12 January 2019

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Presidential Display: Conscientious Objectors in WWI - Richard Berry FRPSL 

Our President, Richard Berry FRPSL, gave a display, the likes of which we have not seen before, on matters relating to conscientious objectors.  As usual Richard invited a number of guests, particularly from the ‘Royal’ and his family, but on this occasion his mother was not able to come!

In opening his talk and display Richard stated that this was not a common collecting area, simply because there was not a lot of material around. There were 16,100 men recognised as conscientious objectors. Richard’s talk concentrated on the absolutists of whom there were 1,300. He also covered the other types of conscientious objector. In telling the “conscientious objectors” story he mentioned that there were four types of exemption from joining the forces:

  • Those who joined the Non-Combatant Corps
  • “Alternativists” who worked on farms or in other alternative employment
  • “Schemers” who signed up to Home Office schemes 
  • “Absolutists” who wanted absolutely nothing to do with the war effort 

At the start of the war the general feeling in Britain was against conscription as it was considered (for example) that pressed men would not make good soldiers.  This was opposite to the view in France and Germany. By mid-1915 with mounting casualties, falling voluntary recruitment and married women complaining that their husbands were at the front whilst many single men were not in uniform - the mood was changing. However, following the failure of the Derby Scheme (see further on) conscription arrived under the terms of the Military Service Act, passed in January 1916. Every unmarried or widowed man who had no dependents and who was aged 19 to 41 was deemed to have enlisted for general service or for the reserve.  In other words they became soldiers as from 2 March 1916. Only exempted were the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and certain classes of industrial worker.  A second Act passed in May 1916 extended conscription to married men and in a further Act the age limit was raised to 50.  Conscription did not apply to Ireland.  Richard’s display included a small number of contemporary comic postcards relating to recruitment and the road to conscription as well as a pamphlet entitled “The Limited Conscription Bill - How to avoid impending trouble and disaster” produced by Arnold Lupton on 10 January 1916.

Lord Derby (a keen concriptionist) was appointed Director-General of Recruiting on 11 October 1915 and within five days he brought forward a scheme, commonly referred to as the Derby Scheme although its official title was the Group Scheme. Those aged 18 to 40 were informed that under the scheme they could continue to enlist voluntarily (“attest”) with an obligation to come if called up later.  Numbers didn’t come forward even though heavy pressure was applied. Therefore the War Office notified the public that the last day of voluntary registration would be 15 December 1915 after that the indignity of being conscripted would apply once legislation passed. Once attested volunteers were given a special armband (an example was shown) and put into groups according to age.  Employers could apply for their employees’ exemption under the Derby Scheme.  Contemporary local newspapers were a good source to identify the types of people granted exemption or otherwise. Often it was a case of who you knew!  By the close of the Derby Scheme only 340,000 men had attested.  The display included various notices of decisions or hearings in relation to applications for exemptions.  

Richard referred to a good introductory book on the subject being “Conscientious Objectors of the First World War - A Determined Resistance” by Ann Kramer (pub Pen & Sword, 2014) and that although there were many books on the subject reference to the philatelic aspects were sparse. Richard also talked about the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) which was a British pacifist organisation founded in London on 27 November 1914.  Branches were established across the country, leaflets were produced to keep conscientious objection in the public eye throughout out the war and deputations sent to lobby Parliament.  They issued guidance on how to, for example, apply for exemptions to local tribunals and appeals tribunals.  From March 1916 the NCF published a magazine called The Tribunal.  Various documents relating to appeals hearings and decisions were displayed.  Conscientious objectors produced their own postcards and Richard showed a selection of comic postcards relating to conscientious objectors and tribunals.  Although the main theme of Richard’s talk was on absolutists he also showed postal history and ephemera relating to the other exemption options available and also the Friends Ambulance Unit organised by the Quakers (Society of Friends).

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0453A  - Example of comic postcards relating to conscription under the Military Service Act

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0454A – Examples of comic postcards relating to conscientious objectors

Richard showed the process an absolutist went through during the war using original paperwork from Frank Penney. He applied in 1916 to his local tribunal in Southampton for exemption which was refused following appearance at the tribunal. He applied to the next level being the Appeal Tribunal for his county (Hampshire) and was again refused. He wasn’t allowed to appeal to the Central Tribunal in London. So into the army he went and he refused to put on his uniform so was court martialled and found guilty went to civil prison (Winchester) with 112 days hard labour. On release he was back into the Army where he again refused to put on his uniform was court martialled then back to prison then released and this process continued until 1919.

Most of the second half of the display related to another absolutist but one with a philatelic connection. Sydney Turner was an architect who was also a writer on philately and illustrated many publications including the Melville publications and designed a commemorative envelope for the Junior Philatelic Society in 1909. Richard showed some original examples of Turner’s pre-war philatelic output. Along with has brother Guy they were both conscientious objectors. Guy being diabetic was automatically exempt. Richard showed much material relating to Turner as a CO using Turner’s own private correspondence and papers, his dealings with the authorities such as his application to the Appeals Tribunal. Over the period 1916-19 Turner went through four courts martial each followed by a prison sentence and after serving his sentence was released back to his regiment and was subsequently court martialled again after he declined to put on an army uniform.  Also shown were a number of letters to the Turner brothers written by Lt Bernard Kirby MC from the Western Front.

There was a connection between Turner and our Society - when Turner died in 1972 one of his executors was the late George Crabb (a past President 1993-95).  Richard showed a manuscript sheet which explained this connection and also how Turner’s conscientious objector past came to light – George Crabb had found in Turner’s loft a suitcase wrapped in brown paper and sealed with sealing wax.  When the contents were examined he realised for the first time that Turner had been a conscientious objector during WW1. Despite knowing him for over 20 years this fact had never been mentioned.  

In 1935 Turner joined the Royal Philatelic Society London. He would probably have been ”blackballed” if he’d applied earlier judging by the military ranks held by many members of the Royal’s members after the War and during the 1920s! He eventually became a Fellow of that Society and in 1957 became an RDP… and the Society never knew it had a CO as a member who’d served over 800 days in prison for his beliefs.

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0457A - Richard explaining an item in front of an attentive audience

Richard introduced his collection on the day as “Those Troublesome People” after a quotation by George Bernard Shaw (GBS) in a NCF publication. He promised that the talk would end with GBS. The final CO correspondence shown related to Allan McDonald Laing who was secretary of the Liverpool and District Branch of the NCF; he had already served time for distributing anti-conscription leaflets.  In 1917 he was before the tribunals and refused exemption and following the usual court martial followed by prison routine had served time in Wormwood Scrubs and Winson Green (Birmingham) by the end of the war. Again original letters from prison were shown.  After the war he worked in journalism and in the 1950s, proof read and reviewed a book written on GBS by his secretary – some postal history and ephemera relating to GBS was shown. 

As the meeting came to an end a vote of thanks was given by our senior Vice President, Robin Davis FRPSL for this extremely unusual, but very interesting and informative display on a subject which has never been dealt with in such detail before.


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