Conscientious Objectors

On 27th April 1939, Parliament passed the Military Training Act. This act introduced conscription for men aged 20 and 21 who were now required to undertake six months' military training. However, lessons had been learned from the First World War. Conscientious Objection Tribunals were set up to deal with claims for exemption, but this time there were no military representatives acting as prosecutors. Most importantly, 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).

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Parliament passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, under which all men between 18 and 41 were made liable for conscription. The registration of all men in each age group in turn began on 21st October for those aged 20 to 23. By May 1940, registration had extended only as far as men aged 27 and did not reach those aged 40 until June 1941.

In 1940, with the British government expecting a German invasion at any time, public opinion turned against Conscientious Objectors. Over 70 local 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.

On 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. Later this was extended to married women, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt from this work.

Provision was made in the legislation for people to object to military service on moral grounds. Of the first batch of men aged 20 to 23 and estimated 22 in every 1000 objected and went before local military tribunals. The tribunals varied greatly in their attitudes towards conscientious objection to military service and the proportions totally rejected ranged from 6 per cent to 41 per cent.

The political and moral views of the tribunal chairman was vitally important. It was very difficult to get a fair hearing in London, especially during the Blitz. On one occasion the chairman told the defendant that his appeal was rejected because "Even God is not a pacifist, for he kills us all in the end".

Conscientious objectors were supported by the Peace Pledge Union. During the Second World War members of the PPU were arrested for inciting disaffection among the armed forces. This included six members being prosecuted for publishing the poster, 'War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are you going to do about it?' Others were arrested for holding public meetings and selling the PPU newspaper, Peace News, in the streets.

As the war progressed fewer and fewer men objected to serving in the armed forces. In March 1940 only 16 in a 1000 did so. By Dunkirk this had fallen to 6 in a 1000.

Of the 6000 people to go on the conscientious objectors register, around 2000 were women. About 500 women were prosecuted for a range of offences, and more than 200 of them were imprisoned.

Primary Sources

(1) Neville Chamberlain, speech, House of Commons (27th April, 1939)

We all recognise that there are people who have perfectly genuine and deeply seated scruples on the subject of military service where these scruples are conscientiously held we desire that they should be respected, and that there should be no persecution.

(2) Sidney Greaves was a member of the Quakers in Sutton Coldfield. A conscientious objector, he was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs Prison after refusing to serve in the armed forces.

It was while I was working in London that I had to spend six months in Wormwood Scrubs, for refusing to accept a condition. I went up to Bow Street, which was the top joint. I had a rather benign but stern little magistrate called Sir Bernard Watson. I made my statement as to why 1 thought war was incompatible with Christianity, and why I refused to accept a condition, that I felt conscience should be respected. He listened to it, and then sent me down. At both my tribunal and appeal, I felt that the authorities were going through the motions, I don't think there was any attempt to discuss my point of view with me, or probe. They just listened and said, 'Nothing doing.'

My sentence was hard labour, which was supposed to involve sleeping for the first fortnight on bare boards. But they forgot to take my mattress away, so it wasn't anything but in name. We were locked up in the early evening, about half past five, and let out again about seven in the morning. There were the usual appalling insanitary conditions, with a bucket in the cell. Slopping out in the morning was a dreadful experience, faeces and urine everywhere.

The warders on the whole were hostile to COs. People who were in for robbery with violence got much more respect from them. They made it very clear that we were regarded as the scum. There was a subdued patriotic bias. One or two of the screws were better, but by and large that was the attitude.

(3) The actor David Markham was a conscientious objector and was sent to prison for refusing to serve in the armed forces. After the war, his wife, Olive Markham, wrote about his time in prison.

He was in Winson Green for two months. Wormwood Scrubs, where he was transferred to, was better, there was more communication, and it was generally easier. I don't know why, but it just was a jollier prison. But he didn't complete his

sentence; he appealed from prison, and was released. He had been in this play Pick-Up Girl, it was American, I think. It was to do with prostitution, and produced by Peter Cotes, and it got very good notices. Queen Mary was very interested in the whole question: she sent her lady-in-waiting to see it, to have a report about it. And so they wrote a letter to the appeal court saving they thought he should come out and go on with his own work. So he came out, but was ordered to go into forestry, which he was quite glad to do. When he came out he was completely grey, and he couldn't talk. He had had flu and jaundice, and he just spoke in a whisper, which was horrible.

