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.
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:
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.
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.