Conscientious Objectors & Attested Men

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War the British Army and Navy were professional forces consisting of men who joined the military as their chosen   employment. However, as a result of the catastrophic number of casualties sustained in the initial months of the War, the British Army was too small in numbers to contain the threat of the large German forces.

In 1915 a campaign was launched by Lord Kitchener, Minister for War, to encourage men of military age to volunteer. Amongst these volunteers were men who did not wish to serve immediately, but who instead took an oath promising to serve at a later date when summoned. They were classed as ‘Attested Men’. This scheme left the Army with a pool of committed men to call on, if and when needed.  The individual ‘attested men’ were each given an armband to wear, signifying that they were prepared to serve and do their duty. This relieved much of the pressure which young men at the time must have felt, enabling them to live within their communities without the shame of ‘white feathers’ which were distributed to those alleged to be cowards.

Another category of men who didn’t volunteer in the early years of the War were those in occupations required for the war effort, often those working on the land or in heavy industry.

There was a further small group of men who were eligible to be conscripted but claimed exemption on moral and religious grounds.  These individuals were classed as conscientious objectors.  They became widely ostracised because of their stance of refusing to fight.

By 1916, the British Army had lost 528,000 men either killed, wounded or missing and presumed dead. The pool of volunteers to ‘Kitcheners Army’ had dried up and, as a result, conscription was introduced. At this time, a number of ‘Attested Men’ applied to be released from their earlier commitment to serve at the front. Tribunals to examine these applications for either release from, or deferment of military services were established across the country, including in the county of Glamorgan.  The Tribunal Council for the Districts of Llandaff and Dinas Powys consisted of members representing the military, the legal profession, business and trade unions.  It met several times each month

In March 1916 the Tribunal sat on 8 occasions. Examination of the minutes (ref.: RDC/C/1/34) suggests that many of the applications received from ‘Attested Men’ were unsuccessful. Each application was examined on its own merits, and examples of successful claims can be found in the tribunal minutes:

exempt from Military Service provided he continues his occupation as a ploughman             

…exemption conditional upon remaining chief support of his widowed mother

But many applications were refused:

…exemption on conscientious grounds to take up work with the Friend’s War Relief Committee – Application refused                                                                                                                                      

Cardiff City Council took an uncompromising stance on teachers who claimed exemption on conscientious objection grounds. The City Council went so far as to pass a resolution:

‘…that this Council considers it undesirable that [C.Os] …shall continue in the service or pay of the Council. Head masters were requested to ask each teacher to answer the following question – Are you a Conscientious Objector to Military Service’. (Radnor Road Boys School, log book, 19 Feb 1917 ref.: EC21/3)

Only a small number of conscientious objectors were exempted from service absolutely.  Many were obliged to serve in non-combat roles. Few records of conscientious objectors survive, although some can be found at the National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) and some at local archives services such as those held by Glamorgan Archives.  Details of many of the local tribunals will be recorded in newspapers from the time.                        

John Arnold, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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