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Category Archives: Military Service Tribunal

The Non-Combatant Corps: a tale of three objectors

The most famous stories about conscription in Great War Britain are those of Conscientious Objectors. As with any other group, their stories varied enormously, as the stories of three men who ended up in the Non-Combatant Corps: A.J. Munro, W. Cooper and A.J. Elsdon.

Non-Combatant Corps capbadge

Non-Combatant Corps capbadge

When compulsory military service was introduced in 1916, men were entitled to claim conscientious objection to military service. This was an option refused to conscripts in other countries (including France), but it was widely seen as an option taken by ‘shirkers’ and cowards who simply did not want to fight. After 18 months of war and ceaseless calls for more men, it was hard for many people (including many tribunal members) to believe that anyone could not want to fight for their country if they were fit and able.

The Military Service Act 1916 (as posted on the Great War Forum in full) contained section 2(3), which read:

“Any certificate of exemption may be absolute, conditional, or temporary, as the authority by whom it was granted think best suited to the case, and also in the case of an application on conscientious grounds, may take the form of an exemption from combatant service only, or may be conditional on the applicant being engaged in some work which in the opinion of the Tribunal dealing with the case is of national importance […]”

The phrasing of the section on conscientious objectors (COs), which bears the hallmarks of a late inclusion in the text, led many to misunderstand what was allowed. The Act was supposed to offer absolute, conditional or temporary exemptions to COs, with an additional option of non-combatant service. The phrasing, though, could easily (if perhaps willfully) be misread as suggesting that only non-combatant service was available to COs.

Many tribunals, unsure of how to judge the validity of philosophical objections to war, opted for the non-combat route as one that seemed suit everyone: they got rid of the CO, the CO was not forced to take part in combat, and the military got an extra soldier. However, it was not so simple: many objectors objected absolutely to military service and refused to take up even non-combatant service.

The units that many of these men were sent into were companies of the Non-Combatant Corps, part of the Labour Corps. The NCC was mocked my many soldiers, the press and others, gaining the nick-name ‘No-Courage Corps. One soldier sent in his idea for a regimental crest to the Daily Mirror:

(Daily Mirror 20/4/1916)

(Daily Mirror 20/4/1916)

Walthamstow clerk Arthur James Elsdon was called up in the summer of 1916 at the age of 21 and claimed a conscientious objection to military service. When he was enrolled in the army, he refused to sign his service papers. He was allocated No 4 Eastern Company on 15 June, and on the 23rd was tried to 112 days hard labour. It is not clear from his service papers what he had done wrong, but it is likely that he was refusing orders from superiors, as many absolutist COs did. In September, Elsdon was transferred to the army reserve.

Elsdon refused to sign his service papers.

Elsdon refused to sign his service papers.

In early 1917, the authorities decided to put Elsdon to work and he was ordered to work at Messrs Bibby’s, a large oil mill in Liverpool. On 31 March 1917, though, having not arrived in Liverpool he was recalled to the army; since No 4 company was in Ireland, he was ordered to report to No 10 company at Gravesend on 6 April. Eldson wrote to the War Office asking whether this was right, as his unit was No 4. He also told them that he was in correspondence with an MP about the Home Office employment schemes that were, by then, being used to occupy conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the armed forces.

Elsdon never arrived at Gravesend. A policeman called at his father’s house in Westbury Road, Walthamstow, where he heard that Arthur had called at the house on the 6th (presumably the day he wrote the letter) but disappeared – the house was kept under observation but no sign of the young man was forthcoming. Eventually, he was apprehended in March 1918 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

William Cooper, a coffin-maker from Barking, also ended up in jail. His route was slightly different, though. Although his faith as a member of the Plymouth Brethren meant that he was opposed to military service, his father made an appeal to the local tribunal on the basis of William being indispensable to their business. A tribunal hearing on 16 June 1916 accepted this reason and exempted him, although another in October made it conditional on joining the St John’s Ambulance, which Cooper promptly did.

