International Conscientious Objectors’ Day Blog
International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, 15th May 2016
The International Conscientious Objectors’ (CO) day is marked around the world each year on the 15 May, to raise awareness of those who stood up to protect their rights to refuse to kill and refused to participate in armed conflict. The day was first established by the International Conscientious Objectors’ Meeting (ICOM) in 1985. The ICOM was an annual meeting of COs and their supporters throughout the world, created to exchange ideas and offer solidarity.
Conscientious Objectors are people who refuse to join the armed forces or participate in armed conflict, because their conscience tells them that it is wrong. COs come from a wide range of backgrounds and claim objection for many different reasons including: moral, religious, social and political.
The ‘Conscience Clause’
In Britain in 1914 during the first two weeks of the war, 20,000 casualties had already been called. Compulsory call up for British men looked increasingly likely. However, pacifist members of the ‘No-Conscription Fellowship,’ successfully campaigned to secure the ‘conscience clause’ in the 1916 Conscription Act: the right to claim exemption from military service.
Over 16,000 men made that claim. They were required to attend a tribunal (an interview panel with legal authority) to have the sincerity of their claims assessed. The tribunals were intended to be humane and fair. However, panels were often decided by the local council and were predominantly made up old patriots and retired military officers who were too old to be called up themselves, but who were strongly prejudiced against anyone who refused to ‘do their duty’. The tribunals’ members were poorly briefed and in many cases merely used the hearings to state their own views. These people were often genuinely confused about their task and its complicated guidelines. Another hazard for COs was that each tribunal panel contained one army selected member, attending every hearing and with the right to cross-examine each applicant. These ‘military representatives’ had one sole aim: to get as many men as possible in the army to fill the gaps left by the dead. As a result only a very small of people actually received full exemption, and many were denied any form of exemption at all.
At the tribunal’s discretion exemption could be absolute, from combatant service only, or conditional on undertaking work of national importance, but COs were frequently rejected by the local tribunal or offered an unacceptable position. They could then go before an appeals tribunal and if they were refused again they could appeal to the Central Tribunal in London. Once a CO was refused exemption, he was considered to have enlisted into military service.
Treatment of COs
Being rejected on appeal meant a CO was a soldier absent without leave and as such was subject to arrest. COs who entered military service were also arrested for refusing to obey military orders. Over one-third of the 16,000 COs went to prison at least once, including the majority of absolutists who were imprisoned virtually for the duration. At first, COs were sent to military prisons because they were considered to be soldiers. It was a minor triumph for the anti-conscription movement when a mid-1916 Army order ruled that COs who had been court martialled were to be sent to civil prisons. The initial standard sentence was 112 days third division hard labour – the most severe level of prison sentence under English law at that time. This began with one month in solitary confinement on bread and water, performing arduous and boring manual jobs. With good conduct remission, most COs served about three months. However, after being released a CO could be immediately arrested again as a deserter, court martialled and returned to prison. This ‘Cat and Mouse’ treatment had been previously used on the Suffragettes, and as the war went on sentences handed down to COs increased. Over the course of the war, some conscientious objectors were actually taken with their regiments to France, where they could be shot for refusing to obey a military order. Thirty-four were sentenced to death after being court martialled but had their sentences commuted to penal servitude.
Even after the war COs were shunned by society. Many had difficulty finding work for the rest of their lives when people discovered their ‘role’ within the war.
A modern day CO
Within our collection we have some objects that relate to a modern day conscientious objector named Joe Glenton. Joe Glenton joined the British Army in 2004 and toured Afghanistan for seven months in 2006. During his time away he began to question what they were doing there. Upon his return he thought further into the justification for ‘War on Terror’ and decided he no longer agreed with it. When asked to go back in 2007 he refused, declaring conscientious objection. Faced with having to return Joe went AWOL for 2 years. During these two years he became an anti-war activist talking at demonstrations and to the media. Upon his return to the Army he was charged with AWOL and desertion which was eventually dropped, but he did have to serve nine months in Colchester Military Prison. While there he received support from his fellow inmates, guards and from hundreds of members of the public. He received letters, postcards and wishes of support from all over the world. Since leaving prison Joe has taken a degree in International Relations, written for newspapers and has written his book ‘Soldier Box’. He continues to campaign against the war and for soldiers rights. Joe is an example of a modern Conscientious Objector.
To find out more about Conscientious Objectors throughout history come and visit us at the Peace Museum.
Written by Sarah Bartey