Conscientious objectors

This guide was last updated in 2009

Researching the lives of ancestors who objected to the 20th century's mass conflicts can often uncover fascinating stories, writes Martin Purdy.

“I understand that you object to combatant service because it takes human life. Are you prepared to take non-combatant service?” asked William Wiggins, the Mayor of Middleton, Manchester, of conscientious objector Edgar Kean.

The simple answer reported in the press in February 1916 was “no”.

Kean went on to state that he was not even prepared to help the wounded, as this was simply making men fit to fight again. He was told he would have to take on a non-combat role with the military.

Such confrontations were not uncommon in tribunals up and down the country after the Military Service Act of 1916 first introduced conscription to Britain. There were around 16,000 conscientious objectors recorded in the First World War who wished to claim exemption from military service. In the vast majority of cases they were refused. Of course, many of these objectors failed to answer their “call-up” and either “disappeared” or refused to obey orders when sent to their military units and were subsequently court-martialled and imprisoned.

By the end of the First World War, there had been a change in the mood of the general populace as scepticism about war aims and 'blind' patriotism became more common. As a result, the conscientious objectors of the Second World War were treated more leniently. Nevertheless, of around 60,000 objectors during this war, half were still imprisoned or sent to work camps.

It is an interesting subject and more and more information is being made available to researchers all the time. I can guarantee that any search will reveal some very interesting stories.


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