Conscientious ObjectorsWW1

Understanding the connection between conscription and Conscientious Objection


In 1916, the Military Service Act was passed, resulting in compulsory enlistment to the armed forces for most men. This was known as conscription. Following the introduction of conscription, local tribunals were set up to rule on whether individuals who claimed exemption from military service had sufficiently good reason or whether they must serve.

During these sessions plaintiffs were required to put their case as to why, for economic, family or reasons of conscience, they were unable to serve.

Many reasons were often put forward relating to farms and businesses where the individual was claimed to have special skills or be the only family member left.

Some put their case as Conscientious Objectors – those who felt unable to join the War on moral grounds. These fell into two categories; those who would not fight but would help the war effort in some capacity (first aid/stretcher bearers, working in mines or farms) and the Absolutists who would have nothing to do with any part of the war.

Some of these Absolutists were sent to Dartmoor (Princetown) after the prison was cleared of prisoners, to serve time in a work camp.

Under the terms of the Conscription Act 1916 decisions regarding who should or would not face military service was left to local committees to decide. Typically a tribunal consisted of local political worthies and an appointed military advisor who was often likened to a prosecuting counsel.


Explain how conscription and Conscientious Objectors are linked.


Look at the attitudes of officials and locals, and attempt to understand some of the reasons behind the differing views.

Was conscription fair? Should objections be considered? Were the tribunals fair?

As well as the information sheets in the Resources section, you may like to look at the links to the Peace Pledge Union website and the CO site within the National Archive. You can then return to this page to see how similar arguments were used in Devon.

Teacher Note

This task encourages skills in empathy, writing for purpose and using identified sources to research a topic.


Peace Pledge Union
National Archives