"And if a German violated your mother?"
Calderdale Conscientious Objectors in the First World War
Hebden Bridge History Society meeting report.
Speaker: John Rhodes
Tuesday, 22 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.
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.
Find out more about the activities of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society on the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk
With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report
Previously, on the HebWeb
Calder Valley Connections to Magna Carta with speaker David Cant (4 March 2016)
Railway Roundabout with speaker Paul Kenny (16 Feb 2016)
Restoring a Unique Organ with speaker Peter Jeffery (31 Jan 2016)
Tales along the Packhorse Way with speaker John Billingsley(18 Jan 2016)
Vanishing for the Vote with speaker Jill Liddington (17 Dec 2015)
Widdop and the Shackletons with speaker John Shackleton(1 Dec 2015)
The History of Calrec: part 2 with speaker Stephen Jagger(19 Nov 2015)
What's in a Name: with speakers Keith Stansfield and Barbara Atack. An insight into local dialects and surnames of the Calder Valley. (9 Nov 2015)
The Lost Kingdom of Elmet (1 Nov 2015)
When Oxford University Came to Hebden Bridge (29 Oct 2015)
The dam that isn't and the great floating plug of the Colden (1 April 2015)
Gruelling Experiences - in the workhouse (16 March 2015)
Pre-History on our hill tops (9 March 2015)
Growing up in Sowerby (16 February 2015)
Patterns in the Landscape: the evolution of settlement and enclosure in the Upper Calder Valley (5 February 2015)
Wakefield Court Rolls for Family History: Sylvia Thomas (18 Jan 2015)
Happy Birthday Stoodley Pike: by Nick Wilding (16 Dec 2014)
Wills, Inventories and Economic Activity in the Parish of Halifax at the end of the 17th Century: Alan Petford (30 Nov 2014)
Local History Society Archive explored - Following the 65th AGM, members of Hebden Bridge Local History Society were treated to a sample of some of the treasures to be found in the Society's archive. (19 Nov 2014)
Views from two communities on the outbreak of war in 1914 - Mike Crawford, Wolfgang Hombach and Nick Wilding (27 Oct 2014)
The Listed Buildings of the Hebden Bridge area with Peter Thornborrow. (14 Oct 2014)
Valley of a Hundred Chapels by Amy Binns (29 Sept 2014)
History Group Study Day report: Power and Potability (11 Sept 2014)
Whose land is it anyway? How parliamentary enclosure shaped the landscape of the Calder Valley: speaker, Sheila Graham. Read more (6 April 2014)
Calder Valley Buildings of the Seventeenth Century: the craftsmen and their patrons Read more (27 Jan)See Small Ads (12 March)
Some thoughts on historic buildings and their repairs by Alan Gardner
More history reports in the HebWeb History Section