Over the past ten weeks, I have been on a placement at the National Archives as part of my Public History MA course at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. During my time here I have been looking at the records of the Middlesex Military Service Tribunal, paying particular attention to the cases heard in Twickenham from conscientious objectors.
Having lived in Twickenham for three years while completing my degree, I wanted to find out more about the people who had lived there 100 years ago and see if there were any interesting stories to be told.
When war first broke out in 1914 a large number of men volunteered to join the forces. Two years on, with army numbers declining, the military were in urgent need of recruits.
On 27 January 1916, the Military Service Act was passed, meaning that all men between the ages of 18 to 41 were liable for general service in the army. They were able to apply for exemption from military service and there were seven grounds to base an application on, the majority of which focused on domestic or educational reasons.
One of these grounds for exemption was a particularly contentious issue: conscientious objection. It had the ability to divide the public and force some men into harsh situations on account of their beliefs.
The applications for military exemption were heard before a local tribunal comprised of mostly men, who were expected to satisfy all sides, the military, the government, and of course, the man applying for exemption. Each appellant would get around five minutes or less to state his case and, after a brief discussion, a decision would be made. If the appellant was dissatisfied with the local tribunal’s verdict he could take his case further, to the county tribunal. When it came to appeals on conscientious grounds, the tribunals would have to decide if a man showed genuine conscientious convictions. The tribunals presumed that objectors would have mostly religious or spiritual reasons behind their beliefs and those who did not demonstrate these qualities were not granted their exemption. 1
After looking at these applications, I was interested to find out about those who, after applying to the Middlesex Tribunal, were still not granted exemption. After his case was dismissed, a man was considered to be a member of the army reserve and was called up based on age and medical status. It was the ultimate catch-22 for conscientious objectors: they could either join the war – something that they deeply disagreed with on religious, moral or political grounds – or suffer the consequences of army justice, which could be as extreme as a death sentence.
I have discovered the stories of two conscientious objectors from Twickenham who were faced with this difficult decision and whose wartime experiences ended very differently. Continue reading »
- 1. James McDermott, ‘Conscience and the Military Service Tribunals During the First World War: Experiences in Northamptonshire’, War in History, 17/1, (2010), 63-68 ^