A guest post by our Exhibitions Assistant, Josh Butt.
In our upcoming exhibition A Land Fit For Heroes we will be looking at how and why most of the country got behind the nation’s great war effort. Despite mass support for the war there were a small number of people who objected to it.
Shortly before war was declared on 4 August 1914 the Labour MP Keir Hardie led an anti-war protest at Trafalgar Square attended by several thousand of people. There was little interest for war in the weeks leading up to the declaration. Yet after war was declared Hardie’s anti-war stance was reviled and his speeches met with heckling as the country came together in support for the war effort.
Public attitude towards the war is perhaps best shown in statistics. Only 16,000 people, known as conscientious objectors, refused to serve in the army during the war, four times less than in World War II. Yet, over two and a half million men volunteered to fight between August 1914 and January 1916.
Conscientious objectors were often labelled as ‘conchies’ and the rest of the country had little time or sympathy for them. Those that stayed at home were viewed as ‘shirkers’ or cowards. This lack of sympathy was perhaps understandable, especially from people who had just lost relatives at the front. Indeed many volunteers were motivated by the sense that if men were needed to win the war, why should they stay, while others fought for them? Clement Attlee, future Labour leader, reflected in his memoirs that ‘it appeared wrong to me to let others make a sacrifice while I stood by.’
This sense that those who refused were harmful to the war effort increased negative feeling towards objectors. Up before a conscription tribunal in Oldham an objector was described as ‘a deliberate and rank blasphemer, a coward and a cad, and nothing but a shivering mass of unwholesome fat’. God had already been conscripted.
Some objects served in a Non-Combatant Corps – dubbed the ‘No Courage Corps’. Those who refused to contribute in any way to the war effort spent the war in jail. Trouble for ‘conchies’ continued after the war with job interviewers asking candidates ‘and what did you do in the war?’. Often job adverts appeared with the line ‘No CO need apply’.
While objectors were viewed as cowards during the war, to face down such strong public opinion and not waiver from one’s morals took its own degree of courage.