One of the most common tropes of the First World War is the poster of a finger-pointing Lord Kitchener telling the men of Britain “your country needs you”. Thousands responded, sometimes signing up with their friends or colleagues. Later, in 1916, conscription was introduced and men aged between 18 and 40 had no choice but to go. But there were some who still said “no”: conscientious objectors who, guided by their moral, religious, or political beliefs, said they could not and would not fight. It meant defying social convention, public pressure, and the powers of the law. It also meant risking prison and in some cases severe punishment.
In all, some 16,300 people registered as conscientious objectors during the First World War and they were required to appear before a tribunal to justify their position. Provided the tribunal was satisfied that you were honestly committed to your principles, you could be granted an absolute exemption, but it was rare – in 1914-18, only 200 were granted such exemptions, usually on religious grounds.
More common was a conditional exemption which required you to serve in a non-combatant capacity – driving an ambulance for example or working on a farm – but for some conscientious objectors even this was too much, and the men who refused to cooperate at all were sent to prison. Some were also sent to work in a notorious quarry at Dyce in Aberdeenshire where they spent their days breaking stones.
By the time of the Second World War, attitudes had shifted a little, thanks in part to the pacifist movement of the 1930s when hundreds of thousands joined peace organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union. It meant that in 1939-35, there were 60,000 registered conscientious objectors – three times as many as there had been in the Great War. Absolute exemptions were given to 2937 of them, including 69 women; 6,500 were sent to prison.
More than 70 years on, the legacy of the conscientious objectors can be seen in the modern age in which most armies around the world accept the principle. It is also hard not to admire individuals who are prepared to question what their family, friends, and their political or religious leaders are telling them. When I was researching my novel What He Never Said, I spoke to Dorothy Kidd, who curated an exhibition about conscientious objectors at the National Museum of Scotland, and she spoke of the qualities she saw in the men and women who would not follow orders. As a young person, said Ms Kidd, it is much easier to go with the flow and do what all your friends are doing. You have to be very strong to stand up to the pressure.