Conscientious Objection and Military Tribunals

Military Tribunals and the First World War

An introduction to their value as a source for the local historian.

Contributed by Julie Moore

In January 1916 the British Parliament passed the first of the Military Service Acts which introduced conscription into the armed forces for men from England, Scotland and Wales; recruitment continued in Ireland and across the empire, but the Military Service Act did not apply in these countries. The British government argued that conscription had become necessary as the war which was meant to be over by Christmas extended into 1915. There were no longer enough men coming forward as volunteers to take the place of those had been killed or injured, nor to fulfil the demands of the army for attacks planned for the following year. An attempt to get men to attest to a willingness to serve if called, the Lord Derby Scheme, had failed to produce the volunteers that were needed. It was clear that those men yet to join up voluntarily had little inclination to do so in spite of a personal appeal from the King and the promise of an armband proclaiming their attested status to divert any danger of white feathers from enraged members of the public. There was, paradoxically, a secondary problem for the War Office which lay in the lack of control over just who was volunteering; machines needed to be supervised, coal needed to be dug, trains needed to be kept running. Disruption to the production of such essentials as gunpowder and shells could derail the war effort and so that production had to be secured by maintaining skilled labour where it was of most value.


Thus it was that conscription was introduced in early 1916. Known as the ‘Bachelors’ Bill’ the Military Service Act deemed that all single men and widowers without dependent children between the ages of 18 and 41 were now part of the army reserve and so required to report for service when called. This was followed in May that same year by the Military Service Act (Session 2) which extended the provision to married men; in May 1918 the Military Service Act (No. 2) saw the upper age limit extended to 51.

Unlike on the continent of Europe, there was in Britain no tradition of compulsory military service for all young men; Prussia, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia all required their young men to spend some time in the army whether at peace or war, with an obligation to return to fight if called upon once their period of service was complete. In Britain, greater reliance on the navy to ensure security made this less of a necessity, but there was also a national narrative around compulsion which reflected on that sense of Britons as free men and women. The British army boasted of a commitment to the cause of Empire amongst its volunteer recruits and the professional skills of its fighting men. To introduce conscription struck at an understanding of what it meant to be British, and so a clause was introduced which allowed men to appeal against their enforced calling to the colours under a range of options; they could appeal for a temporary exemption or, in special circumstances, for a permanent exemption, and as well as the personal grounds of fitness to serve or special family circumstances, there were a range of reasons which fell under that general heading of the national interest and which might make a man more valuable at the lathe, desk or plough rather than facing the enemy across No Man’s Land in France, the coastal plain of Palestine or the straits of the Dardanelles. In addition, and as a result of lobbying by pacifist groups, there was a final clause which allowed an appeal based on a conscientious objection to fighting. Those who appealed on these grounds might do so as a result of a strong personal religious faith which forbad them from harming another individual, such as the Quakers, Baptists or Seventh Day Adventists. Others were driven by a strong commitment to a political cause such as Socialism which saw them opposed to fighting a war deemed to be the result of a capitalist system in which working men would die to improve the profits of those safe from danger.

Tribunals and the Right to Appeal

Having established a right to appeal, it became necessary to set up tribunals to hear the arguments of those men who sought to exercise this right. No formal qualifications were required to join a tribunal; the men (and the occasional woman) who sat in judgement were in the main drawn from the ranks of those already serving as magistrates and councillors, with representatives from local businesses joining them. Local businessmen were deemed to offer valuable insights into how valid were the economic arguments for particular businesses and the implications for the wider local economy both during hostilities and beyond. Each local tribunal also included a military representative, and it was his role to fight the army’s corner and see that as many appeals were turned down as was possible within the terms of the act. The government had included in its instructions to the tribunals a suggestion that representatives of labour should also be invited to join, but this was left to the discretion of the local tribunal and not all tribunals acted on this suggestion. Appeals against the decisions of the local tribunal were heard first at county level, and then finally at the Central Tribunal which sat in Westminster. Not all appeals were made by unsuccessful applicants; the military representative on the local tribunal could request a hearing before the county tribunal if he felt that too generous an interpretation of the directives from central government had been taken.