On 21 December, it was announced that being an undertaker was no longer deemed work of national importance. In March, Cooper’s exemption was upheld, only to be cancelled in April. At a hearing on 24 April 1917, he told the tribunal of his conscientious objection but it was rejected as having been formed since the start of the war (which was not a valid ground for exemption) because it had not been part of his previous appeals. Through April and May he wrote to the War Office and to David Lloyd George about his case: that his father had made the previous appeal and ignored his conscientious objection.

Cooper’s appeals were not enough though and he reported to Westminster to join the Rifle Brigade. Despite reporting there, Cooper refused to obey orders and was sent to the guard room, where he found another CO, but this man was rude and objectionable so Cooper asked to be moved into another room, which he was. He ended up being sent to Wormwood Scrubs and later served in the NCC. (Cooper’s diary is available to read in the Liddle Collection in Leeds)

Different again was the story of Andrew John Munro, a schoolmaster from Enfield, who appeared before Croydon tribunal on 3 March 1916. Oddly, Munro had been previously served in the 20th London (the Blackheath and Woolwich battalion) – presumably either pre-war or in the second or third-line unit. He was exempted from combatant service and was called up on 23 March and joined the 1st Eastern Company NCC. A month later he was in France.

Munro served out the rest of the war doing labour work in the NCC in France. He spent most of the war serving in a detachment with the 19th (Western) Division on the Western Front, serving with them from November 1916 to May 1917 and again from October 1917 onwards. Unlike Cooper and Elsdon, Munro was apparently content with his role in the army – his disciplinary record is completely clean.

The Non-Combatant Corps was an attempt to give those who objected to taking human life a way to serve in the army. Many were allocated to it unthinkingly: those who objected to military service as a whole, either for religious or political reasons, simply could not countenance serving in even this unit. For some, though, it was an appropriate vehicle for them to serve their country when the law mandated that they should, without having to take direct part in the fighting. Other objectors took up work in the Royal Army Medical Corps in order to save lives rather than take them (just as many quakers had joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit early in the war).

Conscientious Objectors were a diverse group, including absolutists who fled or were arrested rather than serve and those who did labouring work for the Home Office well away from the military, as well as those who were content to serve in the military a non-combat role.

 

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The Kaiser’s Own

In previous posts we have seen how some ‘alien enemies’ were attacked by their fellow Londoners, and how others joined up to fight for Britain. Others, naturalised citizens or British-born with parents who were aliens ended up as labourers in the Middlesex Regiment’s Alien Labour units.

In 1916, Army Orders established two new battalions in the Middlesex Regiment. These would contain recruits who were British citizens but the children of immigrants from nations with whom Britain was at war; the men were promised that they would not have to bear arms against the enemy. The units were named the 30th and 31st battalions and they served only in the UK. Some additional similar Labour Companies were also formed in 1917 and served in France. The units were known (rather cruelly) by some as “The Kaiser’s Own”.

Crest of the Middlesex Regiment

Several Londoners served in the 31st Battalion – which ended the war based in Croydon.

Hugo Max Norman Hotopf was born in Northumberland in 1881, the son of Hugo and Johanna who were German immigrants naturalised as British citizens in 1895. By the start of the Great War he was married, living in Lewisham, and had a son – William Hugh Norman Hotopf, born June 1914. Norman was working as a dye expert for the rather Germanic-sounding Badische Company in Brunswick Place near Old Street.

In 1916 he appealed for exemption from military service at the Shoreditch Military Service Tribunal, explaining that he was a chemical expert whose work was helping the British war effort. The Daily Mirror (19/8/1916) picked up on the story after Hotopf recounted his time before the war (in 1905-13) working at the chemical works at Ludwighafen, which the British had bombed in 1915.  The fate of that appeal is not reported, but he was eventually conscripted into the 31st Middlesex.

Hotopf’s appeal reported in the Daily Mirror, 19/8/1916

After the war, the Hotopfs continued to live in Lewisham, adding a daughter (Ruth) to the family in 1919. They retained links with Germany, though, with Norman junior spending part of his youth there before going to Cambridge University. In March 1938, Norman senior and his wife (then living in Forest Hill) attended a farewell dinner held for German ambassador Herr von Ribbentrop in London. They also went to Germany, where Norman senior died in April – in Bühlerhöhe, Baden-Baden. Norman junior became a prestigious professor of psychology.

