After the draft was introduced in 1916, 2.5 million extra British troops were conscripted to fight. But about 16,500 men refused to enlist. Many were Quakers, Christians or humanists who felt it was wrong to kill. Others objected to fighting what they saw as an imperialist war and a few argued that their work was in the national interest. Objecting was a difficult path that brought down the heavy weight of social convention, wartime propaganda and extreme psychological pressure on men and their families.
Known as conscientious objectors or ‘conchies’, they had to present grounds for their objections at public tribunals, often staffed by prominent local men with entrenched views on military service. If their applications and appeals were rejected, as they often were, they were enlisted. Some took on non-combat roles – for example, as ambulance drivers or stretcher bearers with the Army Medical Corps. Others were assigned work in forestry, agriculture or road construction in the UK, but often at some distance from their homes and on soldier’s pay to ensure they were sacrificing as much as fighting men.
Some were sent to do hard labour in work camps. At a camp near Dyce in Aberdeenshire, 250 men lived through freezing conditions in leaky Army tents while they broke up granite for road metalling. The camp was closed due to public outcry after one young man – already weakened through his time in prison – died of pneumonia.
Over a third of the 16,500 recorded COs were sent to prison at least once, beginning with a month’s solitary confinement on bread and water followed by hard labour – the most severe level of prison sentence at the time. Those who refused any involvement in the war effort were known as ‘absolutists’. Many were imprisoned for the duration of the conflict, while others were forced to serve on the Front, where a man could be shot for disobeying orders.
As the war progressed and casualties mounted, COs were increasingly reviled by society. After the war, those in prison were held for another six months so that returning veterans could find jobs first, and they were stripped of the right to vote until 1926. The experiences of conscientious objectors during the war have been brought to life in the Regeneration trilogy of novels by Pat Barker.