Conscientious Objectors

The COs came from all walks of life with only a handful receiving full exemption, and many were denied any form of exemption at all.

The COs fell into three categories, all providing difficult choices for them to make:

◊ Some were 'absolutists', opposed to conscription as well as war, upholders of civil liberty and the freedom of the individual - values thought to be respected in Britain. Absolutists (most of whom were committed pacifists) believed that any alternative service supported the war effort and in effect supported the immoral practice of conscription as well. The tribunals had the power to give these men complete and unconditional exemption.

◊ Some were 'alternativists', prepared to undertake alternative civilian work not under any military control. Tribunals had power to exempt them from military service on condition that they actually did this work.

◊ 'Non-combatants' were prepared to accept call-up into the army, but not to be trained to use weapons, or indeed have anything to do with weapons at all. Tribunals had power to put these men on the military register on this basis.

But the tribunals didn't use their powers with much judgement or sympathy. Not only did they rarely grant unconditional exemption, they also often allocated absolutists or alternativists to non-combatant duties. In many cases applications were turned down altogether, which meant that the men were liable for call-up as ordinary soldiers. These unwilling conscripts could be arrested and handed over to the military; if they disobeyed military orders they would be court-martialled and sent to prison.

Even in prison, choices created dilemmas. Some apparently innocent prison tasks turned out to be part of the war effort, and had to be resisted. Those who refused to do any work at all were punished with solitary confinement and bread-and-water diets for long periods.

Prisons in those days were still run on inhumane systems inherited from the 19th century. The silence rule was particularly harsh: almost impossible to keep, yet invoking severe punishment when broken.



Ripley & Heanor News 13 July 1917
Among the cases dealt with by the Derbyshire Appeals Tribunal at Derby on Monday was that of G.W. Davidson, grocer and farmer, of Fritchley, who appealed, on business grounds and as a conscientious objector, against the withdrawal of his exemption by the Belper Rural Tribunal. On it being suggested to him that he found work for conscientious objectors, he replied that the only ones he employed were those sent to him by the Army to be engaged in agricultural occupations. He also had a nurse of German nationality, who came to him direct from Lord Lansdowne's service and on that nobleman's personal recommendation. The Court granted exemption conditionally upon undertaking agricultural work to their satisfaction.

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The following is from “The Quakers of Fritchley” pp225 by Walter Lowndes 1986 (ISBN 0-9511295-0-3)

Several members of the Fritchley Friends were conscientious objectors during WW1 and suffered for their beliefs. They were supported by other Friends.
The following is a minute taken at a meeting on the eighth of January 1914 –

[Note:  this quotation from "The Quakers of Fritchley" by Walter Lowndes, 1986, citing a minute said to be of "a meeting on the eighth of January 1914". Since the minute refers to the imminence of the passing of an Act of Parliament enforcing compulsory military service, it must refer to the Military Service Act 1916, which was in passage in January 1916, but not even dreamed of in January 1914, well before WW1 was declared, let alone British conscription contemplated. Bill Hetherington]

The imminence of the passing of a law by Act of Parliament enforcing compulsory military service upon unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41 has received our serious consideration and we appoint our Friend Edward Watkins and the Clerk to prepare the draft of protest and statement of our position to be addressed to member of Parliament, the Prime Minister and others as thought advisable, to be submitted to an adjournment of this meeting, to be held tomorrow afternoon at 3.30 p.m.

This Meeting views with great concern the prospect of the early passing into law of the Military Service Bill now before Parliament; under it would appear no real relief is proposed for conscientious objectors. The possible offer to such of the substitutes of one form of military service for another would give no relief to those who feel conscientiously restrained from all work of a military nature.

To assume that such objectors are "cowards" or "shirkers" is to ignore the facts of history. Even in the present conflict we are credibly informed that some hundreds in Austria and Germany have suffered the death penalty for their Christian refusal to bear arms.

The compulsory transference of peaceable citizens from the protection of the civil law to the domination of the military, we regard as a most serious infringement of our long cherished and dearly bought civil and religious freedom, and although ostensibly proposed as a temporary enactment, it would establish a precedent in our history, the disastrous effects of which cannot be measured.

