This year we mark the centenary of the Military Service Acts which introduced conscription during the First World War. The first Military Service Act came into force on 2nd March 1916 and compelled ‘eligible’ men to join the armed forces. Initially it affected single men between the ages of 18 and 41 but eventually conscription included every able-bodied man between 18 and 51. The Act included exemptions such as those for the medically unfit, certain classes of industrial workers and clergymen, it also included an exemption for reasons of conscience.
There was significant objection to conscription from a number of perspectives and many men felt that it went against their conscience. Some objected due to socialist principles whereas others objected on religious grounds. A centenary event on Saturday 27th February held by the Quakers & the First World War: Lives & Legacies project will explore some of these perspectives and details of the event and how to book a place are given below.
Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends as they are also known, formed a significant part of the objection to conscription, and to the war in general. Many Quaker men became Conscientious Objectors (C.O.s) and the Society collaborated with organisations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a non-denominational Christian pacifist group established in 1914, and the No-Conscription Fellowship, also formed in 1914 for anyone who opposed compulsion on religious, political, moral or humanitarian grounds.
Not all young Quaker men were C.O.s however, a number enlisted in various branches of the military services and the roll of names included members of prominent local Quaker families – Barrow, Cadbury, Gibbins, Impey, Lloyd and Southall. Alan Scrivener Lloyd, one of the four sons of Gertrude and John Henry Lloyd, enlisted almost immediately and was given a commission in the 78th Brigade Royal Field Artillery. Alan was killed on 4 August 1916 at Ypres and posthumously awarded the Military Cross. Two of his brothers Ronald and Eric served in the Friends Ambulance Unit (a voluntary and unofficial Quaker body active on the Western Front) before eventually joining the military. The fourth brother Gerald was C.O. who performed alternative service in Oswestry working in YMCA huts. Similarly Egbert (or Bertie) Cadbury, the youngest son of George and Elizabeth Cadbury, served in the Navy and then as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, a forerunner of the Royal Air Force. Those wishing to apply for exemption from combatant service had to make their case before a local tribunal. There were varying degrees of C. O.s – from those who would not fight but were willing to serve in non-combatant roles such as stretcher bearers, to those who would accept alternative ‘work of national importance’, to absolutists who refused to undertake any work in support of the war.
The complicated and often lengthy nature of tribunal proceedings is illustrated by the case of Wilfred Littleboy, a Quaker absolutist. He appeared before a tribunal in Birmingham on 17th March 1916 when he rejected the Tribunal’s suggestions for alternative work. His case was deferred for a month and he returned on 14th April when he again refused the panel’s suggestions of joining the Friends Ambulance Unit or working in munitions as an accountant, his peace-time occupation. Littleboy claimed an absolute exemption but the tribunal refused on the grounds that it deemed his objection could be met through non-combatant service.
Littleboy appealed and was heard on 5th June when the tribunal again attempted to persuade him to take non-combatant war-related work. Littleboy argued that in loyalty to God he could not undertake any form of work, military or civil, connected to the conflict. His appeal was dismissed. He was arrested and appeared before the magistrates on 1st January 1917. Fined 40 shillings he was handed over to the military as an absentee and taken to the Guard room at Budbrook Barracks in Warwick. On 16th January Littleboy was court-martialled at Budbrook, sentenced to 112 days hard labour and transferred to Wormwood Scrubs. In his statement to the Court Martial quoted in the Quaker periodical The Friend Littleboy said:
My understanding of life and the teachings of Jesus Christ has taught me that the Christian and only really effective way of overcoming evil is by meeting it with unwearied generosity and goodwill. No man, and I am convinced, no nation, can permanently resist the power of persistent unselfish love…Neither the decision of a civil tribunal nor the authority of the army could discharge me from a loyalty I owe to God…I therefore refused to obey a military order, in the firm belief that I was thereby obeying the voice of God within me.
He was court-martialled again at Weymouth in late April 1917 and sentenced to six month hard labour. In total he was imprisoned for 28 months and was not released until 1919.
Despite campaigning by Quakers and others for their release the last imprisoned C.O.s were not freed until August 1919. Many died in prison or as a result of their experiences, and suffered physical or physiological consequences. They also found it difficult to get work after their release, and they were disenfranchised with the result that they could not vote or stand for election, although this was not strictly enforced.
On the 27 February 2016 the Quakers & the First World War: Lives & Legacies project is holding a free event when three talks will explore conscription and the impact it had on individuals and communities.
The main speaker is Cyril Pearce (University of Leeds) who will talk on ‘Uncovering resistance: new thoughts on British war resisters 1914-1918’. Cyril published his book Comrades in Conscience in 2001 and has compiled a national database of over 16,000 war resisters which has been incorporated in the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ digital platform.
In addition to Cyril’s presentation two other shorter talks will focus on local aspects:
Dr Rebecca Wynter (University of Birmingham): ‘Care and Conscience: The Friends’ Ambulance Unit and Conscription’.
Dr Siân Roberts (University of Birmingham): ‘Conscience and consequence: local responses to conscription among Birmingham Quakers’.
The talks will take place from 2-4pm in the AV Room at The Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The event is free but places are limited and anyone wishing to attend needs to book a place by registering here.
Dr Siân Roberts (Project Coordinator, Quakers & the First World War: Lives & Legacies)