Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One
Talk by John Buckell, Wednesday 1st July 2015, 7 pm
The Northampton Borough Military Service Tribunal
(from W. H. Holloway Northamptonshire and the Great War, Northampton Central Library)
Since retiring from teaching I have given talks, and written articles and books on local history, especially about the First World War. At the museum on 1st July, I shall be speaking about Northampton’s World War One conscientious objectors. I have immense admiration for the courage and commitment of the men and women who served abroad in the armed forces or on the home front. They rose to a challenge which, at that time, was unique to their generation, and I have written about them elsewhere.
However, for a minority of British men and women, the war presented a different challenge. These were people who were convinced that the war was wrong; that the slaughter could not be justified. Some refused to support the war effort, others actively opposed it, while many no doubt kept their opinions to themselves. With the introduction of conscription in 1916, however, men of military age could longer avoid making a decision. Did they go into the armed forces when summoned, or refuse to fight on grounds of conscience? My talk on 1st July is about the Northampton men who made a principled stand against the war, and became conscientious objectors (C.O.s). They were part of a nationwide anti-war movement.
The stories of 60 Northampton C.O.s can be found in the records of the Northamptonshire Appeals Tribunal. Our county is one of a tiny handful which did not destroy these records at the end of the war. There were more objectors from the other towns and villages in Northamptonshire, but I shall focus on the men from the county town. The 60 probably represent the tip of an iceberg, for the Appeals Tribunal was a second stage in the application procedure. Many more did not get beyond the first stage – the Northampton Borough Tribunal. These cases were sometimes reported in the local press, but without divulging their names.
C.O.s came from all parts of the town, and from all walks of life – clerks, schoolteachers, factory workers and so on. Their motives were also various. Some had religious reasons for refusing military service, and represented a wide spectrum of Christian denominations. Others had moral grounds for objection, including atheists and agnostics, while many more were political objectors. Some accepted non-combatant service in the army, while others were prepared to undertake alternative “work of national importance.” A smaller number endured prison rather than compromise with the military machine.
My talk will tell the stories of representative and interesting individual examples, including that of a man who left a diary of his experiences. Many endured censure, hardship and tribulation, loss of friends and careers, but most were not lone individuals. They belonged to organisations or communities from which they could draw support. The network of men and women who gave sympathy and practical help is also part of the story I shall tell. It is a fascinating glimpse of an aspect of the First World War which is often overlooked.