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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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Len Smith, war artist

It was impossible for any man enlisting as a soldier in the Great War to imagine what experiences he was to have. Not just in terms of the horrors that many of them witnessed – or suffered – at the front, but also in the wide array of things that servicemen did in the war. An example of both is Londoner Len Smith, artist, infantryman, sniper, and camouflage designer.

Private Len Smith (image from his diary)

Private Len Smith (image from his diary)

Arthur Leonard Smith was born in 1892 and grew up in Walthamstow. On 19 September 1914, during the ‘rush to the colours’ following the news of the Retreat from Mons, he joined the London Regiment – in the ‘Shiny Seventh’ battalion. After the war, he wrote his fascinating experiences up in a book, based on his wartime diaries, accompanied by wonderful little illustrations.

Len’s wartime experiences were basically divided into three blocks.

One of Nobby Clark's letters: "Dear Mum, please send me a cake, ten bob and a Christmas Herald. p.s. don't forget the Christmas Herald." - one of Smith's wonderful little illustrations

One of Nobby Clark’s letters: “Dear Mum, please send me a cake, ten bob and a Christmas Herald. p.s. don’t forget the Christmas Herald.” – one of Smith’s wonderful little illustrations

From his arrival in France in March 1915, Smith served as an ordinary infantryman in the 7th Londons. He fought through Festubert and Loos in 1915, the latter being a particularly harrowing experience and a fatal one for many in the Shiny Seventh. He describes the scenes simply, not hiding the horror of the scene but sometimes using understated language, he tries to keep a sense of the narrative of the events. At the slag heaps at Loos:

“They [the Germans} put up a really murderous machine gun barrage – it sounded like very heavy rain on a window – and their shelling was lively and accurate. The distance to our objective was quite 600 yards – and it is extraordinary what drill and discipline can make of men. Although without the slightest means of cover, we got over the ground as if at drill. Men were toppling over on either hand riddled with bullets – yet none wavered or dreamed of hanging back – but kept on steadily until the enemy’s barbed wire was reached. This was unhappily not sufficiently well smashed by our guns, and caused a hold up – the high coal crassiers were lined along the top with snipers and so they had us just where they wanted us – and it was only by sheer luck that any of us got down into the German trench; it was slow, perilous work gingerly picking one’s way through the mesh of wire and then there came the short rush with the bayonet. This is just where everyone who is left finds himself fogged in trying to recollect exactly what did happen in that first mad minute.”

In 1916, he became a sniper for his Brigade, and an official front-line war artist and observer. He made drawings and maps of enemy positions from carefully-chosen vantage-points in no-man’s land (although he was never – as a bizarre claim on the book’s sleeve, from a Telegraph article, claims – working ‘behind enemy lines’).

Len’s sketch of Vimy Ridge in 1916 (from the Telegraph article on his book)

"Advanced Dressing Station. Manned by heroic doctors and nurses" - another of Smith's wonderful illustrations

“Advanced Dressing Station. Manned by heroic doctors and nurses” – another of Smith’s wonderful illustrations

Following an illness in 1917, he ended as one of a small number of British soldiers directing French women working in the construction of camouflage to disguise all sorts of installations – such as artillery batteries – hiding them from the view of German observers and aviators. Although generally a cushy job, he still had to go and visit the units and hardware he was disguising, which could be a dangerous-enough job (hence the need for camouflage!). He was also in charge of groups of Chinese labourers – about whom he is not wholly complimentary.

In late 1918, he entered newly-liberated Lille and helped the Belgians to erect new roadsigns, replacing the German wartime ones. He also saw women who had consorted with the enemy being punished by their compatriots, a scene that would be repeated across Western Europe in 1945.

Smith’s book is a fascinating read, I thoroughly recommend it – it is available for download online, or as a published book entitled ‘Drawing Fire’. It neither avoids nor dwells on the horrors of war and it shows the sheer variety of experiences that an individual – albeit a lucky individual to survive virtually unscathed at the front from 1915 to 1917 – could have in the British Army on the Western Front.

 
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Posted by on 25 January 2013 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Edie Bennett: love and worry

The history of women in the Great War tends to be told in terms of nursing, munitions work and other new directions for young women. Many, like Edie Bennett of Walthamstow, had a war that largely goes untold: getting by and waiting for her husband’s return. The story of her war, her love and her pining for her husband seems fitting for Valentine’s day

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Posted by on 14 February 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Women

 

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