There was a lot of stigma attached to being a CO. We lived for some of the war in Disley, just outside Manchester. A lot of the people in the village didn't talk to me, or to David when he came down. It was more the older people. There was an awfully nice man there who had been terribly injured in world war one, and who was absolutely anti-war. His son was a CO, and I tended to go and see people like that, just to be with people who were a bit sympathetic. Otherwise there were only two people in the village who had pacifist leanings, the lady who kept the confectionery shop and the postmaster's wife. They were always nice about David, but other people took the attitude, 'My son may be killed getting food for your children, what are you doing?'

(4) Alex Bryan was a pacifist who refused to join the armed forces. He was sent to Strangeways Prison in Manchester.

I suppose my father was quite an influence on the way my thinking went. He was a cabinet-maker and he worked with the North-Eastern Railway. He had been in the trenches in France, so he knew what war was. He had had some horrible experiences. It was obvious that it had affected him greatly. He came to see that there was no good to be gained from fighting wars. Before the second world war broke out he was involved with the peace" plebiscite. I went with him when I was just a boy at school; we went from door to door handing in questionnaires. Almost unconsciously my thinking developed along the lines of pacifism.

My summons came towards the end of the spring session in 1941. I had to appear in court. It was a very short hearing. I admitted I didn't want to register, and so I was sentenced to twenty-eight days' imprisonment or a five pound fine, which I was given a certain period in which to pay. I didn't pay it. Then one day I had a visitor. He had come from the police station. He said, 'Where's the money?' I said, 'I'm not going to pay it.' So he said, 'You better come along with me.' Just like that.

I was carried off to Strangeways Prison in Manchester. I had known long in advance what I would be in for, but I hadn't known what the conditions would be like. The weather was cold, the cells were cold, and silence was the rule. Even on recreation we were not allowed to talk. We went round and round the courtyard in threes, with an officer standing on a pedestal. If we approached the three in front of us too closely, he would stop us and hold us back until they had gone on further. There was no talking in the workshop. We were locked up at about four o'clock, and remained on our own in the cell until six o'clock in the morning, when we slopped out, and then went back and cleaned our cell, and breakfast was brought to us.

The most disturbing time there was when Manchester was raided. The air-raid sirens went at night, so we were locked in, and all the lights turned off. I could hear the prison officer going round from cell to cell, looking through the spy-hole to make sure we were all there. Then there was absolute silence until the all-clear went. They had gone to their shelter, and we were all left in our cells, entirely on our own, wondering what would happen next. We could hear the planes come over and the bombs fall, and this happened five nights running, although while I was there the prison was not damaged.

(5) John Howell was the son of a shopkeeper living in a Welsh mining community. After the war he wrote about his experiences in the war.

There was a lot of ill feeling at the time, I remember that even at a young age. I also remember that my Sunday school teacher was a conscientious objector, and I think he was incarcerated for a short while, but then released. He was a bit of an oddball in many ways. On the whole I don't think people worried too much about him, there was no question of tarring and feathering or anything like that. I can't say he was victimized in any way, because he'd made his views very clear from the outset. There was one man who certainly was put in prison for his views. I learnt afterwards that he was an avowed communist and he spent quite a bit of time in and out of prison. He used to speak against the war at public meetings, and I think he caused a lot of resentment. I can recall that after the war, when they were starting up the urban district council again this man stood as a communist for the council, and took a pasting. I can remember that his attitude to the war was thrown in his face during the election. He got very few votes.

(6) As a boy, Dennis Briggs, who lived in London, was evacuated to Oxfordshire. Later he was interviewed about his experiences of his rural school.

We were very conscious of the men on our staff, and why they weren't fighting. We had one man join the forces who we loved very much. We thought he was a great teacher, very kind and gentle, and we knew that he was going into the army.

We had another man come to the school who was labelled a CO - I don't know if he really was, this was never verified. He went through hell, and eventually left. He was really pilloried by the kids, because we thought he should be fighting. It was very vindictive, a very nasty campaign, and I was part of it. He had a terrible time. The head took it very seriously and we were given a lecture about it.

(7) Gwendolen Potter was evacuated to Aldermaston during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

I remember also there were some conscientious objectors living on the edge of Savernake Forest, and they were not liked at all. They used to come down fishing on the canal sometimes, and there was a great furore. They had a very bad time with the local people. There was one family of COs, they were living in a very isolated place - most of them worked for the Forestry Commission - and nobody would ever speak to them. People just said, 'Oh, they're conchies,' and if they appeared in the village people didn't seem to want to mix with them. I felt sorry for the wives really; I don't remember ever seeing them come to any of the social occasions.