Socialist Worker

First World War: ‘I refuse to murder and butcher people that know as little as we do for what end they are fighting’

Thousands of First World War appeals from men of military age arguing for exemption from conscription were released last week, writes Raymie Kiernan

Issue No. 2388

Letter refusing Harry Ward, an international socialist, exemption from military service

Letter refusing Harry Ward, an international socialist, exemption from military service


Thousands of First World War appeals from men of military age arguing for exemption from conscription were released last week.

These were the records of the Middlesex Appeals Tribunal between 1916 and 1918, one of only two surviving collections of such tribunal records. 

These tribunals were appointed by local authorities and often had a military representative sitting on them.

Exemption from military service could be requested on different grounds including ill health, for economic reasons or on the grounds of conscientious objection. 

Around 5 percent of the Middlesex appeals were on the basis of the latter. Many argued they would rather face jail than help the British state’s war effort and take the military oath of allegiance. 

At a time of such frenzied patriotism and state propaganda the refusal to do any form of military service was hugely principled.

Percy Carter, of Acton Green, was a compositor—a printer of engineer’s specifications. 

He reflected this atmosphere in his appeal statement, saying that he had “lost employment, friends and resigned from a church because of the war fever that existed”.

Objectors faced economic hardship as the ruling class whipped up pro-war propaganda. 

William Burnell, a clerk from New Southgate, gave up his job after his company came under the control of Britain’s war machine. He was unemployed for six months before taking a new job for half the wages of his old one. He said he “could not be a traitor” to his “conscience and religious convictions”.

Although many argued conscientious objection on religious grounds, not everyone did.

For engineer Adam Priestley of Northwood there was “no distinction between combatant and non-combatant war services”. He simply could not show any “form of allegiance to a state which is at war”.

Harry Ward of Ponder’s End was “an international socialist”. His occupation was filed as a “foreign correspondent and book-keeping clerk”. 

He was determined to abide by his principles “no matter what may be the penalties for refusing to obey any government order”.

In the documents for his appeal he said that the tribunal “refused to accept my evidence or to hear my witnesses”.  He said this was “upon the grounds that as I appealed upon ‘socialist reasons’, I could not lay claim to a conscience”. 

His experience led to a number of questions being raised in parliament and a subsequent inquiry into the handling of his case.

A supporting letter for Harry’s appeal hearing from someone at his original tribunal said, “From the time you were called to the time their decision was given it was exactly two and half minutes”.

Exempted

Despite the fervour of the first year of the war, which saw nearly two million men volunteer to fight, it wasn’t to last. As bosses profited from the mass slaughter, workers were expected to make huge sacrifices, not just in the trenches, but also in the workplace. They faced wage cuts while prices for food and clothing soared by 70 percent. 

By November 1916, after the casualties of the Somme had devastated so many British families, the call up of an exempted engineer from Sheffield provoked a 10,000-strong strike.

Gerald Gray, from Twickenham, was just 22 years old when he argued, “I refuse to murder and butcher people that know as little as we do for what end they are fighting.” In his appeal tribunal he said the military representative claimed he was “of unsound mind”. 

The tribunal’s chairman complained that Gerald said “he had never received support from his country or help or sympathy from the king” so why now should he help out the king.


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