We feel that in humble obedience to the meek, patient, gentle, long-suffering and loving Spirit of our Lord and Saviour alone lies the hope of the world and the possibility of the deliverance of mankind from whatever opposes or hinders our present and future welfare.

The Clerk is directed to forward copies of this minute, signed on our behalf, to the Prime Minister, to John C. Hancock M.P. for this division of Derbyshire and others.'

On the 7th of June 1916, Thomas Davidson reported that he had paid several visits to young men imprisoned at Normanton Barracks, Derby, for objecting to bearing arms. He was, in general treated with consideration by the Captain in charge, Captain Clymo, who very readily accorded him permission to see them. He reported that none of the members of the Meeting had been arrested but two attenders were among the prisoners. A minute of thanks arising from this report was sent to Captain Clymo and was favourably received by him and his superior officer

The Monthly Meeting in August 1916 reported the arrest of Henry Smith and his appearance before the Belper Branch of Magistrates with a view to his being handed over to the military authorities.

After the military representative who appeared to prosecute had stated his case, Henry Smith was invited to reply, when he read the following defence of his position:

I should like to say, first of all, that I do not wish to assume any superiority over other people who think differently, nor do I desire any personal consideration to influence the case. For I am concerned not so much with the defence of my person as with the defence of my principles, and what happens to me is of secondary importance.
I have divided my defence into three heads:-
(i) As to point of fact
I submit that I cannot be an absentee from something I have never joined. To be deemed to be enlisted cannot possibly alter the facts of the case. I might just as logically be deemed to be dead or married.
(ii) As to point of law
I submit that I am a conscientious objector recognised by the Tribunal, and as such ought to be totally exempted. (I explained to the Tribunal that non-combatant service did not meet the case.) I submit that it is contrary to the principles of British justice to punish a man who has done no wrong, and who was expressly intended by Act of Parliament to go free. And if you convict me, you will assuredly bring me into punishment; for it is against my conscience and my religion to take part in war, and I shall consequently refuse to obey all military orders. That is to say, I shall not take part, deliberately and with malice aforethought, in what I believe to be wrong.
(iii) Finally, gentlemen, my last defence is on religious grounds.
I believe that Christianity is opposed to warfare and as a Christian, very imperfect and very inexperienced it is true, yet as a Christian, I must try to follow out what I believe to be my Christian duty. It is written that the fruit of the Spirit of Christ is Love, joy, peace and other virtues, against which uthere is no law". Therefore, with all humility and supremely conscious of my own shortcomings, I would endeavour to bear witness to that Spirit, fully confident that whatever happens to me, it will prevail in the end.

When Henry Smith had given his reply, the Clerk of the Magistrates asked him for the paper and handed it to the Bench. After a few minutes deliberation, the decision was announced by the Chairman: The Bench are satisfied that Henry Smith is a bona-fide conscientious objector, holding the principles of the Society of Friends.' They declined to make any order. The Bench is aware there is a Friends Ambulance Corps and hope the defendant will volunteer for that.

The military representative was dissatisfied with the decision and requested permission to take the matter further and this was granted.

One week later Henry Smith had another call to the Colours, so that he was again liable to arrest.

At this time Philip Darbyshire and Henry Darbyshire applied for exemption on conscientious grounds and also as farmers. They were granted exemption on the ground of being engaged in work of national importance and this exemption was renewed from time to time until the end of the war.

During September 1916 two attenders at the Meeting, Alfred Curzon and William Mander, were arrested.

This situation prompted the Meeting 'to reach forth a hand of help to those not in religious fellowship with us and not very conversant with our views further than that they are making a stand against militarism.' They appointed several members to arrange for visits to families and to organise special meetings for worship in the Meeting House. Meetings were also held in the house of Thomas Mander in Ripley and members of Fritchley Meeting attended a meeting in Nottingham Meeting House.

During September 1917, the Monthly Meeting reported that Arthur Ludlow was awaiting his second court-martial in Sunderland, and this following letter was sent to him.

Dear Arthur Ludlow,

Our minds at this time have been drawn out in loving sympathy with thee in the stand thou art making for the Truth as thou and we have seen it, and we desire to encourage thee to be faithful to thy convictions. No sacrifice that is called for by our Lord and Master and which is willingly offered can be in vain.