Oddly, a neighbour of Hotopf’s  in Queensthorpe Road, Sydenham was also in the Battalion. Walter R Kinge lived at number 20, a few doors down from Hotopf at number 14, and served in the 31st Middlesex.

Alois Frederick Pfeiffer was born in around 1889 in Bermondsey, son of Alois Pfeiffer from Bavaria and his English-born wife Emma (technically, she became German when she married Alois). Alois senior and Emma were licenced victualler’s assistants in 1901 – they worked in a pub – and at some point after her husband’s death in 1905, Emma became the landlady of the Leather Exchange Tavern in Bermondsey.

When the Great War came along, two of Emma’s sons served in the British Army. Frederick Charles Pfeiffer served in the 2nd/4th London Regiment, which went out to Egypt in August 1915 and on to Gallipoli in October. Frederick died there in November aged 24. His elder brother Alois junior ended up in B Company of the 31st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment.

In February 1919, Alois junior was still in the unit and his mother made an appeal for his release on compassionate grounds. Frustrated by slow progress, Emma Pfeiffer went to her MP – Harold Glanville – who brought up the case in parliament. Eventually, Alois F Pfeiffer returned to Bermondsey and lived in London for several more decades.

Unlike Hotopf and Pfeiffer, Edward Kehlstadt was actually born in Germany, in the town of Gebweiler, Alsace (now in France). When he became liable for service in the British armed forces in 1916, he was a stockbroker’s clerk living with his English-born wife Blanche in (aptly, or unfortunately) in Berlin Road, Catford - renamed Canadian Avenue in 1918. Edward Kehlstadt joined the 31st Middlesex in March 1917. After training, he joined the 3rd Infantry Labour Company in France in June 1917; he served with them for more than a year. Following a spell of leave back in the UK in the summer of 1918, he went back out to France, but only until September 1918.

Edward Kehlstadt’s record of service

After being admitted to hospital with boils, Edward Kehlstadt was sent back to England at the end of September and back to the 31st Battalion. A few weeks later, he died in Cavendish Bridge Voluntary Aid Detatchment (VAD) Hospital in Shardlow, Derbyshire, on 21 October 1918. A few days later, he was buried in Ladywell cemetery.

Blanche Kehlstadt wrote to the War Office requesting a badge of the Middlesex Regiment as a memento of her husband’s service with the unit. Edward’s name appears on the war memorial at St Mary’s Church, Lewisham, where he and Blanche had married in 1909.

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These three men, two English with German parents, one German-born but naturalised as a British citzen, were all Londoner’s who served in ‘The Kaiser’s Own’. It is impossible to know, but interesting to ponder what their feelings were about serving in an army that was fighting their – or their family’s – homeland. Did Hotopf’s links to Germany make him reluctant to join up? Did Kehlstadt the Alsatian-Londoner feel German, English, or even French when he served in the Labour Company in France? Wars hold millions of stories about millions of men, women and children. These three men and their families had a different war from those around them, with closer ties to the enemy than most had they were not trusted to (or were sympathetically allowed not to) fight at the front, but still served their country.

 
 

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A year of Great War London

This blog has now been going for a year. At the risk of being a little self-congratulatory, I thought it would be good to look back over some of the people, places and events that we have seen in the posts.

Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, by Richard Jack.

Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, by Richard Jack.

We have met Londoners who performed great acts of heroism, like Revd Noel Mellish, Arthur Feldwick and CLR Falcy. There was also James Collis, who had been stripped of his Victoria Cross but had it restored after his death in the Great War. Lancelot Dickinson Chapmen pretended to have earned the VC.

We also met the Slatter brothers, Reginald Savory (who, contrary to reports, did not die in the war) CO Oglethorpe (who was not a spy), burns victim HR Lumley, war artist Eric Kennington, drowned soldier AJ Duddeidge, propaganda speakers Thomas Harper and the Bishop of London, musician Percy Gayer, youngster H.J. Bryant, and Henry Allingham – who outlived all other British Great War veterans.

