From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #57 (January 2016)
It is one hundred years since the introduction of conscription of single or widowed adult males aged from 18 to 41 into the British Army. It came into operation on 2 March 1916.
Heavy losses during the first 12 months of the war had caused both a significant depletion of available British manpower and a much reduced level of volunteering. To put it bluntly, if you volunteered to fight it could hardly be clearer by the autumn of 1915 that you stood an excellent chance of never coming back.
It was one thing in the summer of 1914 to volunteer to fight to escape from what may have been a humdrum or worse existence for many working men and the offer of foreign travel and excitement was there, but the reality of what this meant soon filtered through.
Hence an official debate and inquiry was launched in the last months of 1915 to see if conscription would be a practical option and one that could be achieved politically. In conjunction with this a register of adults up to 65 was created in order to establish who might be eligible to serve.
Most had thought the introduction of conscription to be unlikely, not least because it indicated a hitherto unacceptable extension of the state’s activities into the affairs of ordinary people.
Much of the left opposed the idea from the start. Fenner Brockway and others had set up the No-Conscription Fellowship in the autumn of 1914. Not a huge amount happened for the first year but by the autumn of the following year the matter was becoming one of some urgency.
As Paxman’s recent history of the war underlines, most of those who became eligible to be conscripted from early 1916 in fact took the hint and signed up on a voluntary basis. Even so such was the scale of the continuing slaughter that by the summer of 1916 married men had also been included and eventually all men who were able under the age of 51 became eligible to be called up.
Those who either refused to fight or appealed to the Military Tribunal against conscription fell into three groups.
First were those small businessmen who (or those who their employers claimed) were engaged in vital occupations. Most of these had to go. Second were conscientious objectors on moral or religious grounds. Many of these either did other war work or served in ambulance corps. Third were the hard core: pacifists
and political objectors to war. Many of these were Quakers or ILP members. The profile possibly wasn’t that different to those who supported CND in the early 1960s. They refused to fight, to go to the front, to wear military uniform or accept military orders.
As Fenner Brockway himself noted they were treated brutally by the British state. They were not on the whole physically manhandled. Rather they were locked up in solitary confinement for most of the day, sentenced to hard labour (sewing mail bags) and often had to endure bread and water diets. The aim was to break their spirit and sometimes the state succeeded. A small number died in jail.
A few were marched out to the front line in France with a view, from the military’s perspective, of shooting them for refusing orders on active service. Thanks to the work of the No-Conscription Fellowship political intervention stopped that at the last moment.
It wasn’t just those who directly refused to fight who attracted the Government’s interest. They were also keen to prevent anti-war agitation, down to seizing printing presses and arresting printers. There was something like a surveillance state in operation for those who actively opposed war.
In short, as many soldiers recognised at the time, those who refused to serve and were subjected to State punishment as a result were as much heroes as those on the military frontline.