Both Henry Smith and thou art often on our minds and we trust, yea, believe that you will be so supported that you will come out of this furnace, as did the three faithful ones of old, without even the smell of fire upon your garments. Let patience have its perfect work and if it please our Heavenly Father may the days of your captivity be shortened. We are with love thy friends.

Signed in and on behalf of Fritchley Monthly Meeting of Friends, held 5th of ninth month 1917.

Edward Watkins

Clerk this time.

This letter was not delivered to Arthur Ludlow; evidently it had been censored. Arthur Ludlow had already served a sentence of 112 days at Wormwood Scrubs prison. The Sunderland court-martial sentenced him to eighteen months hard labour, although his health was rapidly worsening. He did not complete the sentence, for urgent appeals on his behalf to the War Office eventually led to his release on health grounds. Arthur Ludlow was nursed back to health by his wife and the support of Friends and although he continued to suffer from severe arthritis, he lived to the age of 80 and gave much to the life and worship of Fritchley Meeting.

Henry Smith was court-martialled three times and was finally released from prison in March 1919 on grounds of health. It had been three years since his first appeal to the County Appeal Tribunal.

When conscription first came into operation in 1916, Philip Darbyshire, Henry Darbyshire and Henry Smith applied to Belper Rural Local Tribunal for exemption, the two former on conscientious grounds only. Philip and Henry Darbyshire were granted exemption on the ground of being engaged in work of national importance, and this exemption was renewed from time to time till the end of the war.

Henry Smith was granted only 'Non-combatant Exemption'. This he could not accept and appealed to the County Appeal Tribunal, which heard his case on the 27 March 1916 but dismissed his appeal, though confirming the Local Tribunal's decision to grant exemption on conscientious grounds from combatant service.

On the 6 July 1916 he was arrested as an absentee from Military service and brought before the Belper Bench of Magistrates. In giving their decision, the Chairman stated they were satisfied as to the genuineness of Henry Smith's conscientious objection and declined to hand him over to the Military, but suggested his joining the Friend's Ambulance Unit. This he did not feel free to do, and on the 17th of August following, he was again arrested and brought a second time before the Belper Magistrates, who under pressure from the Military Representative, imposed the usual fine and handed him over to the Military escort, by whom he was taken to the Derby Barracks. On August 22 he was tried by Court Martial, subsequently sentenced to 56 days imprisonment and taken to Derby Gaol. On the 4th of September he appeared before the Central Tribunal at Wormwood Scrubs and was passed as a genuine CO. On October 7 he was discharged from Derby Gaol and escorted to the Military camp at Rugeley, Staffordshire, was again Court Martialled on the 18th and afterwards sentenced to to years Hard Labour and conveyed to Wormwood Scrubs Prison. On the 1st of February 1917 he was transferred to Wandsworth Prison from which he was discharged on the 19th June 1918 and taken to Avington Park Camp, Winchester, where he was Court Martialled for the third time on the 27th; again sentenced to two years Hard Labour. He was released prematurely, on grounds of ill-health, in March 1919.

Alfred Curzon of Ripley, now a member of our meeting and William Mander of the same place, were arrested at Ripley and Court Martialled at Derby on the 15 September 1916, sentenced to 56 days imprisonment and taken to Wormwood Scrubs. They both accepted the Home Office Scheme and on the 13 October 916 were sent to Warwick Work Centre. After about five months at Warwick they were allowed to take work on Walter Davidson's farm near Huddersfield, where Alfred Curzon remained until he was allowed to take work in this neighbourhood. William Mander, becoming uneasy with his acceptance of the Home Office Scheme gave it up and was again arrested and on the 21 December 1917 was sent to Wandsworth prison under a sentence of six months imprisonment. At the expiration of this he was sent to Sunderland and again Court Martialled, sentenced on the 31st May 1918 to 12 months imprisonment and sent to Durham Gaol. When he had served this sentence he obtained his release.

When the second Military Service Act came into force conscripting young married men, our members George William Davidson and Arthur H. Ludlow, with Arthur B. Watkins an occasional attender of our meeting, appeared before the Belper Tribunal, and as farmers George W. Davidson and Arthur B. Watkins were granted conditional exemption, Arthur B. Watkins being required to work part-time for other farmers, which he did and his exemption was continued from time to time to the end of the war.

