Echoes of Conscience

Selecting extracts from The Tribunal has been a highly enjoyable but quite hard task. What to choose out of all the often passionate, often insightful, often moving stories from the First World War which might otherwise be forgotten?

The Tribunal was a newspaper published by the No Conscription Fellowship from 1916, when the Military Service Act introduced conscription into British law. The story of conscientious objection in this country has been seriously neglected; the dominant narrative being that, however tragic the war was, people went to war without complaint and did largely as they were told. This is very far from being the whole truth.

In picking these extracts, however, I make no claim to the historical relevance or importance of all or even any of them. It would be best to consult the actual newspapers themselves if you wish for that kind of information. Nor do I claim any kind of neutrality; but then The Tribunal itself was hardly neutral in its support for the C.O.’s.

Instead, I have been looking out for human stories, humour, wit and, in the case of several of them, just plain good writing. The writers of these articles were not simply chronicling facts and figures; they were making a case for conscience as a guide to behaviour in the public sphere, whether tied to religious faith or not. Highlighting the stories of those who were treated abominably by being sent to France and “sentenced to death” before having their sentences “commuted”, as well as one tragic story of a young man dying of consumption due to ill treatment, we see how high the cost of conscience was for many.

An example of the sometimes gallows humour of the writers would be “How It Is Done”, a sketch of how an encounter between a C.O. and an officer might go. (I used this as source material for a poem for Conscientious Objectors’ Day.) I have taken some extracts from longer pieces, such as one by Bertrand Russell and one complete article, “Improving The Race”, to show the quality and the passion of argument often displayed by the writers.

I’ve also tried to highlight seldom-seen parts of the story, such as C.O.’s from “the colonies”, or “friendly aliens” living in Britain who may have had to join up. So we have stories of Russian exiles, Indian tribunals and a (nameless) Caribbean.

I hope these extracts both inform and move the reader.

Steven Waling

News of Our Comrades Abroad: India

From The Tribunal, August 23 1917.

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Some interesting news from India, where several men have appealed to Tribunals under the “Indian Defence force Rules, 1917.” Among st them is Mr. W. Bevan Whitney, B.Sc., A.M.I.C.E., who appealed to the District Magistrate at Poona, in the following terms:-

“I wish to say first of all, that I believe that service to one’s fellow men must be the guiding motive in every sincere man’s life. And secondly, make it perfectly clear that I base my objection to serving in any military capacity on my deeply-rooted conviction that war in its methods and ethics is utterly incompatible with the whole teaching of Christ as interpreted by his life. I hold this religious conviction so strongly that it would render me useless in any part of the military organisation, all of whose units have for their objects the efficient prosecution of the war…”

“I therefore beg that the conscience clause in the Law at home be taken as a precedent with cases such as mine in India, as I believe that not only is there nothing contrary in the terms of the Defence of India Bill, but that it is definitely stated that in certain exceptional cases, it is in the power of the Authorities to grant total exemption.”

Eventually Mr. Whitney was allowed to leave for Mesopotamia on Y.M.C.A. work, work he had accepted while his appeal was pending, and of which he writes, “I did not tell them the Tribunal had not given me exemption, as I was afraid that I was trying to evade the penalties by joining them. I had made up my mind I might have to go to prison, and felt quite glad at the thought.”

The following paragraph tells of how the fight is being carried into the guard-room in far away Scundarabad:-

“Cowper (Plymouth brother), Scundarabad, was court-martialled for not carrying arms on parade. I have heard he got 72 hours’ detention or something. I have not heard since what happened to him. I saw in the paper there are about half-a-dozen other “C.O.‘s” also mentioned as appluing before tribunals. None of them got exemption. I have not heard what has happened to any of them.”


From The Tribunal 19th July 1917

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
_For other extracts go to:_http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Judge Neil, writing in the “Daily News,” has been telling us how to improve the race. The suggestion of the Judge is mainly maternity benefits. Now that is not a novel notion; it has been demanded for years by Socialists and other people who are now being punished for refusing to help in the war—a war, by the way, that includes the starving of German mothers. We should like to comment, however, less upon the proposal itself than upon the time it was made.

