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"And if a German violated your mother?"
Report of Calderdale Conscientious Objectors in the First World War lecture given by John Rhodes on 9 March 2016

1914 had seen a kind of war fever, where any anti-war sentiment would be howled down as unpatriotic. However, as the war dragged on and stories came back from the front, the supply of volunteers started to dry up and it became clear that the government would have to impose conscription. John Rhodes, who has made a study of this period, told Society members about what happened to those who opposed the war and those who sought exemption from military service on grounds of conscience.

After the introduction of male conscription in March 1916, every unmarried man between the ages of 18 and 41 was deemed to be a member of the armed forces and would be called up. Later this was extended to married men. Men could seek exemption on grounds of health, being in a certified occupation, hardship or conscience.

Magna Carta

Decisions about whether to grant exemption were made by military tribunals held in every urban district. The panels were made up of local business men, often the employers of those who were appealing, and were held in public.

In Hebden Bridge, they took place in the Council Office committee rooms. Using the verbatim reports published in the local press, John was able to reconstruct one of these appeals, which on average lasted less than fifteen minutes. The questioning focused on what the man would do if faced with a German about to 'violate' his mother, and the answer of the conscientious objector that he 'would give his life, but not take a life' was as much as he was able to say about his reasons for refusing to serve in a combatant role. Those few who were granted exemption on grounds of conscience were expected to work in the national service, often in very tough non-combatant roles; those who were refused exemption could be sentenced to prison terms with hard labour.

The reasons for refusing to fight were various: although many gave religious reasons, there were a number who had political and class reasons for objecting to a war against fellow workers. Some drew comfort and support from friends and neighbours – a particularly high number of conscientious objectors in Mytholmroyd seems to have been connected to the beliefs of the Independent Labour Pary there, several of whose officers refused to fight and served prison sentences. The views of one revolutionary socialist must have shocked the tribunal when he stated that he was not a pacifist and would gladly take up arms against the ruling classes, but not against his fellow workers.

John's research has also revealed some less than noble characters who served on the tribunals – the local eminence of military age who nevertheless was not in uniform, though he took his car and driver to France to aid the ambulance service for six months. The men on Hebden Bridge tribunal, largely local clothing manufacturers, saw none of their sons in military service. Historians like John Rhodes continue to uncover extraordinary stories of local men which contribute hugely to our understanding of this poignant period of our history.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

Spring 2016 newsletter
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