Conscription and conscientious objectors

'I know one good thing conscription would do. It would give the poor blokes that have been out here since last August a chance to get a short furlough...'

So wrote Barrhead soldier Alex Lafferty to his brother from France in 1915. At the start of the war, there was no shortage of men volunteering for action. By December 1914, twenty-five percent of the labour force of the West of Scotland had enlisted. Nonetheless, from the very beginning there were calls from some corners for compulsory conscription to be introduced.

As war weariness set in, recruitment slowed. Vast numbers of men were killed at the front creating a need for more soldiers. The calls for conscription became louder.

However, other opinions were voiced. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) had put forward its objections not only to conscription, but to the war itself. Members of the ILP felt that the war had no 'just cause' and was only being fought to serve the interests of capitalists. They feared that it would lead to a growth in state power and the decline of individual freedom. The Barrhead News covered the debate between members of the Barrhead Town Council over the ILP's No Conscription resolution.

In a report from 24th December 1915, Councillors Stewart and Murray urged the council to support the resolution. Councillor Stewart said that if they did so, they would be supporting the Government because:

"it was well known that a majority of the Government were opposed to conscription, and that every effort was now being made by those who wanted conscription so to force the hand of the Government that they would be compelled to adopt it against their own convictions."

He was seconded by Councillor Murray, who agreed that members of the Government were under all sorts of pressure to pass a conscription bill. It was up to individual councils to oppose it and thus avert the danger. If the council passed the No Conscription resolution:

"they would be doing the best for the country, for the day it was adopted they would not only have war but would have something like civil war in this country."

Their arguments were countered by Baillie Shanks, who said:

"there were a great many sides to the subject, but he was entirely in favour of leaving it in the hands of the Government. He had known Prussian militarism for 25 years, and for the past ten years had predicted what was going to happen."

The resolution was eventually defeated by four to three votes.

Full text of 'A 'No-Conscription' Resolution': Barrhead News, 24th December 1915

'The Clerk submitted a letter from the Barrhead branch of the ILP enclosing a resolution on the subject of compulsory service, and asking the Council to press this resolution and forward it to the Government. The resolution declared that conscription was against the whole spirit of British liberty and civic freedom, and asked the Government to have nothing to do with what had proved to be one of the chief curses of Prussian militarism.

The Provost said they had passed a resolution recently in support of the Government, and he felt they would be taking away that support if they acted as now requested.

Councillor Stewart said he felt it was just because of their resolution to support the Government that they ought to accept this, for it was well known that a majority of the Government were opposed to conscription, and that every effort was now being made by those who wanted conscription so to force the hand of the Government that they would be compelled to adopt it against their own convictions. If this happened it would be a blow at the freedom which the British people had fought for and enjoyed for so many years. He moved that they adopt the resolution.

Councillor Murray seconded. He pointed out that the strong influences which were being worked, especially through an unscrupulous section of the press, to have conscription forced upon the country, but whenever a voice was raised on behalf of the present free methods of this country there was an immediate cry of 'Pro-German'. The members of the Government were being subjected to all sorts of influences to pass conscription, and it was only if Councils such as this showed that they were opposed to it, that the danger would be averted. In passing this resolution they would be doing the best for the country, for the day it was adopted they would not only have war but would have something like civil war in this country. If they wanted to save the country from the worst forms of Germanism they should pass this resolution.

Baillie Shanks moved that they do not send the resolution. He did not propose going into any argument as there were a great many sides to the subject, but he was entirely in favour of leaving it in the hands of the Government. He had known Prussian militarism for 25 years, and for the past ten years had predicted what was going to happen.

Councillor Houston seconded. They should not discuss this until they knew what had taken place under Lord Derby's scheme, but in his opinion conscription should have come long ago.

Councillor Tait having supported the motion, Councillor Stewart wound up the discussion.

On a vote the motion was supported by the mover and seconder and Councillor Tait (3), and the amendment by the mover and seconder, the Provost and Councillor Stevenson (4). The latter therefore became the finding of the meeting.'