At a time like this there is something rather startling in the solemn lunacy of such a suggestion for improving the race. It reminds us rather of a pathetic story of a poor French woman who, while awaiting the guillotine, went on making clothes for her expected child. The important difference between the two being that whereas the poor French lady was recognised as being demented by her fellow-sufferers, the present generation of suicides goes on listening to these people who object to underfed children and at the same time support a war that promises to kill off children and parents as well. What can be done with people who talk about the health of the next generation one day in the week and manufacture T.N.T. the other six? If we thought it was ever any use to lock anybody up, we should like to lock them up. But we don’t; it would only make them worse. Besides, we can’t, because these are the people who are at present locking us up. Such people are now in the vast majority. They govern us, write our newspapers, and dispose of our .lives and bodies, and this is a pity, because they are dangerous lunatics whose speedy cure or extinction is necessary if the human race is to survive the twentieth century. And they are dangerous simply because they are driving faster and faster in a certain direction, and are blind to where it leads. They are blundering on with the war without any thought as to where the human race will be if the slaughter does not soon cease.

There is one serious mental complaint which enables mankind to go on digging its own grave, and that is its insane optimism. This alone allows reformers to think they can improve the race without stopping the war. For they are so unreasonably confident that thewar will end soon, and that it will be the last. They adopt the easy theory that “things are too bad to last long,” and all the time continue to perpetuate the bad things. They forget that although we are daily nearer to complete destruction, we are no nearer to any practical methods of preventing it. They talk of the end of war, but show no sign or intention of abolishing those elements in modern life which make wars.

And enlightened society goes doggedly on, fast making for the crowning triumph of science—the extinction of the race. If this sounds exaggerated, we have only to note how much easier it is to kill people than it was in 1914. We are now only at the beginning, for instance, of aerial warfare, and already no London business man can with certainty say that he will be home to tea. On both sides all brains and science are busily inventing better ways of slaughter. They have progressed so well that it is now tacitly understood that the way to win a war is to attack the civil population. From henceforth civilians will approach nearer and nearer in experience to the soldiers, because scientific progress is producing weapons too effective to be confined to battlefields; nothing but whole nations will suffice them. Germans are trying to subdue England by either frightening or exploding the civilians. The Allies are trying to win by starving those of the people whom they cannot bomb. And a nursery in London, Karlsruhe, or Ghent will soon be as dangerous as a trench in France. Some day, perhaps, someone will invent a way of dealing with air raids, and for a time the civil patriots who object to living lives as risky as the young men they have sent to the front will breathe again, and the optimists will say, “Now it’s all right,” and go on talking about a fight to a finish.

But is science going to rest there on its laurels? Perish the thought! The next progressive invention will be, say, a disease-cloud, capable of killing off every living creature within, a thousand mile radius. This will be used immediately by both sides, and lo ! Man, which to-day is, to-morrow is not. And the day before that happens some thoughtful reformer will write an article about the need for maternity benefits as a means of improving the race.

And when all the people of Europe (whose mothers will have had doles of £5 when they were born) have thus died for freedom and the rights of small nations, what will such details as the origin of the war matter? Who will then care a hang which side began it, or which Government is the wickedest, or whether the inventor was a disciple of Christ or Nietzsche?

Of course, if the war was really undertaken to prevent something worse than extinction, then there is nothing to be done but get extinguished, but we believe that if people could only realise the obvious fact that there is positively no end to war, they would find it an easy matter to invent some other way of defending themselves and improving the race- than by blowing each other into the atmosphere.


From The Tribunal 12th July 1917

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
_For other extracts go to:_http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

In reply to a question on July 5th, Mr. Macpherson stated in the House of Commons that Davies, Garland, Keighley, Middleton, and Price, the men sent to France at the beginning of the month, were “irregularly” sent abroad, and “should have been remanded for trial by court-martial in this country.” At the time of answering the question he had not managed to discover where these men actually were. The following letter was received by the parents of Davies when they wrote to the War Office to enquire of his whereabouts:

2nd July 1917.
Dear sir, – In reply to your letter of the 29th June regarding your son Joseph Davies, you may rest assured that if sentenced to imprisonment in France he will be returned to this country forthwith. I have not at the moment accurate information as to his whereabouts, but as soon as I am aware I will make a point of communicating the information to you.

