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Conscription, Conscientious Objection and Military Service

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 07 December 2014
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


This tale of English military might and discipline never to be seen again.



I seek to answer the question, what did these policies say about the significance of the very small minority of those refusing point blank to serve in our Armed Forces and their relations to those fighting this war of monumental British Casualties (1914-18). At the back of the minds of those who were the architects of the Military Service (Conscription) legislation, was the fear the numbers of men conscripted post this Conscription Act of 1916, would be severely depleted if men could evade and avoid military service too freely. Already in 1914 and 1915 over two and a half million British men had offered themselves voluntarily to serve their Country and King George V to fight in this War to end all wars: A phenomenal response to Kitchener’s clarion call to arms. Yet the Western Front battles of 1914 and 1915 and the Somme in 1916, with the unexpected ghastly losses in the debacle of the Dardanelles, and our hasty retreat in the face of those casualties in that theatre, made Conscription the logical and inevitable next step. It still required courage and composure to enact and administer. It had never been tried.


The initial Court Martials of the objectors who were absolutely opposed to military service: This was the point of the cutting edge at the coal face. The objectors would not flinch and they did not belong to religions opposed to War like the Christadelphians and Adventists. These absolutists would do no work to progress the war effort. You should never provoke those who administer justice in England and Wales. The absolutists were condemned to military detention for their refusal to compromise in the period 1916-1919. Hostilities ceased as we all know on 11th November 1918 but demobilisation took longer. These absolutists were considered to be in military service hence the Court Martials for Mutiny in effect and military detention: the sentence applicable, (their releases thus were not complete until end 1919).


The Country – were strongly for the Cabinet, the War Office and the Army, particularly our Commander in Chief in France, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. In France British Soldiers guilty of desertion were met with Court Martials in that theatre and almost invariably, if convicted, faced a firing squad. Haig would spare the deserter very rarely. The casualty count was appalling at the Front, and for British Officers and men on the Western Front the numbers of dead and injured has never been seen since or before this conflict not even in World War II. Haig fully supported the Military Service Act of 1916 and the way conscription was enforced in relation to absolutist objectors and other conscientious objectors. He was the one with the ear to the ground – the soldiers and their officers in France were proof of his popularity. Those at home knew this perfectly well. It was France that counted more than any other theatre to Britain and her allies.


Hobhouse (Stephen) was a Quaker absolutist who had worked in charity in Toynbee Hall pre-War in East London. He had been educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford. He came from a very distinguished family and his parents, particularly his mother, campaigned for his release from Military detention where he had been detained as an objector refusing all War work and to work in the service of the British Crown. Effectively, although a conscientious objector, Stephen Hobhouse was considered to be in the British Army as were all convicted absolutists. His supporters included General Jan Smuts, the Afrikaaner, and a member of our Great War Cabinet (Yet no conscientious objector himself). Smuts practically seconded the petition by Stephen Hobhouse’s parents to the Home Secretary (and the Army Council) to discharge their son and release him. As Dr John Rae writes in his excellent work on this subject (OUP 1970) (Page 224) – (Conscience and Politics). Hobhouse was about to be released when Smuts wrote to Lord Derby in support. He duly was in December 1917. Most, if not all the remaining absolutist objectors, were released gradually thereafter. There were a total of 1,200 objectors imprisoned over a period of three years according to Rae (page 227) (1917-1919). The problem of those absolutely refusing to serve was reduced to a miniscule amount therefore, thanks to the Conscription measures.


If a country with a population and industrial base the size of Britain (1916-18) is faced with a struggle of titanic proportions, as on the 1916-18 Western Front, not forgetting Jutland, the Atlantic, Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamia, the leadership has to respond to the challenge and put this Country on a war footing in its entirety. Lloyd George and Asquith before him succeeded in doing so. The Court Martials of objectors (and the Tribunals) sent out the clear signal, Britain means “business”, not only to our men of fighting age, but also more crucially to Imperial Germany our principal enemy. “Business” meant every man of eligible age and physically suitable condition would be conscripted after the Military Service Act of 1916 had been enacted. This was no gamble or calculated risk.

We had never faced conscription of this scale before. It was the machinery of military recruitment, civil administration and military justice applied to the task of putting the largest infantry army we will ever deploy into the field. Those in charge of this recruitment and the regime of processing objectors were entirely justified as Haig also believed in the field. Their measures and policy lead directly to the victory in 1918 and before winning the attritional but deeply weakening to Germany battles of the Somme, Arras, Delville Wood, Messines Ridge, Ypres and Paschendale – all British offensives (but only to name some) under Haig’s leadership. Yes the “big push” came in Spring 1918 and Ludendorf broke through the British lines of our fatigued men. We were not meant to do it alone – Marechal Foch deployed his reserves of French troops kept fresh by British efforts. Our men held firm either side of the gap in the line. Conscription had more than paid off. The war to all intents and purposes was won in late spring 1918, thanks to the Anglo-French entente and our conscription policy emboldening our Armies.