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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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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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