It may be some reassurance to you to be informed that the current rumour that conscientious objectors are being spirited away to France with the object of their being shot is wholly untrue, and you need have no fear whatever in that regard. The last thing I desire is that men should be sent to France under improper conditions as it only entails their being brought back again and al loss of money to the public.
Yours faithfully.
(Signed) B. W. Childs,
Brig. General
Director of Personal Services
War Office,
Whitehall, S.W.

As we go to press we learn that all five men have been returned to England.


From The Tribunal 14th Jun 1917

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
_For other extracts go to:-_http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

The Cells, No. 4 Parkhouse Camp, Salisbury Plain May 31st 1917

Dear comrades,

I have decided not to send a long written message to the Fellowship. Something more vital is wanted now. I have just read the Russian demand for an unequivocal statement by the Allies on the question of peace terms. It has thrilled me with a sense of the responsibility we C.O.’s share in the great movement towards liberty which is surging up in the life of almost every nation.

I am overjoyed by the thought that we have already contributed so much to the re-awakening of the spirit of freedom in our own country.

The next few months will, however, make an even heavier demand upon our courage and faith. All through the intricacies of our struggle we must avoid anything which might tarnish our own self-respect or our sense of corporate responsibility. Upon individual character and an ever-deepening belief that the strongest unity will come from the love of service depends the life of the Fellowship in the future.

The most living message I can send at this time when our hope is very near its first fulfilment is a copy of the letter I am to-day sending to the Prime Minister. The great task before each man is always to weigh the individual sense of duty with unwavering loyalty to the movement as a whole. In this there should be the most intimate confidence between the members of the Fellowship and the National Committee.


From The Tribunal 21st June 1917

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and Novemeber 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Still another name has been added to the growing list of those who lost their lives to the crusade against militarism. We have sorrowfully to record the death on May 27th, at his home in Strathnairn Street, Cardiff, of John Evans, a young clerk of 24, formerly in the employ of a well-known local firm. Evans did not belong to any political or kindred organisation, but was a member of the Tredegarville Baptist Church, and was privately studying for the ministry. Almost from his cradle he was a true Christian, simple and unassuming to a degree, but absolutely rocklike in his faith and determination. His early ambition had been to become a missionary at the Congo, a choice of locale which proved his indifference to personal danger. Evans could accept no form of military service, though he was prepared to do civil work of national importance. Having refused to join the Non-Combatant Corps, he was court-martialed on June 23rd and sentenced to 112 days’ hard labour. During the imprisonment – at Cardiff Gaol – he was offered and accepted the Home Office scheme, yet he was compelled to serve his sentence through to September. His health first became affected by the prison diet, which he could not assimilate. But the prison doctor passed him as fit for navvying, and a few hours later he was removed without notice to Newhaven (Home Office) Camp. Road-making under the conditions prevailing up to Christmas, and when the accommodation was limited to tents, before the new huts were ready, was hardly likely to suit a man emaciated from prison life. John Evans gradually declined, but not a word of complaint reached his home, which he was still not allowed to visit. After six months at Newhaven where the official doctor declared him free of organic diseasr, he was sent to Wakefield Centre, the Medical Officer of which certified him to be in advanced stage of consumption. On Easter Monday of this year the mother heard indirectly and for the first time of his serious condition, and application to the Home Office resulted in permission being given to bring the dying lad home. Before leaving the camp he was given an official discharge by the agent. The strong and sturdy youth who had left home on June 8th, 1916, “never having had a day’s illness,” as his mother said, breathed his last on Whit-Sunday of 1917. He died in the flower of his youth, feeling to the end no bitterness or reproach, consious only that he had done his duty and served his only Master. Those who are left behind may be pardoned for a less saintlike attitude towards certain authorities – the man who have maladministered the Military Service Acts, and those who under the pretence of furnishing work of national importance, have imposed injurious and punishing conditions of labour.

John Evans gave his life willingly for his faith. He believed the war was wrong and that Christ would have taken no part in it, and that it was his duty to follow his Master, no matter what the consequences. The minister who had known him all his life and who performed the last sad rites, called him a very brave and noble soul. The superintendent of the Sunday School he had always attended, was moved to say: “I did not agree with John’s views, but I am bound to say that he was as much a victiom of the war as any soldier who has fallen in the trenches.”


