Returning prisoners had from as early as 1914 been an important source of information. In 1914 reports had confirmed the widespread ill-treatment of all those being transported to prison camps in Germany. The number of officers receiving such treatment ensured the authorities took action with a report being published in late 1918.
The son of Mrs Mary Blake from Cardigan had been posted as ‘missing in action’ since April 1918. Private Richard Blake, serving with the South Wales Borderers had only been in France for six days. His fate was revealed by a recently released prisoner and a former comrade. He revealed that he had seen Private Blake shot in the head on April 11th 1918.
The family of Driver J Emlyn Jones had received a cablegram informing them that he had been killed in an accident in Egypt in February 1919. Driver Jones had been in the Army since 1914, and he was buried with full military honours in the British Cemetery, Alexandria. A former soldier, William Evans of Aberystwyth had been released from a Manchester Hospital in April 1918, and had died at home in March 1919.
The April talk on Conscientious objectors in Staffordshire was interesting and highlighted the significance of the discovery in Staffordshire of the paper records of Military Service Tribunals, held under the Military Service Act 1916. These papers had been ordered to be destroyed, so they provide an important insight into the workings of these Tribunals and of those wishing to avoid military service.
The Military Service Act 1916 specified that all men, with exemptions, aged between 18 and 41, were liable for service in the Army. A second Act in 1916 included all married men, and a third Act in 1918 extended the age limit to 51.
Those men or employers who objected could apply to a Military Service Tribunal for exemption. Grounds for exemption included, being employed in essential or war related activities, or where military service would cause serious hardship arising from financial, business or domestic situations. It also excluded men who were ill or infirm and most controversially men who had a conscientious objection to military service.
In Birmingham there are many examples of men who were exempted as they were working in munitions or other war related engineering establishments. A farmer might be able to retain one of his sons to work the farm, but the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, despite his reservations, went to war so that his younger brother could remain on the farm. A lecturer at UCW, Frank Smith, was able to remain in his post in the Teacher’s Training Department, having regard to his ‘exceptional qualifications’.
George Cadbury was a committed Pacifist and Quaker, but saw his family making a range of different decisions in response to war. Egbert had a distinguished career in the RNAS, and Norman an engineer, became Director of a company that manufactured shell components. Laurence, his eldest son, remained true to his Quaker beliefs and went to France in 1914 with the Friends Ambulance Unit. Molly, his sister, became a nurse and worked at a military hospital in France, while Dolly worked at Fircroft which became a VAD Hospital.
When conscripted, aged 30, Wilfred Ernest Littleboy was a Quaker working in Birmingham. At his Tribunal, which was Chaired by Neville Chamberlain, he was given a month to consider his Absolutist views. He was then referred to the Non Combatant Corps and finally sent to Warwick Barracks. He appeared at a court martial for refusing to wear the uniform and spent a total of two and a half years in Dorchester Prison. His three brothers were also conscientious objectors, but on his release in 1919, Wilfred returned to his accountancy business.
Oliver Banwell was a primary school teacher in Stirchley, Birmingham. He was a Pacifist but was sent to the Non Combatant Corps at Chiseldon Camp in Wiltshire. He refused to maintain the rifle range and was sentenced to two years hard labour in May 1918. He was released from Winchester Prison in June 1919.
It is important to stress that only 6,000 of the 16,000 conscientious objectors were Absolutists , who when forcibly enlisted in the Non Combatant Corps, refused to obey military orders and were subsequently Court Martialled and sent to prison. There were, however, examples across the country.
York was another centre where sixteen Quakers appeared before a Tribunal. In recent years the messages they wrote on the wall of their cells in Richmond Castle have come to light and highlight the sincerity of their religious beliefs and the conviction that they might be killed for those beliefs. They were shipped to France and sentenced to death and treated very badly. Some were tied to a barbed wire fence and others stripped and tied to a crucifix.
In Cornwall, a Quaker called Wilfrid Treganza from Boslandew House in the village of Paul, having achieved a Double First at Cambridge, volunteered for The Friends Ambulance Unit in 1915. He appeared before a Tribunal in 1916, and was regarded as a deserter and sentenced to ten years hard labour in Dartmoor. After the war he became a Headmaster and a Schools Inspector helping to reform Secondary Education.
Leicester, compared to other East Midland towns had a much lower level of recruitment to the forces. Some put this down to the importance of the Nonconformist Churches in Leicester. Sidney Collins was one of a number of Conscientious Objectors from The Church of Christ in Leicester saying to the Tribunal ‘To fight is not in harmony with the teachings of Jesus’.
On leaving the Tribunal, Sidney Collins was met by a large crowd of some supporters but also many opposed to his views. He was protected on his way to the Barracks by mounted soldiers. Often the families of conscientious objectors were also targeted for abuse or even worse. At Ditton Priors in Shropshire, a wooden hut being used by 35 men in the Non Combatant Corps working in a nearby Quarry was burnt down by arsonists.
In Wales the Nonconformist Chapels were not as enthusiastic about the War as the Church of England, but despite that recruitment was very strong and the sacrifice great as the many village memorials will testify. A teacher from my old school Dr D J Davies applied for absolute exemption. His application stated he believed all human life was sacred and that he could not take on himself the responsibility of depriving any human of life. The case was covered in great detail in the local press and Dr Davies was granted exemption as long as he remained as a teacher. Despite this, Dr Davies was dismissed by the School Governors. After many protests from a cross section of the local community he was reinstated. Two Theological College students who appeared at the same tribunal were granted exemption provided they serve in the RAMC.
Perhaps the last word should go to the Bishop of Birmingham, Henry Wakefield, who believed that conscientious objectors had no right to the privileges of citizenship.
Aberystwyth and the Great War. William Troughton
Birmingham 1914/1918. Alan Tucker
Web Sites: BBC World War 1 At Home (Conscientious Objectors)
Conscientious Objectors in Birmingham in WW1
Cardiganshire and the Great War