Sportsmen played their part in the war, men like Harry Lee, Bob Whiting and Reggie Schwarz.  So too did the Golliwog.

Men from London’s ethnic minorities served in the British army, including young Czech men and the Jewish battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, two of the British army’s first black officers also left the capital to serve in the war.

We also met Hilda Hewlett, an aviator pioneer; Edie Bennett, longing for her soldier husband; hero’s widow Gertrude Jarratt; and brave women like Mary Bushby Stubbs, Sara Bonnell and nurse Beatrice Allsop.

Other soldiers committed crimes like Henry Canham, who murdered his cheating wife, or WJ Woolner the underage soldier who went on the run from the army.

People found out about the war through the Field Service Postcards, letters (read by censors like Martin Hardie) and through films like The Battle of the Somme, the most successful British film of the age.

Familiar London sites and objects took on a different look or role in the war: St James’s Park hosted Government departments, a factory in Silvertown was destroyed in a huge explosion, the London bus went to war, war-workers’ housing was erected in Woolwich, an ice-rink held stores for the Red Cross, town halls played host to Military Service Tribunals, the British Museum was locked up for the duration, a German submarine arrived in the Thames, and the American YMCA ‘Eagle Hut’ opened in Aldwych.

Germans have appeared in London in the form of civilians interned at Stratford, air raiders (who damaged Cleopatra’s Needle), victims of rioting, and the British Royal Family. They also met with Londoners in the British Army in the 1914 Christmas truce. Meanwhile, a mock Iron Hindenburg appeared in Stepney.

And finally, we have seen the first London war memorials of the Great War and the Royal Naval Division’s memorial, and met one of the men depicted on the Royal Artillery memorial. We have seen the arrival of the Unknown Warrior, a protest at the Cenotaph, and seen its Hyde Park predecessor.

 

Should he stay or should he go: London’s Military Service Tribunals

In 1916, British men were conscripted for military service for the first time in modern history.  It was not all done by a faceless bureaucratic machine, though. Those who felt they or their employees should not serve were able to appeal to Military Service Tribunals – and many did.

The Military Service Act (MSA) of 1916 – and other Acts with the same name following it – made all British men liable to be called up for compulsory military service. At first the law applied only to unmarried men and those who had ‘attested their willingness to serve’ under the Derby Scheme – a form of voluntary conscription – but soon it was extended to all men of military age. Most men who joined the armed forces after March 1916, when conscription came into force, were in one of these groups: Derby men and conscripts.

British troops by Riqueval Bridge, 1918. By this point many of the soldiers on the front line were conscripts.

The Derby Scheme had led to the formation of thousands of local tribunals, which were to assess men’s appeals against being called up. With the new Military Service Act, the tribunals took on a wider role in dealing also with men who were to be conscripted.

A total of 2,086 local Military Service Tribunals were formed across Britain (not the UK because conscription was never used in Ireland), along with 83 county appeal tribunals at which the decisions of the local bodies could be challenged. A Central Tribunal in London dealt with the toughest cases, particularly those that set precedent for others to follow.

The men (and it was almost entirely men) who staffed these tribunals did so free of charge. Mayors and chairmen of local councils were asked to form the tribunals and mostly chaired them. These chairmen were asked to identify men of good character and judgement to form tribunals of at least five members, with three as the quorum. Most tribunal members were local councillors, but there were also labour (in urban areas) and agricultural (in rural areas) representatives on most.

The final regular attendee was the Military Representative, whose job was to advocate for the military – primarily to argue that each man should be conscripted.  Although their popular image after the war was as Colonel-Blimp types, belligerent and out of touch, most military representatives were actually local men (many were also lawyers, with a good understanding of the laws they were dealing with). The tribunals would hear the case put by the man against his conscription and the case put on behalf of the military; they would then decide whether to exempt the man from military service.

Exemptions could be asked for on the basis of medical unfitness, exceptional business or personal circumstances (such as the potential collapse of their business, or that they were vital in caring for elderly relatives), work of national importance, and conscientious objection. They could be granted absolute, conditional, temporary or -in cases of conscience – for non-combatant service, or the appeal could be rejected and the man would remain liable to serve. Cases could also be referred to the appeal tribunal,  by the local (borough) tribunal or when either the Military Representative or applicant wanted to challenge the tribunal’s decision.

