Pacifism is a belief that violence, even in self-defence, is unjustifiable under any conditions and that negotiation is preferable to war as a means of solving disputes. In the First World War pacifists became known as conscientious objectors. Some pacifists refused to fight but about 7,000 were willing to help the country by working in non-combat roles such as medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers. This included Kingsley Martin, Stanley Spencer, E. M. Forster, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Christopher Nevinson.
Some pacifists, known as absolute conscientious objectors, rejected any involvement in the war. People who fell into this category included Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway, Bertrand Russell, and E. D. Morel. Some absolutists such as Allen and Brockway formed the pressure group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF).
The No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. By the end of the war, 16,000 appeared before Military Service Tribunals. Over 4,500 went sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 6,000 were handed over to the army, and then sentenced to severe penalties for disobeying orders. These included 35 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), and many others who spent up to three years in prison on repeated sentences. Conditions were very hard for conscientious objectors, and ten of them died in prison; more than sixty died afterwards as a result of the way they had been treated. A plaque to commemorate them hangs in the offices of the pacifist organisation the Peace Pledge Union.
After the passing of the Military Service Act in 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. By the end of the war, 8,608 appeared before Military Tribunals. Over 4,500 went sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 528 were sentenced to severe penalties. This included 17 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), 142 to life imprisonment, three to 50 years' imprisonment, four to 40 years and 57 to 25 years. Conditions were made very hard for the conscientious objectors and sixty-nine of them died in prison.
In April 1939 Neville Chamberlain announced a return to conscription. However, lessons had been learned from the First World War. Tribunals were set up to deal with claims for exemption on conscience grounds, but this time there were no military representatives acting as prosecutors. Most importantly, this time the Tribunals were willing to grant absolute exemption. Over the next six years a total of 59,192 people in Britain registered as Conscientious Objectors (COs).
In 1940, with the British government expecting a German invasion at any time, public opinion turned against Conscientious Objectors. Over 70 city councils dismissed COs who were working for them. In some places of employment workers refused to work alongside COs. In other cases, employers sacked all those registered as pacifists.
During the Vietnam War the United States had to introduce conscription and between 1963 and 1973 over 9,000 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the US Army. Some young men burnt their draft cards in public while others left the country rather than serve in the war.