The tribunal members were charged with protecting the national interest, but deciding just where that lay was very much a case of individual judgment and the boundaries were often blurred. There were the very obvious demands of the military for men to maintain their fighting force, but in this, the first truly industrial war, it was also vital to maintain the industries and services which supported those on the front line, as well as those who were crucial to the production of food in the face of disruption to trade routes and danger from submarines. Then there were the personal economic and family circumstances of those who were individual traders or the sole support of a family who might starve or become a burden on the local community should he be sent away to the front.

Was a man deemed to be of more value as a soldier on the battlefield armed with a gun or as a skilled machine operator supervising the making of that gun? Should a farm labourer be taken away from the harvest or cowshed and sent to the broken fields of France and Belgium? Could a skilled man be replaced by an unskilled man or even a woman? Did the town need as many bakers or butchers as it currently supported? How to treat the case of a man who was the only support of his widowed mother or an extended family? Was a man genuinely driven by the call of conscience or a failure in courage?

It was questions such as these that faced tribunal members who found themselves trying to make honest assessments of individual circumstances set against national imperatives. Almost inevitably this meant they tended to be unpopular with everybody, from the government, through local businesses, to families and individuals. The War Office was quick to accuse them of being too lenient, whilst those whose appeals were unsuccessful saw them as being unfeeling and driven only by the need to feed the war machine. When the war came to an end, the military tribunals were seen as something which would be better forgotten. The government sent out a directive that all minute books and correspondence relating to the tribunals should be destroyed; only the papers of the Middlesex, which are now available online, and the Peebles and Lothian County Appeals Tribunals were to be retained. Some local and county records do still survive as, with so many government directives, local officials took matters into their own hands, and a search of county archives may yet reveal more of these. This lack of material does hamper research into the tribunals and means that historians in the main have to rely on newspaper reports and personal testimonies for the story of the impact of the tribunal in their own district; this does mean that some caution needs to be exercised as newspapers were drawn to the more heated, dramatic and sensational which, like personal accounts, may not be representative of the wider experience.

Conscientious Objectors

In the popular imagination, it is the fate of the conscientious objector who stands centre stage in the drama that was the Military Service Tribunal. The lone individual, facing a hostile panel of men who were themselves safe from the front, he perhaps from working class stock, they from the landed or privileged classes, he driven by religious faith or political conviction, they by self-interest, are all stock images which have shaped how subsequent generations viewed the role of the tribunals during the war. In large part this was due to the work of organisations who worked to support the conscientious objectors. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, and the No Conscription Fellowship did not want the story of how so many of their members had been treated forgotten; from verbal abuse, to incarceration in prison and physical beatings, to sentence of death by firing squad for refusal to renounce a belief in pacifism. Books and pamphlets appeared throughout the war keeping the issue of the treatment of conscientious objectors before the public; W.R. Frayling’s, Extracts from Letters Received from Conscientious Objectors in Military Custody (1916) and Hubert W. Peet’s 112 Days Hard Labour. Being some Reflections on the first of my Sentences as a Conscientious Objector (1917) are just two which tell of psychological and physical ill-treatment, although with some acts of kindness by the ordinary soldier.

Those sympathetic to the men of conscience were keen to bring their story centre stage, but in fact they were only a small proportion of the men who appeared before the Military Service Tribunal. Their encounters with the tribunal members, often full of drama, were well reported in the local press who then as now were drawn to the exciting rather than the typical. This is an advantage for anybody researching conscientious objectors in their town or village, as the local reporters give more details of the exchanges and arguments deployed on both sides. However, it does give a less than full picture of how the tribunal operated more generally and the types of objections that they were dealing with and the different interests that needed to be considered; it is these that reveal just what a balancing act the tribunal members were performing as well as offering a fascinating insight into daily life during the war and the social and economic profile of a community.

