellowship contained many pacifists, particularly Quakers, who campaigned successfully for a conscience clause to be included in the conscription legislation of 1916. Conscientious objectors seeking exemption from military service were required to attend a tribunal to have their claim assessed. Each tribunal contained a military representative with the right to cross examine applicants to establish their sincerity. Those who could persuade the tribunal of their belief that any form of support for war was morally wrong could obtain complete exemption. Those who were prepared to do civilian work which would release others for war service could be exempted provided they did that work. And those who were prepared to be non-combatants working under military direction but not required to use weapons could be put on the military register on that basis.

The tribunals were, in general, composed of members, some of them women with sons or husbands in active service, who had little sympathy with conscientious objection. At their hearings, applicants were frequently subjected to abuse from the public galleries. Famously, Lytton Strachey was one such to be abused. Very few obtained exemption, either conditional or complete. Most were either classified as non-combatants and were drafted into the Non-Combatant Corps, the NCC (or No Courage Corps as the press dubbed it), or were rejected completely. The discipline in the NCC imposed by the soldiers in charge of the units was harsh and refusal to undertake a task or, particularly, to wear a uniform resulted in charge, court martial and imprisonment in foul conditions. Before long there were numerous conscientious objectors on the run, some of them escapees from what were effectively prison camps. Many of them went underground and were aided by networks composed largely of NCF members, suffragettes, feminist and other socialists, Sinn Feiners, left-wing shop stewards and IWW seamen.

Despite the ordinariness of their daily occupations, Alice Wheeldon and her two elder daughters were active politically: this they saw as part of their civic duty. Alice's husband, William, fourteen years her senior and a drunkard prone to violence, would have none of that and her youngest daughter Nellie, developing political awareness, concentrated on helping her mother in the shop. The three activists were members of the NCF and the Socialist Labour Party, long term militant suffragettes (members of the Women's Social and Political Union), pacifists and feminist socialists. Hettie Wheeldon, also a rationalist, believed in free love and a woman's right to birth control whether by contraception or abortion. Like many suffragettes she was, with some justification, suspicious of marriage which she saw as an institution devised by men to enshrine their right to own and dominate women. This did not deter her from becoming engaged to the deportee shop steward Arthur MacManus whom she met either while he was helping to stir things up in Sheffield or when he was on a fraternal visit to munitions workers in Derby.

MacManus, following his removal from Glasgow, had secured a job with the Cunard shipping line in Liverpool and by the end of 1916 was helping to smuggle deserters and conscientious objectors across the Atlantic, sometimes by way of Ireland where his former friendship with Connolly (who, dying of his wounds and strapped in a chair, had been executed by firing squad in Dublin in April 1916 for his role in the Easter uprising) ensured he had helpful contacts. Alice's only son William was a pacifist and devout socialist and, denied exemption by the tribunal which heard his application, was in hiding waiting for help to leave the country from Hettie's fiancee. Her sister Winnie's husband, Arthur Mason, the chemist, was also a pacifist and socialist and was expecting that, although he was a lecturer, his application for exemption would be similarly rejected. Given their backgrounds and NCF connections it is not surprising that the Wheeldon family was actively engaged in helping escapee conscientious objectors, an unlawful activity, and had been of interest to the authorities for some time.

(9) George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)

One fine evening two military policemen appeared with a handcuffed prisoner, and, in full view of the crowd and villagers, tied him to the wheel of a limber, cruciform fashion. The poor devil, a British Tommy, was undergoing Field Punishment Number One, and this public exposure was part of the punishment. There was a dramatic silence as every eye watched the man being fastened to the wheel, and some jeering started. Lashing men to a wheel in public was one of the most disgraceful things in the war. Troops resented these exhibitions, but they continued until 1917, when the War Minister put a stop to them, following protests in Parliament.

I believe that an important modification of the death sentence also took place in 1917. It appeared that the military authorities were compelled to take heed of the clamour against the death sentences imposed by courts martial. There had been too many of them. As a result, a man who would otherwise have been executed was instead compelled to take part in the fore-front of the first available raid or assault on the enemy. He was purposely placed in the first wave to cross No Man's Land and it was left to the Almighty to decide his fate. This was the situation as we Tommies understood it, but nothing official reached our ears. Let the War Office dig out its musty files and tell us how many men were treated in this way, and how many survived the cruel sentences. Shylock, in demanding his pound of flesh, had got nothing on the military bigwigs in 1917.

(10) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

My own view - as of the Independent Labour Party with which I was associated - remained one of opposition to the war, and there were a number of Liberals who shared this view in general. There would be no point in denying the considerable public enthusiasm for hostilities. The overwhelming majority of the people supported the Liberal Government in its declaration of war after Germany's invasion of Belgium. Every possible influence was brought to bear to create that attitude. The Conservatives were for the war. All the newspapers were in support, and there was no difficulty in whipping up public opinion to near fever pitch.