Tribunals are mainly remembered today (if they are remembered at all) for the harsh treatment accorded to Conscientious Objectors (COs). It is true that many genuine conscience cases were unfairly dismissed by tribunals across the country and the applicants mocked and verbally assaulted, but many were also granted non-combatant roles – especially when this was viewed as the only exemption option open to tribunals, due to a badly-worded piece of legislation.

It is important to note that very very few of the cases heard by local tribunals were on brought on the basis of conscience. Roughly 2% of appeals nationwide were COs; although this was probably higher in London, as they were more frequent in urban areas, it would still have been a small proportion of appeals. These cases were prominent at the time because people were interested in them – in much the same way that they remained prominent after the war because people wrote and bought books about COs and opposition to the war.

As an example of the workload faced by tribunals in their first months, this is the breakdown of cases recorded in Ilford up to the end of March 1916 – after a month of conscription and three months of Derby Scheme hearings (Ilford Recorder 21/4/1916):

  • Applications received: Derby cases 371, potential MSA conscripts 37: total 408
  • Applications assented to by the Military Representative: 130 (i.e. the MR agreed that the man should not be conscripted in these cases), of which 128 confirmed by tribunal without a hearing, 2 ‘decided by tribunal’
  • Adjudicated by the Tribunal: 225 – another 39 were adjourned and 14 withdrawn
  • Results: Absolute exceptions 6; conditionals 15; Non-Combatant Corps 12 (i.e. CO cases given exemption from fighting but not from military service); temporary exemption 106; exemption not granted 84; cases under consideration at central tribunal: 3
  • Grounds: Domestic 73; business 42; domestic and business 9; conscience 12; medical 4
  • Appeals against the tribunal’s decision: by Military Representative 3, by applicant 9 (a total of 12)
  • Decided by appeal tribunal – 10 confirmed, 2 amended

We can see from this that over a third of appeals were granted without a hearing at the tribunal; of those the tribunal heard over half were given exemptions from military service (i.e. over two thirds of applications were successful to some degree). In general, across the country, very few ‘absolute’ exemptions were granted, which makes sense given that conditional and temporary exemptions meant that if the man’s circumstances changed (for example a change of job, recovery from illness, or the end of a commitment to care for a relative) they could be called up or reconsidered by the tribunal.

Note that all 12 conscience cases resulted in NCC service (and were only 3% of the 408 applications received). This usually meant that the tribunal thought that there was a genuine conscientious case being put, but that that men should still make a sacrifice. This early on, it might also have been that the tribunal members were unaware that they could grant absolute or conditional exemptions to COs. At the same time, tribunals may have used this option simply to get rid of applicants whose moral stance on the war they simply could not understand. Of course the NCC option was unacceptable to some COs, who objected to any form of military service.

On August 4th, it was reported that the Ilford Tribunal had so far heard 1,896 cases, in addition to considering the positions hundreds in certified occupations (i.e. men whose jobs kept them out of the military). They had been holding three meetings per week, with around 200 applications received each week and 350 still to be heard. By the end of June 1916, 748,587 men had applied to tribunals across Britain. Over the same period around 770,000 men joined the army, suggesting that more men appealed against serving than went without an appeal (if we assume that some of those new soldiers had failed in applications to tribunals).

The tribunals did a great deal of work during the latter half of the war, trying to weigh up the needs of the military and the needs of communities and families in Britain. They were civilians who performed a vital job in keeping Britain going in wartime and deserve to be remembered for their hard work – not just their often harsh treatment of those who opposed the war.

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Read more:

James McDermott – British Military Service Tribunals (a book on Northamptonshire’s tribunals)

Adrian Gregory - Adrian Gregory, ‘Military Service Tribunals: civil society in action’, in Jose Harris, Civil Society in British History (Oxford: 2003), pp. 177-191.

 
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Posted by on 31 August 2012 in Military Service Tribunal, People, Recruitment

 

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