2 March 1916: D-day for conscientious objectors

Drawing on the memoirs of Scott Duckers, David Boulton reports on the knock on the door that told conscientious objectors they were now ‘deemed to be soldiers’

Scott Duckers portrait. | Photo: Taken from his book Handed Over.

The five weeks between the passing of the Military Service Act 1916 on 27 January and implementation day on 2 March saw a frenzy of activity as the government made the necessary preparations for the social revolution which compulsion entailed. The War Office was instructed to organise new Non-Combatant Corps to accommodate conscientious objectors (COs) willing to support the war effort without bearing weapons. Local councils were instructed to set up tribunals to assess the sincerity of those pleading conscience. And out in the country the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Friends Service Committee and local peace groups, which had fought and lost the battle against conscription but won the battle for a conscience clause, organised rallies, circulated leaflets and marched under the conjoined banners of the Red Flag and the Prince of Peace.

Treated as deserters

At 6 o’clock on the morning of 2 March policemen around the country, armed with a list of names of men who had applied but been refused exemption, began knocking on their doors. So began an almost ritualised sequence of events which continued week after week for the rest of the war, first for the unmarried men, then, after a second Act, married men, and, finally, older men up to the age of fifty-one.

The charge was that, having received their call-up papers and failed to respond, they had, nevertheless, been deemed to be soldiers and were therefore liable to be treated as deserters. Following the knock on the door, the policeman would escort his man, first to the local recruiting office, then to the police station where he would spend the night in custody. Next morning he would be brought before the magistrate who would hear evidence from the recruiting officer or policeman before being fined £2 for failing to report under the Military Service Act.

He would then be handed over to a military escort who would take him to the barracks where he had been ordered to report. There he was ordered to change into uniform, sign his paybook and obey routine orders. On refusal to wear uniform, take army pay or obey orders, he was charged with disobeying lawful commands and placed in military detention.

Handed over

A vivid and wryly amusing account of the whole process was written shortly after the war by a young Liberal solicitor, Scott Duckers, who had formed a Stop the War Committee in the autumn of 1914. Duckers was one of the relatively few COs whose conscientious objection extended to a refusal to accept the right of any tribunal to judge his conscience. He never applied for exemption, but exempted himself. Nevertheless, his name was on the wanted list, and in his book Handed Over he described what happened to him.

‘On Tuesday, April 11, on walking up the stairs to my office in Chancery Lane, I saw two stalwart men in plain clothes, one of whom accosted me and asked if I were Mr Scott Duckers. I said “Yes” and he then intimated that he would “like a word with me”. I knew what this meant, and leading the way into my private room, asked them to sit down and state their business. The spokesman opened a copy-book and, showing me a card inside, said that he was a police sergeant of the G Division and that he wished to ask me some questions under the Military Service Act. I said that I declined to answer any questions and asked if he had a warrant for my arrest. He replied in the affirmative, and pulled a paper out of his pocket. All this was done very pleasantly and courteously by the officer.’

Duckers explained that he was due in court at Lambeth where he was due to attend a case, and one of the policemen agreed to share a taxi with him. Having said goodbye to everyone in his office, and emptied his pockets of ‘a few things it was no use taking to gaol’, he and the sergeant took the taxi to Lambeth, then, when the case was over, on to Bow Street court for a hearing before a magistrate. ‘But we found the police there would not have anything to do with us. It was not their job, and anyway the court was full that afternoon.’

So, chatting pleasantly, he and the sergeant walked through London to Vine Street court. ‘Here they consented to take the charge, and a large sheet of yellow paper was produced, my name written upon it and the charge, which was that, being [deemed to be] a member of the Special Reserve of His Majesty’s Army, I had absented myself when called to the colours for permanent service. What had I to say? I said that I did not admit being under the Military Service Act. Down went this in the official notebook.’

Then, after lunch with his police escort, they moved on to Marlborough Street court, where he secured a remand on recognisances of £10. A week later he was back in court, prepared to defend himself, but the magistrate declared that he ‘could not enter into the defendant’s views’. He was found guilty of failing to report, fined £2, and taken under military escort to Old Scotland Yard, a temporary army barracks.

‘Drastic measures’

‘The escort took me across the courtyard into a small office, where I saw a fine, alert, soldierly looking man with a wide stretch of ribbons across his breast. “Well sir”, he said, “you’ve been through the police court. Now it’s my duty to make you a soldier.” “And I think it my duty to refuse to be one,” I replied. “Oh, we’ll see about that,” he rejoined pleasantly. “I’ve had some thousands through my hands, and they’ve all settled down quietly in the end.”’

Duckers refused to supply details of name, age and address, and the officer’s mood began to change. ‘You’ve made your protest, done all you can, but you’re in the Army, and I can tell you it will be very, very uncomfortable for you if you make useless trouble.’ The solicitor deemed to be a soldier still refused to answer questions or undress for a medical examination. ‘At this they professed to lose patience with me. In the Army, if a man refused to obey an order, force was employed. They would be sorry to take drastic measures, but…’

No result. So ‘I was taken away… to the guardroom, where I gave up my umbrella but was not searched.’ Still wearing his solicitor’s uniform of silk hat and black coat, he was removed to a cell thirty feet long, fifteen wide and twelve high, which already housed five prisoners. ‘It was an abominable, disgraceful place, unfit for occupation by any human soul… Along one wall were ranged four folding plank beds (one so much broken as to be quite useless) and a filthy, corroded bucket three parts full of urine. This was the only convenience in the place, and the floor round about it was in a very objectionable condition… The whole place smelt abominably, and the floor was used as a general spittoon.’

Four years hard labour

The following morning he was told that, despite his refusal to submit to medical examination, he was deemed fit for general service and would be sent to Winchester for enrolment in the Rifle Brigade. In Winchester, still refusing to put on uniform or obey orders, he was sentenced by court martial to twelve months hard labour, commuted to ninety-eight days detention. Still resisting, he was again sentenced to twelve months hard labour, during which he continued to defy the authorities, which earned him a third sentence, this time two years hard labour. He was still serving his sentence months after the war ended.

At his third court martial he told his judges: ‘The more I see of the Army the less I like it, and the greater is my determination to show that the punishments by which you are accustomed to subdue the spirits of soldiers are quite ineffective against anyone who knows his own mind and will continue steadfast. Whatever happens to me personally, I know that I have done something to maintain those principles of freedom which can only be preserved by individuals, and which will, perhaps more quickly than you think, successfully reassert themselves against all the muddle, waste, mismanagement and blundering incompetence of modern militarism, which these ridiculous trials help to illustrate.’

From 2 March on, thousands of COs went through the procedures Scott Duckers describes – though by no means all will have experienced the very British courtesies initially accorded to an articulate lawyer! Young lads fresh from school or the family farm will have needed even more resilience than Duckers showed. Some suffered indignities and brutalities that Duckers escaped. Some buckled under the strain, some went all the way. None would ever forget that knock on the door, on or after 2 March 1916.

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