I remember an open-air I.L.P. meeting I addressed on Hampstead Heath one Sunday morning. I had given my audience our views as to the cause of the war, and expressed the conviction that the involvement of Britain in it had been wrong. My audience was very hostile. I spoke amid a great deal of violent and angry heckling. Ultimately I was dragged off the platform and taken by force to the nearby pond. There was some dispute at the edge of the pond, however, when the police intervened, and although my pince-nez glasses were flung into the water, I was not. This was a common experience among the anti-war speakers, except that some of them did get a ducking.

(11) C. E. M. Joad, Under the Fifth Rib (1932)

I had always regarded war as criminal, but believing war among civilized nations to be practically impossible, had never given the subject much thought. I was not alone in this belief, which most of the intellectuals of my generation shared. When the war came, I never for a moment thought of it as other than a gigantic piece of criminal folly; the nation, I considered, had simply gone mad, and it was incumbent upon a wise man to stay quiet until the fit had passed.

Never for a moment did it occur to me that it was my duty to participate in the madness by learning to fight. On the contrary, I thought that I ought to do whatever I could to avoid being implicated. I was, therefore, a potential conscientious objector from the first, my objection being based not on religious grounds but on a natural reluctance on the part of a would-be rational and intelligent individual to participate in an orgy of public madness. So far as concerned any moral obligation I conceived myself to have in the matter, I thought it my duty to try and stop the war by any means in my power. I did, in fact, write a number of violent anti-war articles in Pacifist papers and took part in Pacifist meetings which were almost invariably broken up by persons who believed themselves to be fighting, among other things, for free speech. I emphasize this attitude of mine not because I am particularly proud of it, but because it may help to render intelligible my astonishment that it was adopted by so few of my fellow intellectuals, who disbelieving like myself in the possibility of war until it came, condemning it as an outrage on civilization when it did come, nevertheless with very few exceptions either went out to kill themselves, or more frequently hounded on young men to do their killing for them?

(12) Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980)

As a leading socialist absolutist, Clifford Allen, informed his Tribunal in March 1916: "I am a Socialist, and so hold in all sincerity that the life and personality of every man is sacred, and that there is something of divinity in every human being, irrespective of the nation to which he belongs." Like the N.C.F.'s credo, this declaration defined a position which was undoubtedly both pacifist and political: it revealed that even when inspired by political values true pacifism springs from a`moral' imperative rather than from "political" expediency.

Indeed, once Allen and his fellow absolutists found themselves in prison they became more than ever convinced of the difference between pacifism, rooted in the individual's conscientious adherence to what he knew to be right, and the strategy of war-resistance which, however justified in political terms, was itself a form of coercion. By May 1917, after a year in gaol, Allen had come to realise that even by sewing mailbags he was releasing labour for the war-effort and decided to cease all co-operation with the prison authorities; yet he refused to urge others to do likewise as part of an organized campaign, since he believed that such a decision could arise only out of "profound conviction". From this perspective an organized campaign against war could itself be regarded as riding roughshod over the individual conscience in the same way, albeit not to the same degree, as conscription.

(13) C. E. M. Joad, Under the Fifth Rib (1932)

The Great War of 1914-18, breaking out as it did when I had just reached manhood, has played so large a part in forming my views of human nature and of human society, it has contributed so largely to the formation of my deepest political convictions, that I feel I must say something of the considerations which have made me an uncompromising Pacifist. I believe that war is the greatest evil that afflicts mankind; I believe that the next war will destroy our civilization, and I believe that nothing but the refusal of a sufficient number of human beings to fight, whatever the circumstances may be, can prevent it. These beliefs I hold with considerable emotional intensity; in fact, I feel so much more strongly about them than about any others, that the whole of my attitude to politics is coloured by them. I must try, then, to say in some little detail why I hold them. I propose to consider first the various arguments of those who hold that war, although always regrettable, is sometimes necessary, who hold even that the necessity may sometimes do good, in the light of my own experience of the Great War....

It is sometimes argued that circumstances arise in which war is the course which religion dictates. So far is this from being the case, that war violates every principle of the religion in which Western civilization professes to believe. During the last war this became so obvious that every effort was made to suppress the teaching of Christ and to prevent it from being known. Persons who drew attention to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount were persecuted, while conscientious objectors who endeavoured to act in accordance with them were abused, imprisoned, placed in solitary confinement and tortured. The record of what was done to conscientious objectors during the war does not make pleasant reading. Meanwhile the Christian religion remained, as it had always been, the official religion of all the belligerent countries, the assistance of the Almighty was simultaneously invoked by all the combatants, and atheists were looked upon with disfavour as being likely to cause Him offence.