Objections to War
People all over the world objected to war for different reasons. These included religious and political beliefs, and conscience.
In 1916 the Military Service Act introduced compulsory military service, known as conscription, to Britain for the first time. Approx. 20,000 men applied for exemption from service because of their beliefs or conscience. They were known as ‘Conscientious Objectors’.
Few who applied on the grounds of conscience were given absolute exemption from service. Some had their applications refused and were sent to fight, and others were required to undertake work of national importance or non-combatant roles, such as joining the Royal Army Medical Corps or the newly formed Non-Combatant Corps.
There were many reasons why men objected to military service. For some it was a religious one, for instance some took ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in the Bible at its word. For others it was political or because they did not agree with government intervention.
Men could only be exempted from conscription by applying to a Tribunal. Reasons for applying to a tribunal varied from moral grounds (conscientious objectors), family grounds (looking after dependents), medical grounds (disability) or economic grounds (preserving a business such as farming and mills). Most of the men who applied to a tribunal were due to economic reasons.
Tribunals were held in town halls, parish churches and local schools and were made up of local dignitaries who often had little or no legal experience. Absolute exemption from military service was possible, however this was rare. In most cases the appeals were dismissed by tribunal members and applicants would go onto take up a combatant or non-combatant role.
There were sensitive issues surrounding conscription, including a stigma toward those that did not serve, so the Government instructed Local Government Boards to destroy all tribunal material. Only records from Middlesex, Lothian and Peebles remain. As most of the tribunal papers were destroyed after the war, the exact number of men exempted, either temporarily or completely, from compulsory service is not known. However, it is estimated that approximately 1.5 million men had been exempted.
In 1916 Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire became a base for the Northern companies of the Non-Combatant Corps. Most men sent to Richmond accepted non-combatant work, but some refused to follow military orders. Men that refused to follow military orders were called ‘absolutists’ and were often detained in harsh conditions.
Covering the fragile walls of the 19th-century cell block are thousands of pieces of graffiti, including many drawn by conscientious objectors. The walls of the cells are covered with a range of inscriptions including Biblical verse, Socialist slogans, illustrations of loved ones, and political or religious affiliations.
The Richmond Sixteen
In May 1916 sixteen conscientious objectors detained at Richmond Castle were sent with serving members of the Non-Combatant Corps to France. These men have become known as the ‘Richmond Sixteen’.
Among them was Norman Gaudie, a reserve Sunderland FC footballer who believed participation in war went against his Congregationalist faith, and John Hubert Brocklesby, a schoolteacher who argued that fighting broke the Sixth Commandment – ‘Thou Shalt not kill’.
In France, the Richmond Sixteen continued to resist their enlistment and refused an order to move supplies. They were court martialled in front of a huge crowd, found guilty, and sentenced to death. This was then reduced to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour.