Conscription and Conscientious Objectors


By mid 1915, as it became increasingly clear that the war was unlikely to end in the immediate future, and casualties were averaging 5000 a day, pressure was mounting in favour of conscription.   Nevertheless, opposition to compulsion remained strong, particularly amongst liberals, socialists and trade unionists, who regarded it as a step towards industrial conscription.  In order to preserve national unity the government had to proceed cautiously. The result was “creeping conscription”, a series of steps which progressively eroded the “voluntary principle”.

In August 1915 all men and women aged between 15 and 65 were required to place their names and occupations on a national register. The government denied that this was a step towards conscription, arguing that registration was necessary if it was to make informed decisions about the allocation of human resources.  Nevertheless, all men of military age had their names transferred to pink forms, with those in essential industries being “starred”.

In October, under the “Derby Scheme” men aged between 19 and 42 were asked to “attest”, that is to confirm that they would come forward for military service as and when their “groups” were called upon. As a sweetener, those who enlisted immediately would be allowed to join the regiment of their choice.  To increase the moral pressure, the government promised that no married men would be called-up until all bachelors were serving.  Once again, there were official denials that this was a preliminary to conscription, yet it was soon made clear that unless sufficient men “attested” the days of the voluntary system were numbered.  Considerable moral pressure was put upon men to attest.  Employers, including local councils, were  urged to ensure that they did not replace men who enlisted with others who were eligible.  Most miners remained exempt from military service because of the importance of coal to the war effort, but the South Wales Gazette complained that large numbers of men were coming into the Monmouthshire valleys, particularly form Radnorshire, to work in the mines as a way of avoiding enlistment.

In the event, only about half of the eligible men attested and in January 1916 the Military Service Bill introduced conscription for all single men.  This was in turn followed by universal conscription in May 1916.

Conscription did more than any other issue to divide the Labour Movement during the war.  Labour M.Ps, including William Brace, M.P. for South Glamorgan and prospective candidate for Abertillery, had joined the coalition in May 1915 and as such were compelled to support government policy, but many trade unionists bitterly opposed the whole principle.  In September 1915 the Blaina District of the South Wales miners Federation,  responded  to a circular from the Monmouthshire Defence Committee, which called for the introduction of conscription, by accusing the “county magnates” of trying to push Britain into “militarism for all time”, while local branches of the NUR went so far as to call for a “national stoppage” if it was introduced.  Such opposition led the political leaders of the county to tread carefully and to adapt their words to suit different audiences.  In October Sir Ivor Herbert M.P., Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, spoke at a meeting in Cross Keys in which he stated that he supported the principle of conscription but preferred to call it “National Service”.  The following week, at a recruiting meeting in Abertillery, he declared himself to be “no believer in compulsion or conscription”.

The divisions in the Labour Movement were clear in the meetings held in January 1916, when the Military Service Bill began its passage through parliamant.  Abertillery Trades and Labour Council organised an anti-conscription meeting in the town’s Metropole Theatre, chaired by George Barker, the Abertillery Miners’ Agent.  The meeting demonstrated the division of opinion, with many of the speakers finding themselves heckled from the floor.  There were similar scenes at protest meetings organised by the miners in Blaenavon, Pontnewynydd and Abersychan.

Some amongst Gwent’s Irish population were faced with a dilemma by conscription.  Most served loyally as volunteers or conscripts, but some could not bring themselves to fight for a country they regarded as their oppressor.  In January 1917 William Connolly, a Sinn Feiner,  was handed over to the military authorities by  Newport magistrates after he had refused to obey the call-up.

There were many appeals to local tribunals from men on the grounds that they were doing essential war work and could not be replaced,  that they were single-handedly running businesses upon which their families were entirely dependent, or upon grounds of conscientious objection.  The logic behind the decisions by these tribunals was not always obvious.  In march 1916 the Newport tribunal granted exemption from combatant service to two Jehovah’s Witnesses, but refused exemption to a Quaker and three Christadelphians and granted only temporary exemption to a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

Those who appealed against conscription on conscientious grounds included a number of socialists who were members of the No Conscription Fellowship.  In May 1916, five Newport conscientious objectors who had been taken into the army against their wishes were court martialled at the military camp at Kinmel Park, North Wales, charged with refusing to obey military orders. They were sentenced to two years hard labour.

In October 1916 Newport Education Committee effectively dismissed one of its teachers, Mr A. B. Moon,  who had declared himself to be a conscientious objector on the grounds that he was a pacifist,  by ruling that his contract had terminated on the day he received his call-up papers.

The increasingly militarised and authoritarian nature of society became particularly apparent in September 1916 when military policemen and members of the local constabulary carried out a “round up” in Newport, stopping all men of military age to check if they had documents (such as Tribunal or Medical Board certificates) exempting them from military service.  Those who failed to produce documents had their   names and addresses taken and were ordered to report to the nearest police station with the documents.  Those who the police regarded as suspicious were immediately taken into custody while their stories were checked.

The campaigns of 1916 had taken such a toll on the British Army that, in spite of conscription, the government was desperately seeking new sources of manpower.  Throughout the war there was a tug-of-war between the army and the mines for manpower.  In November 1916 many miners serving in the forces had been released to return to the mines, but early in 1917 the government initiated a “comb out” of miners, particularly of surface workers and of men who had gone into the mines since the war began.  It was aimed to take 2.7% of the workforce from the mines by conscripting quotas of men aged between 19 and 23 from each pit.  Of the 20,000 miners to be taken, 4,500 were to come from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. A conference of recruiting officers in South Wales agreed that this would best be achieved by asking the SWMF  to join them in forming recruiting committees in the mines. Adverts appealing for miners to volunteer were placed in the newspapers and a Monmouthshire Colliery Recruiting Court was subsequently established to visit the pits and examine miners’ claims to exemption.  The campaign, which initially targeted only those men who had started work in the mines since the war began,  met with some success and by early April it was reported that batches of young miners were voluntarily leaving the valleys to join up.  There were, however, protests and threats of strike action when the “comb out” was extended to those who had been employed at the pits since before 1914. A ballot was held on the issue but, with the SWMF Executive campaigning against a strike, such an action was rejected by 86,000 to 24,000.  The Western Valleys Miners Council did, however, subsequently recommend that lodges should not cooperate with the comb-out.