Centenary of Conscription

100 years ago this year on January 27th 1916, two years into WWI, conscription was introduced for the first time in Britain.  Under the Military Service Act of 1916 all fit, single men aged 18 – 41 were liable for call up, this was eventually raised to 51 years.  Exemptions could only be claimed by men in essential war time occupations, widowers with dependent children, ministers of religion, and also conscientious objection.  A new system of Military Service Tribunals was set up to hear peoples’ cases.  The bill also made Britain the first country to give legal recognition to individual conscience, now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  However, despite this some conscientious objectors were treated very much like criminals by the government and members of the public.  Britain, unlike the other great powers, entered the First World War in 1914 with a relatively small volunteer army of professional soldiers and reservists.  Lord Kitchener realised that Britain’s small professional army would be no match for the might of Germany in a long drawn out conflict, so he proposed raising a new army – ‘Kitchener’s Army’ based entirely on volunteers.  Initially men flocked to join up and there were so many recruits that the army struggled to cope. Initially those who had opposed to the war were free to abstain from it, as participation was a matter of personal choice.  However, by late 1915 volunteers had slowed to a trickle.  The British government was now forced to consider introducing conscription; a move that ran entirely against the liberal traditions of British life.  

In 1916 the Military Service Act was passed by the British Government.  For the first time, men who could not or would not support Britain’s role in the war were forced into public view.  Although, the act did allow for conscientious objection, it was not a popular decision to make.  CO’s and others who did not fight during the war were often branded as ‘cowards’ or ‘traitors’, CO’s especially, were hated by the vast majority of the population. Military tribunals could exempt people from active military service and recommend a non -combatant role in the armed forces or alternative civilian work of ‘national importance’.  Those who could not accept the compromise were known as absolutists.  Many of these people were imprisoned and put into solitary confinement, with the hope that they would eventually, no longer able to cope with their suffering, go against their beliefs and their conscience and agree to join the war effort.

Across the British Isles 16,000 men claimed conscientious objection during the course of WWI.

Conscription was introduced once again in Britain at the outbreak of WWII in 1939 until 1960, but this time people were more accepting of people’s right to conscientiously object. As of the early 21st century many states no longer conscript soldiers, relying instead upon professional militaries with volunteers enlisted to meet the demand for troops.  However, many states that have abolished conscription still reserve the power to resume it during war times or times of crisis. In our collection we have a wide range of objects relating to the First and Second World War and conscientious objectors, which come with lots of fascinating stories of bravery and heroism.  Often when we look back at the history of WWI it is the bravery of the soldiers who signed up and fought that we remember.  However, we should also not forget or dismiss the bravery of those who despite the consequences, decided they would not go against their conscience and stand true to their own beliefs – even though it was not a popular decision to make.

The Peace Museum is currently running an offsite exhibition at the Bradford Playhouse in Little Germany entitled ‘Choices Then & Now’.  This dynamic exhibition, aims to explore peace, conflict, extremism, resilience, choices and consequences, during WWI and here and now in the 21st century. Using a range of first hand sources and focusing on a range of individuals forced to make very different and very difficult decisions, including two brothers called Frederick and Eric Crowther, one of whom fought in the First World War and the other was a conscientious objector.  The exhibition asks us to consider what would we do in extreme situations? Running from October 2015 to April 2016. There are also workshops on site at the Bradford Playhouse run by Jude Wright our Choices Project Manager.  These practical workshops are designed to engage students in a range of activities which encourage them to question prejudice, propaganda, and pre-conceptions, giving them tools to build personal resilience to radicalisation and encouraging community cohesion. * Workshops cost £150 and last for 2 hours (includes a guided tour of the exhibition). There is also a ‘Choices Then & Now’ Resource Pack – a scheme of work and resources designed to provide a wide range of materials for use in the classroom, with cross-curricular references to History, Citizenship, English & ICT programmes of study. The materials aim to explore challenging issues, radicalisation & build resilience in a non-threatening and creative way. * Resource Packs cost £19.99 and can be ordered from [email protected]. For more information on Choices Then and Now visit www.choicesthenandnow.org.uk.

 

Written by Sarah Bartey.

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