From The Tribunal 23rd November 1916

_This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and Novemeber 1918\\-
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Miss Stevens, Secretary of the Leicester Branch, sends us a copy of a letter from H.G. Twilley, describing the very useful way in which he
and three other “C.O.’s” passed their time in a guard-room. He says:- “Last evening . . . . we turned the Government out! There are two guard-rooms here, and we invited the soldiers into one room. The wooden beds were so arranged as to resemble benches down each side of the smaller room, and the House of Commons was the result.

The personnel of the ‘House’ was as follows:- M.P. for West Birmingham (Conservative), H. Stoddart; M.P. for Stirling Burghs (Liberal), A. Britain; M.P. for Leicester (Labour), A.E. Gomportyz, Mr. Speaker, H.G. Twilley. Speeches were delivered in the order above named, Stoddart offering the last man and the last shilling with characteristic generosity. He was for continuing the war until the ‘military domination of Prussia was finally destroyed.’ It was a difficult matter to keep his fiery eloquence under sufficient restraint to prevent interuptions by the Military Police in the adjoining room.

The Hon. Member for Storling followed in a dignified speech appealing for a more reasonable point of view and suggesting that the Government should pause and review the military situation and the possibility of opening negotiations with the enemy.

“The hon. Member for Leicester then put the point of view of the extreme Socialist wing of the Labour Party, and condemned with the utmost vigour the mistaken policy of the Foreign Office in having involved this country in obligations to other Powers which made a participation in the war inevitable; and charged the Government with betraying the people by its secret and mistaken diplomacy during the last few years (subdued cheers). Two soldiers were appointed tellers by Mr. Speaker for the Government, and the Opposition – the solders were respectively the hon. Members for the city of London and Liverpool – and the division resulted as follows:-

“Two solders entered the ‘Aye lobby’ (for continuing the war); sixteen soldiers and nine C.O.’s went into the ‘No lobby’ (for immediate negotiations for Peace) . . . . .
“The soldiers were very interested, and all express the hope that it will be a long time before we part from them, a hope, which for other reasons, I do not share as there are other inhabitants (microscopic) which are not such fascinating companions.”


From The Tribunal 9th November 1916

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Friendly aliens of military age resident in this country were given until October 25th to volunteer for service in the British Army. If they failed to enlist by that dare, Mr. Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary, threatened them with conscription or deportation. More than a fortnight has passed since that fatal day, but, at the time of writing, nothing has been heard of the dire penalties foreshadowed.

We hope this silence means that the Government has thought better of its proposed policy. Infamous as conscription under all circumstances, the conscription of subjects of another nation, with the alternative of deportation, is doubly infamous. True, it has been suggested that Tribunals should be established to safeguard refugees from deportation, but we should have thought that the experience the nation has had of Tribunals would have been sufficient proof of their futility as a means of safeguarding anybody against anything. Moreover, has the Government the right to assume that the subjects of another nation would consent to appear before any Tribunal it chose to set up?

If the Government decides to proceed with its scheme it will find itself confronted by a much bigger problem thn it anticipates. Many hundreds of friendly aliens have sought refuge in this country as a means of escape from political persecution in Russia. They are Anti-militarists. They are Socialists. They are Anti-Imperialists. They see in the war the triumphs of all the evils against which they struggled in the land of their birth. Many of them are Jews. They know the War has resulted in an increase of the oppression from which their people have for generations suffered.

The Government ought not to be surprised that the recruiting campaign among these men has failed. It would do well to realise that any effort to conscript them will fail equally. Already they have organised themselves into a Russian Anti-Conscription League with branches in all the larger towns of the country, so that they may the more effectively resist the imposition of compulsory military service. The historic policy of Continental Anti-Militarists has been to join the Army and to take advantage of the opportunities thus provided to carry on their propaganda. It is not without significance that the Russian Anti-Militarists in this country have decided to follow the policy of British conscientious objectors by pledging themselves to resist military service altogether…

A. Fenner Brockway


From The Tribunal 2nd November 1916

This is a further update in a series of updates from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between march 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

A mass meeting of about 2000 persons was organised by the Committee of Delegates of the Russian Socialist Groups in London amd the Jewish Social Democratic Organisation in Great Britain on the question of the maintenance of Right of Asylum last Sunday week in the Premierland Cinema, and manifested great enthusiasm. Alex Gossip, E.C. Fairchild, D. Carmichael, Mrs. Bridges Adams, Mrs. Bouvier, and a Jewish and a Polish speaker explained the great importance of the issues at stake, and the connection of the present struggle with the general problems of the present time. A resolution was unanimously carried protesting-

“That the present policy of the British Government towards the refugees from Russia is diametrically opposed to the rights of foreigners and contains in itself the destruction of the Right of Asylum, and that this policy is one of the forms in which the growing universal militarist and imperialist reaction finds expression.”

On the previous evening, at the concert and ball organised by the Committee of Delegates of the Russian Socialist Groups in London, a military and police raid took place. Representatives of the military and police invaded the Hall and demanded the papers of every man. All names and addresses were taken, but no “absentees” were found.

The period allowed by the Home Office for the voluntary enlistment of friendly aliens has now elapsed, but at the moment of writing no steps have been taken to impose conscription upon those who have not enlisted.

A very large number of friendly aliens, particularly Russian Jews, are determined not to undertake military service, and they are organising themselves for resistance. Our Russian Comrades may be assured of the sympathy and support of the N.-C.F. in their struggle.


From The Tribunal 29th October 1916

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

“The Nation” this week contains one of the strongest and most satisfying comments upon the attitude of the country towards War that we have read for a considerable time, even in pacifist journals. It is headed, “Some Reflections of a Soldier,” and is a critical analysis of public opinion. It describes how the writer, like many others, went out to fight for certain ideals, and how it was only the strength of his convictions that carried him through the ghastly life he has lived ever since. Now he comes home and mixes with the people formerly of his own class and confesses that he often feels as if he were among strangers. He relates how when the newspapers arrived with Lloyd George’s latest rhapsody about cheerful Tommies with the glint of battle in their eyes, or “The Times” military expert’s variations ad nauseum of the agreeable doctrine that whatever its losses, the numerically preponderant side can always win, they used laughingly to conclude that it was “only the papers,” and that the people at home could not really be like that. But he adds that since he has returned he has found that such things were not so much caricatures as he expected.

A Veil of Falsehood

The writer says there is a veil of falsehood between the soldier and those at home. He finds that the latter have made an image of War, false, but picturesque, that flatters their appetite for novelty, excitement and easy admiration, without uncomfortable, emotional disturbance. He ridicules the Press invention of a conventional kind of soldier who is easy to believe in, but who is both ridiculous and disgusting, being represented as always cheerful, as revelling in the sport of killing other men – ‘hunting Germans out of trenches as terriers hunt rats’ and overwhelmingly kind to prisoners. This latter kindness, he says, is true, but the emphasis which is laid upon it is insulting and unintelligent, as though soldiers were expected to hunt or starve prisoners. “Do you not see that we regard these men who have sat opposite us in mud as victims of the same catastrophe as ourselves, as our comrades in misery much more truly than you are? Do you think that we are like some of you in accumulating on the head of every wretched antagonist the indignation felt for the wickedness of a Government, of a social system…”

The Horrible Suggestion

In the writer’s opinion the worst enemy in this untruthful picture of war is the horrible suggestion that war is ennobling and that men find in war the fullness of self-expression impossible in Peace, and that they are more truly men than when they were at home. Indeed, to him, the reality of war is horrible, but not so horrible as the grimacing phantom which the newspapers hold up to the public. The soldiers, he said, are neither so foolish or brave, nor so wicked as the mechanical dolls who grin and kill in the newspapers. He strongly denies all this fictitious exhilaration, and says that men who have spent a winter in the trenches regard war with hatred, and hoping dimly that by suffering it now, they will save the future from it, look back with an even exaggerated affection to the blessings of Peace. People, he says, are now more prone than they were to give way to hatred, which is not common among soldiers. It is easy for people at home to hate, as they cannot appease the anguish of their losses by feeling that their turn may soon come. But the worst hatred – the hatred which appals, is not among those who have suffered, but among those who discover in hatred the only outlet for the sensation of activity which they miss. You do not, he says, help yourselves, your country, or your soldiers by hating, but only by loving, and striving to be more lovable.


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