James Maxton's anti-conscription stance

By January 1916 subscription had fallen by more than half and the Military Service Act was passed. This meant that unmarried men aged 18-41 could be called up. By May 1916 the act was extended to include married men up to 50 years old.

One of Barrhead's most famous men, James Maxton, had been very active through the Independent Labour Party in condemning the war and the idea of conscription. Maxton spoke in support of the ILP's No Conscription resolution in February 1916. He pointed out that Lord Kitchener intended to raise an extra 300,000 men under the Act, while the Allied Forces at war currently numbered between 20 and 30 million.

"Was it seriously contended that these millions could not win the war but the addition of this handful would win it?"

Maxton added that this argument became even more absurd when it was remembered that these extra 300,000 men were the 'shirkers and slackers and white-livered cowards of whom they were so constantly hearing' - that is, the men who had refused to sign up so far.

At the end of his speech, he stressed the importance of fighting against conscription:

"unless they got rid of this Act now, it would fix upon the British people precisely the same militarism which they were supposed to be trying to kill in Germany."

Full text of Maxton's anti-conscription speech: Barrhead News, 4th February 1916

'Mr Maxton seconded the resolution. Before the war, he said, most of the people of this country were in the position indicated by this resolution, believing that compulsory military service was the most terrible tyranny that could be imposed upon a people. Of course those who were for compulsion said it was only that it might avert a great danger, and because they could not get the men without it. When the first 300,000 men were wanted the conscriptionists said the same thing - they could not get the men unless they had conscription. But they got the men and when the next lot was wanted they had the same tale.'

'That had gone on all the time, although they had now got millions of men. It was impossible now to believe that the argument was a real one at all, or any more true now than it was at first. Lord Kitchener (some applause) - yes, yes, said the speaker, we are all patriots and I am not saying one word against Lord Kitchener. Lord Kitchener had said that if we now got this last 300,000 men we could win the war. We had presently some six million men between the Army and Navy, and there were in all in the armies of the Allies a force of between 20 and 30 million. Was it seriously contended that these millions could not win the war but the addition of this handful would win it? It was the most absurd argument it was possible to conceive of and its absurdity became all the greater when they remembered that the 300,000 who had not yet enlisted were the shirkers and slackers and white-livered cowards of whom they were so constantly hearing. The people who could swallow an argument like that could swallow anything (applause).'

'The speaker proceeded to argue that the real object arrived at was to fix conscription upon the British people, as it had been fixed upon the people of Germany, Austria, France, and Russia. He contrasted the methods applied to secure money with those applied to secure men. If money did not come at 3 and 1/2 per cent, it was 'encouraged' to come at 5 per cent, but if men did not come at a shilling a day they were told 'you  must come or be fetched'. Let them apply the same rule to the getting of men as they did to the getting of money and there would be no need for conscription (applause).'

'He predicted that unless they got rid of this Act now, it would fix upon the British people precisely the same militarism which they were supposed to be trying to kill in Germany.'

Conscientious objectors

Even after the Military Act had been passed in 1916, exemptions could be granted for ill health, for work of national importance, to those who were the sole breadwinners with dependents and to those who refused military service on conscientious grounds. In Britain it is estimated that around 16,000 men refused to fight. Some agreed to non-combative service and others to do work of national importance. However around 1500 were absolutists and refused to take part in any activity which supported the war.

Local tribunals, to be appointed by town councils, were formed to deal with exemption cases. However, there was very little consistency in dealing with exemptions. The tribunals were often made up by people who were strongly patriotic and therefore prejudiced against anyone who they thought was not. Often they did not understand the complicated guidelines and in addition each panel contained an army representative whose sole aim was to enlist as many men as possible.

In many cases, Conscientious Objectors were imprisoned, often in very harsh conditions. Some were sent to the front and if they still refused to fight, they were court-marshalled and executed.

The Barrhead News helped chronicle this debate with reports from the exemption tribunals, and letters going back and forth furiously between those for and against conscription. Both James Maxton and Councillor Stewart faced tribunals.