In March 1917 George W. Davidson's exemption was renewed for six months, as a farmer, but in June it was withdrawn, as he was charged with assisting an absentee to avoid arrest, and had again to appear before the Local Tribunal, which only gave him Non-Combatant Service. This he could not accept and appealed to the County Appeal Committee. After a good deal of difficulty he was allowed to take a farm elsewhere, a condition that it must be at least twenty miles from Fritchley. He removed to a farm at Seagrave in Leicestershire with his family in November 1917 and his exemption was not further called in question.

Arthur H. Ludlow, who was in the employment of the Midland Railway Co., in their offices at Derby, was pressed very much to attest before he was liable to be called up under the Second Military Service Act but steadily refused, and when the Act came into force lost his situation in consequence. He was arrested on the 17 May 1917 and Court Martialled at Derby, sentenced to 112 days imprisonment and removed to Wormwood Scrubs prison. After the completion of his sentence he was taken under escort to Sunderland, again Court Martialled and sentenced to 18 months Hard Labour. His health was much impaired and was urged by a sympathetic officer, who knew the family, to accept clerical work under the Military for a time, with the promise of early discharge. Bravely supported by his wife, he steadily refused though told he would not be able to live through his sentence. As a result of urgent appeals on his behalf to the War Office he was eventually discharged from the Army on health grounds.

It is to the credit of Fritchley Meeting that they used all means of persuasion to help its members over the difficult years, and when the war was over they continued to remind the Prime Minister and his War Cabinet of their concern for the number of conscientious objectors still in prison. Here is an extract from a letter sent to the Prime Minister in March 1919.

To the Prime Minister and the members of the Government and of both Houses of Parliament.
A further Appeal from Fritchley Monthly Meeting of the religious Society of Friends.
Honoured Friends,
On the occasion of the signing of the armistice and the commencement of the return of our soldier prisoners and interned civilians from enemy countries, we addressed an earnest appeal to the Prime Minister and members of the War Cabinet urging the immediate release of those of our members, who, consistently with our well-known principles, have felt obliged to decline any form of military service, and also that of others, who likewise are suffering because of their conscientious refusal to bear arms, notwithstanding the statutory provision for exemption in such cases.
Since then urgent and influential appeals have been made to the Government by men and women of all classes and stations in society and by the public press, for their release, but apparently without effect, as they are still kept in confinement, and as their sentences expire are re-arrested, re-court martialled, and sentenced for the 3rd, 4th, or 5th time, in most cases to 2 years hard labour, which is the maximum hard labour sentence that can be imposed on any criminal.
The Prime Minister has recently caused to be liberated prisoners who rightly or wrongly were convicted of being accessory to a plot against his person, and we appreciate the magnanimity of his action, but would respectfully urge that the clemency shown in this case greatly strengthens our plea for justice to those who are not suffering for an alleged criminal design but whose only offence is their refusal to be the medium of injury to any.

In August 1918, the Fritchley Monthly Meeting sent the following letters concerning Conscientious Objectors and Prisoners to the Home Office and Prison Commissioners.

'We would respectfully ask you to take into serious consideration the general subject of the prison treatment of all those who are confined in the gaols of this country. Various changes for the better have been found possible in other directions owing to the necessity of thinking out what is for the national benefit and circumstances have brought home to many of us the evils of the present methods of prison treatment of offenders against the law and others who, as we apprehend through misinterpretation of the law, are suffering similar treatment

We believe the fundamental principle of British Law as to prison treatments, viz. that the fear of punishment (as a deterrent to crime) is greater than the hope of reward, to be wrong and injurious and not condusive to the improvement of offenders whose reclamation, rather than whose punishment, ought to be the first aim in dealing with them, in the interest not only of themselves, but of the community.

