The portrayal of COs in the media

by research ~ January 31st, 2014. Filed under: News.


The press has been full of stories about WW1 in time for its centenarian year. It has largely focused on the national archives that have become available and provided access to the fascinating details about the men who said no.  In 1916, the new Military Service Act was introduced in the UK. It required all men aged 18 and 41 to register for military service unless they had a letter of exemption. These archives contain the appeals for a letter of exemption. The applications came from people from all different walks of life applying for acquittal from conscription.  The 6,400 surviving applications provide invaluable information about the individuals who appealed and the reasons given for seeking exception. However the vast majority of appeals were refused and dismissed, of more than 11,000 cases heard only 26 people were successful in obtaining complete exemption. Of all these appeals a large proportion were conscientious objectors.

Conscience wishes to raise the issue that despite all the media on the National Archives and much discussion into the heart felt pleas of many men, there has been little, to no, mention of Conscientious Objectors (CO). And even less on the pressure that many were under to not speak out about their objection.

Approximately 16,000 men were recorded as COs during the First World War. Some opposed the ‘imperialist’ war on political grounds whilst many others opposed due to religious reasons. Of these more than a third went to prison at least once. More than eighty COs died in prison as a result of their experience there. Some became physically or mentally ill, and of these some never fully recovered. Due to this harsh treatment and pressures such as the ‘white feather’ it is very likely that the number of oppositions based on a feeling of conscience were actually much higher but disguised  under other reasons due to a fear of being branded a coward and the harsh treatment that many COs were undergoing.


Harold Bing is one example, of many, who stood up as a Conscientious Objector despite harsh punishment. After conscription was introduced in 1916, Harold went before his tribunal, and was not thought to qualify for exemption ’18-you’re too young to have a conscience’ said the chairman -however he was not too young to be sent to war. He was arrested but refused to obey military orders and was court-martialled. His sentence was six months hard labour, but Harold ended up spending three years in prison. Post war; Harold wanted to teach, but is status has a CO was having damaging effects even after the end of the war. Many advertisements said ‘No CO need apply.’ Eventually he found a teaching job as well as working as a peace campaigner and a member of the Peace Pledge Union. 

At conscience we feel much more focus should be given to Conscientious Objectors and why more people felt that they couldn’t express these views. The media has focused on other factors with little attention paid to those refusing on grounds of conscience. Conscientious objection is an aspect of British heritage that deserves to be understood and honored.

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