To mark International Conscientious Objector Day on 15 May, we are highlighting the wonderful research carried out at the Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone. Archive documents held at the Centre include a collection of case files for 153 Conscientious Objectors who appealed to the West Kent Appeal Tribunal for exemption from military service, after the introduction of the first Military Service Act in 1916.
In this guest blog post, Rob Illingworth and Julia Booth from The Kent History and Library Centre tell us about some of the fascinating stories that they have uncovered so far.
We have discovered many remarkable accounts of resistance, perseverance and courage.
By examining the Tribunal case files, together with the resources available on Lives of the First World War (especially The Pearce Register of British WW1 Conscientious Objectors), we are piecing together stories of Kent men who said no to war. These individuals came from a range of backgrounds and were guided by a variety of different motives, ranging from political views to religious beliefs.
Here are just three of those stories, and we hope that Lives of the First World War will further strengthen our understanding of their experiences.
George was a grocer’s assistant employed by the Tunbridge Wells Co-operative Society. As a Christian and an International Socialist, he felt he could take no part in the war.
Following the decision by the Local and Appeal Tribunals to reject his application for Absolute Exemption from military service, George maintained his resistance to all military service throughout the war years. As a result he was sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, where he contracted tuberculosis. After convalescing at Fairby Grange, Hartley, Kent, George spent two years in France and Poland working for the Friends’ War Victims’ Relief Committee.
Ernest was a warehouseman from Gravesend, and submitted an appeal for exemption based on Christian principles. He declared,
“I conscientiously believe War to be contrary to the life and teachings of My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, & therefore cannot under any circumstances take part in any military duties.”
Ernest’s application for Absolute Exemption was turned down by the Tribunal and he joined the Non-Combatant Corps. He was posted for Garrison Service abroad in April 1916, and was sent out to Mesopotamia as a Driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. Eventually, in May 1920, he was discharged from the Army, suffering from malaria.
Harold’s story is particularly tragic. He was a stonemason, living with his wife and young daughter in the village of Chart Sutton, near Maidstone. Harold held deeply engrained views that war was wrong and was resolute that there was no way that he could take part in it, either as a serviceman or as a non-combatant.
His total refusal to comply with military orders resulted in the imposition of four consecutive prison sentences, to be served with hard labour. During the time spent in prison his health deteriorated severely and a military doctor directed that he should be sent to Fort Pitt Military Hospital, Rochester. He remained there, suffering from tuberculosis, until it was clear that he was dangerously ill. After finally being discharged from the Army in May 1918, Harold died at home on 7 September 1918, aged 32.