Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One

Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One

Post talk blog by John Buckell

On the evening of the hottest July day on record (1st July 2015), nine people gathered at the Museum to listen to this talk. They included the granddaughter of a Northampton WW1 conscientious objector, and a Quaker lady from Bournemouth who had grown up in Northampton.

The talk was based on the stories of some of the 60 conscientious objectors (COs) who I have identified in the records of the Northamptonshire Appeals Tribunal. Northamptonshire is one of a very small number of counties that retained these records after the war. I began with an account of the rejection by Northampton Town Council in 1920 of Harold Croft, a nominee for alderman. A majority of councillors refused to accept a man who had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the recent war. The background to conscientious objection was then explained – the introduction of conscription in 1916, the insertion of a conscience clause in the legislation and the setting up of local and county tribunals to judge claims for exemption from military service.

Stories of individual COs were used to illustrate their varying religious, moral and political beliefs, as well as different outcomes to their appeals –non-combatant service, alternative “work of national importance,” or dismissal, sometimes leading to prison and the Home Office Scheme. Evidence from a Northampton man’s diary showed what happened to COs who refused to obey orders when conscripted into the army.

Albert Burrows

Albert Burrows

 

George Nutt

George Nutt

Conscientious objectors who became mayors of Northampton – left, Albert Burrows (1935); right, George Nutt (1959). Northampton Independent Northampton Central Library, courtesy of Northamptonshire Newspapers

Instances of public hostility to COs were given, but also evidence of a local support network – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Quakers and individuals prepared to testify to a man’s genuine conscientious objection to military service. A number of women also gave active moral support, including attendance at courts martial.

The talk concluded with an outline of the future careers of some Northampton COs.

Several questions arose from the talk. How, for example, did tribunals judge the sincerity (or otherwise) of men claiming conscientious objection? Some men were working on military orders for boots, others withdrew appeals and a small number had earlier attested their willingness to serve. These were a minority, however, and it took a strong commitment to principle to face a public tribunal, and possibly the ostracism of neighbours and workmates.

Did the numbers of skilled workers in the boot factories, essential for army boots, result in fewer men being conscripted in Northampton than elsewhere in the country? It is impossible to answer this without comparative figures, but of course many other towns also had their own essential industries. Being a key worker in one of these was certainly firm grounds for exemption, unless substitutes could be trained. Conscience cases were only a small proportion of total exemptions.

Another query concerned the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), a Quaker founded body which tended the wounded at the front, in parallel with the official Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). At least one Northampton CO served in the FAU, but it was oversubscribed and difficult to get into. A small number of Northampton COs did alternative medical work at home with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) of St. John Ambulance Brigade and Red Cross. Others refused even hospital work, on the grounds that it would release another man to fight and kill.

Once again, I am grateful to everyone who attended my talk, especially on such a fine evening, and for the interesting questions raised and answers suggested. Thanks are also due to the family of Wilfrid, William and Wesley Church for permission to use photographs and diary extracts.

 

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Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One

Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One

Talk by John Buckell, Wednesday 1st July 2015, 7 pm

Northampton Borough Military Service Tribunal

Northampton Borough Military Service Tribunal

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.