By Pat Baker
By 1916, the supply of volunteer soldiers was running out, with 420,000 British Servicemen having died in the first 18 months of the First World War. In January 1916, the Military Service Act was made law by Parliament and introduced compulsory conscription so the military forces would be continuously supplied with able-bodied men. Single men between the ages of 18 and 41 discovered that from 2nd March 1916, they were already enlisted in the armed forces. Later that year, conscription was extended to married men, and by 1918 the upper age limit had been extended to 51.
Enshrined in the Act was a clause allowing men to seek exemption at a Tribunal. This included men already engaged in work of national importance, those with exceptional financial or business obligations or family obligations. The inclusion of a conscience clause was the first of its kind in the world, and by the end of the war approximately 20,000 men had applied for exemption as conscientious objectors. Their experiences were very different depending on the alternatives they were offered at their Tribunal. 4,600 joined the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit, the Royal Army Medical Corps or the Non-Combatant Corps. These areas were seen as fundamental to the war effort without being combatant roles, although they remained quite dangerous positions, and several died filling these roles. Another 6,000 conscientious objectors were sent to prisons around Britain, where at least 73 of them died as a result of ill-treatment and conditions. A memorial to all conscientious objectors worldwide now stands in Tavistock Garden Square, London. Its inscription reads: “To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill,” and around the edging, “To commemorate men & women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world in every age.”
By the end of June 1916, about 770,000 men had been conscripted. Over the same period, around 750,000 men had applied to Tribunals for exemption.
Objecting on the grounds of conscience was seen by many in the military and in British society as a cowardly position to take. However, the conscientious objectors were courageous in being prepared to stand up for their principles and to die for their beliefs.
Cheshire had about 330 conscientious objectors, including the first to die in a British prison camp, Walter Roberts, from Bredbury, near Stockport, and a farmer from the Macclesfield area who was quoted in the local press as saying he was prepared to suffer rather than serve in any capacity. He would take any punishment that could be inflicted on him – either imprisonment or even death rather than assist in the prosecution of the war.