Social attitudes to Conscientious Objectors 1916-1919

Conscientious Objector memorial in Tavistock Square Gardens, London — dedicated on 15 May 1994.

Conscientious Objector memorial in Tavistock Square Gardens, London — dedicated on 15 May 1994.

Following a successful bid to the ‘Everyday Lives in War’ public engagement Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, Dr Ingrid Sharp will be working with research interns at Leeds and English Heritage community volunteers in Richmond to explore social attitudes to Conscientious Objection as part of the Resistance to War strand of the Legacies of War project at the University of Leeds.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, conscription was the European norm– French men undertook 3 years military service, while Germany’s system of military training for all males over 20 meant that it was able to call on reserves as well as existing conscripts and draft new recruits. In contrast, there was strong resistance to the introduction of conscription in Britain and for the first years of the war, the army depended on volunteers. When conscription was finally introduced in January 1916 the bill included the concession of the ‘conscience clause’ granting exemption to those who could prove a ‘conscientious objection’ to armed service.

Research by Leeds Associate Researcher Cyril Pearce shows that there were over 17,000 Conscientious Objectors (COs) registered between 1916 and the end of the war.

Although the major emphasis of the centenary commemorations of the First World war have focused on military themes, especially the deaths of so many soldiers, interest in COs is expected to increase once we reach the centenary of the introduction of conscription in 1916. Many within peace history groups have designated 2016 a ‘Year of Conscience’ and a number of public-facing activities are planned.  In Leeds, these include an exhibition of materials relating to opposition to war held in the Liddle Collection (November 2015-April 2016), an International Conference on Resistance to War planned for March 2016 and the first Peace History Conference to be held in Leeds in October 2016.

Despite increasing public interest in the trails of Conscientious Objectors, so far, little work has been done to chart public attitudes to COs and the effect of  personal or community support networks on their ability to maintain their objection in the face of strong pressure to serve their country.

This project, which will run from July 2015 to October 2016, aims to redress that balance and to challenge popular conceptions about COs by exploring social attitudes to COs locally and nationally.