It is no small punishment in itself to be debarred from free intercourse with relatives, friends and society in general. To add to this, what is morally and physically detrimental is neither wise not right. The reduction of bodily health and strength to the lowest limit compatible with existence is stultifying to efforts for self improvement, depriving even of the power of reasonable thought and in some cases causing permanent disablement; the too strict enforcement of the rule of silence is pernicious and brutalizing and the employment of prisoners in almost useless tasks is disheartening, unimproving and a needless waste of energy. The intentional penalizing with tools purposely contrived to make work harder than necessary is part of the same bad system and shows a woeful lack of thought when there is always plenty of work to be done of a useful character and instruction in the best methods of doing serviceable work and in the use of the best tools, would be far more condusive to the future usefulness of those detained in prison.
We are aware that some of our Friends have been released when their health has been seriously injured but many more are suffering who do not receive their freedom. We have also the strongest reasons for believing that at least a few have been made insane and some have died as a direct consequence of the irrational and indiscriminating methods referred to.

In contrast to such methods and their effects we would mention that in one of the great American prisons whereas, under the old regime of silent solitary confinement about 80 per cent of the inmates found their way back to prison after having served their terms of sentence, under more humane and restorative conditions only about 5 per cent so returned, if we are correctly informed.

We appeal to you to make the needful changes without delay, not so much for the sake of our Friends as for the general welfare of the community and a work of National Service too long overlooked.'
Signed on behalf and by direction of a Monthly Meeting of Friends held at Fritchley, Derbyshire the 7th of eighth month 1918.
George Smith (Clerk)

It can be said that this was a forward looking document, informed by the experiences of the imprisoned members of the Meeting.

Newspaper Reports

Derby Daily Telegraph
1 November 1916
A Conscientious Objector
A farmer at Fritchley, named H.Derbyshire, in partnership with his father, aged 68, and his brother, who had been medically rejected, appealed on grounds of business hardship and also on conscientious grounds. His certificate of exemption, granted to him as an agriculturalist, had now been withdrawn, as it was contended that there was sufficient labour on the farm, which was 80 acres, without him. – The court having dismissed the appeal on business grounds, proceeded to consider the conscientious objection. It was shown that the appellant was a Quaker, and that his ancestors on both sides had also been Quakers for many generations. As such he held the view that it was contrary to the teachings of Christ to take human life. He called as a witness as to his bone fides Mr Edward Watkins, himself a member of the Society of Friends, who, when questioned by Capt JWP Moseley, said if he were attacked in the street he would invoke the aid of the police. Capt Mosley suggested an analogy between the individual or employed force to meet force and the state. – The court decided in favour of the appellant and allowed exemption on condition that he helped neighbouring farmers two days a week.

Derby Daily Telegraph
13 March 1917
Mr Macpherson announces tht the number of conscientious objectors released from prison to date is 15, The number arrested, court-martialled, and sent to prison is about 3,530

Derby Daily Telegraph
28 March 1918
A movement is being led by Lords Sheffield, Weardale, Parmoor, and Henry Bentinck, the Rev FB Meyer, and Professor Gilbert Murray to secure from the Government among other things the immediate release of all conscientious objectors who have been a year in prison or have been certified by a visiting board of independent medical men of standing to be in a poor state of health: the release at the expiry of their sentence of those who have been found genuine by tribunal: and the removal from Army control of those once handed over to civilian jurisdiction. It is hoped that the Prime Minister will receive a deputation which will lay before him the serious anomalies and dangers in the treatment of conscientious objectors, and urged on him the necessity of of accepting the proposals.

Derby Daily Telegraph
22 February 1919
A deputation from the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches waited on the Home Secretary recently on behalf of the conscientious objectors undergoing various forms of imprisonment. A full discussion of the whole situation took place; and though no immediate alteration of their condition is possible, largely owing to the problems of demobilisation, the deputation was satisfied of the desire of the Government to deal justly and fairly with these men, especially in regard to any whose health is seriously affected.

Derby Daily Telegraph
26 February 1919
The following letter, signed by the Bishops of Oxford, Ely, Truro, and Exeter, appears in today's “Times:"
"May we plead that the case of conscientious objectors should be considered? While the fighting continued there were two opinions on the subject, for if some thought that they were treated harshly, others felt that the gravity of the military position allowed no alternatives. But now that the danger is past, to continue punishment, and even still more to impose fresh sentences seems needlessly vindictive. If, in the interest of the soldiers not yet demobilised, they must be detained less they should have an advantage in securing the pleasanter and better paid jobs, we submit that they need only be detained, and all other punishments should be pretermitted.”


The White Feather Diaries

There is a site called "The White Feather Diaries" which makes interesting, and moving reading.