Implications for Employers

Less well-known than the story of the conscientious objectors is that of the many appeals which were made by local employers on behalf of their employees, arguing that the loss of a particular worker who had received his orders to report for duty would jeopardise their ability to maintain their business; in many cases the business in question was being pressed by the War Office to meet orders for boots, clothing, or other supplies needed on the front line. In cases such as these, temporary exemptions for 3 or 6 months were often the result with some men returning time and time again for additional extensions. Complicating matters was the fact that many of the owners of local businesses were tribunal members and thus were called to deliberate on the fate of competitors. Whilst tribunal members would withdraw when one of their own men was the appeal in question, it is understandable how decisions might be queried and interpreted in the wider community.

For the sole or small trader conscription posed a very real economic danger which could see his business lost for ever. One suggestion from the tribunal was that those such as bakers or butchers should co-operate amongst themselves, sending one of their number off to fight with a promise from his former competitors, now supposedly colleagues, to maintain his business in the meantime. How this worked out in practice is just one of the fascinating insights that the exploration of local sources can answer, enabling us to develop a wider understanding of the response of communities to the very real concerns around winning the war and doing one’s duty, but duty to whom – family, locality, nation, party or God?

The Military Service Tribunal and the Historian

Incomplete as the records are and with an eye to the problem of selection of material in newspapers, the accounts of the week on week sittings of the Military Service Tribunal offer the local historian a fascinating insight into the economic and social impact of the First World War on their community. The statements of those who came before the tribunal give us a picture of change over time which can reveal how the war was perceived on the home front; can we for example trace a shift in how the tribunal responded to those who based their appeal on grounds of conscience and, if so, why? Did the tribunal respond more or less sympathetically when that conscience was driven by religious rather than political conviction? When were concerns about maintaining food supply at their highest and how was this reflected in the response of the Tribunal to the appeals of those who worked the land?

We can also start to see which businesses had a ‘good war’ as they were able to shift production to meeting War Office demands, and conversely those who were unable to take advantage of the valuable contracts on offer and instead faced the loss of skilled employees and a smaller market for their goods. Which businesses were lost to the community all together as it became just too hard to carry on? Is there evidence from the witness statements of co-operation amongst competitors?

A question that was frequently put to managers and owners was that of women as alternative sources of labour. We need to be slightly careful in taking all responses which decried women’s abilities at face value; it was not in the interest of a farmer or factory owner to allow that a woman might do the job of a skilled man as she would require time to train and probably some shift in how work was managed. In addition, it is easy to see a scenario where an employee, known and liked by his employer who was probably also aware of his home and family circumstances, might talk up the value of a man that he was reluctant to see marched off to danger. Yet again we can see change over time as the reality of a war which was continuing longer than expected impacted upon the ability of those who owned farms and businesses to stay afloat.

Then there are the questions around fairness and impartiality? Can we test the common complaint that tribunal members looked after their own? Did the largest landowner get to keep his chauffeur whilst the less than fit labouring son of an elderly widow was required to don the khaki? Did farmers really sack their ploughman to support the claim that their accountant or shop assistant son was really the only man available to plough the fields? When men’s lives and livelihoods were at risk, rumours and gossip could be more potent than the truth. Did this impact on a community when the armistice came and the cost of the war was counted on the home front?

The local historian can help to develop a more nuanced picture of the ways in which communities across the country came to terms with this situation that had been forced upon them. More questions will emerge as research uncovers stories which can help us to get closer to that everyday experience of life on the home front.

Surviving Military Tribunal Papers

The National Archives are working to produce a comprehensive list of surviving military tribunal papers and details of what they have discovered to date can be found here:

If you know of any others, they would be pleased to hear from you.

Whilst the official papers relating to the tribunals may not survive in all areas, it is worth checking the catalogues of your local Record Office or speaking to staff, as correspondence from employers, religious and political groups containing valuable insights into the impact of the Military Services Act may be found in other deposited material.
Please check with the Archives and Libraries concerned before travelling to see what they have available as not all records are complete.


Further Reading:

David Boulton, Objection Overruled, (first published 1967, reprinted 2014)

James McDermott, British Military Service Tribunals 1916-1918, (2011)

Cyril Pearce, Comrades in Conscience: the story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War, ( 2014)




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