Conscientious Objectors

Why did people choose not to fight in the war, despite the 1916 Military Service Bill?

Background Information

Before the First World War there had never been compulsory military service in Britain. The military had always relied on volunteers. Due to low enlistment a Military Service Bill was passed in 1916 which made it mandatory for single and widowed men between 19 and 41 years old to sign up for active service.

Conscientious objectors refused to fight, objecting to military service for many reasons including religious belief, political ideology, and moral or humanist principles. One of the biggest groups of people objecting to conscription was the Quakers.

Rather than fighting and to avoid imprisonment the Quakers went to work for the Friends Ambulance Unit. They were often on ambulance trains both in Britain and on the continent as civilian volunteers. Many were trained in the role of an orderly.

The aim of these resources is to help your students to examine the role of conscientious objectors in the First World War. The resources offer an understanding into the complexities of men opposed to war and what they did as a result.

Teachers’ notes

How to use these resources

  • use them as discussion points for learning about the experiences of conscientious objectors in the First World War
  • encourage your students to explore and interpret the resources
  • investigate and compare the differences between this enforced conscription and current attitudes to military service

Talking points

What do these resources tell you?
What does this tell you about the role of conscientious objectors in the First World War?
Why do you think it was important to be a conscientious objector?
What victimisation do you think these men might have faced from their actions?
How do you feel about their decision to become a conscientious objector?
If this was you, what would you do?
Does anything in these resources surprise you?
What do these photographs not tell us?
What questions do you need to ask about these resources?
What other types of sources of information do you think you need to look at to find out the answers to these questions?