Some conscientious objectors believed that any alternative service supported the war effort and conscription, and they had no intention of becoming soldiers. Many ignored their call-up notices telling them to report to their regiments and waited to be “fetched” [1]. They stayed at home or went on the run until they were arrested and taken before the Magistrates; often fined they were then taken under escort to their army regiment. Others accepted their call-up notices, made their way to their army units and proceeded to disobey orders. All then started a programme of passive disobedience that infuriated the army: refusing to put on uniforms, to go on parade or to salute. They would then be taken before courts martial and be sentenced to a period of detention, initially in military detention centres. Very soon, following campaigns by those concerned about COs welfare in these brutal centres, courts martial began sentencing them to terms of imprisonment to be served in the civilian prisons nearest to their regimental barracks.


By June 1916 the Government, embarrassed by the numbers of conscientious objectors in prison and by the army's plan to execute some 34 taken to France [2], decided to review their cases. If considered " genuine conscientious objectors", they would be referred to Home Office Scheme. Many of the fifty-two imprisoned Deptford and Lewisham conscientious objectors were willing to go along with the new proposals. Thirty-one who were declared to possess a 'genuine' objection to the war and were referred to the Home Office Scheme. Nineteen eventually refused to co-operate from the outset or once it became obvious that the scheme was just a different form of containment that they considered aided the war effort. These nineteen COs, together with Albert Edward Allen who was held not to be a genuine conscientious objector and Archibald Miles was held to be unconvincing, became known as absolutists and were to spend the remainder of the war and into 1919 in prison. [3]

Wakefield Experiment
The total number of absolutes imprisoned eventually reached 985 (see Rae p.167). The Home Office tried to resolve the problem of such large numbers of men in prison and, in August 1918, after that year's earlier fear that that Germany might win the war had subsided, the 'Wakefield experiment’ was introduced. [4] [5] One-hundred-and-twenty absolutists, including Albert Edward Allen and Walter Edwin Miles were offered comfortable housing and treatment in Wakefield Prison, as long as they were ‘quiet and obedient’, it is said that the first arrivals were even offered sedatives, which they refused to take. The ‘experiment’ was a failure and lasted only three weeks as the absolutists refused to do any work other than to take care of sanitation and the provision of food. The Home Office then tried to impose a nine-hour work day, but the absolutists continued to ignore prison rules and refused to co-operate. Large numbers of prison officers were needed to control them, the majority ended up in solitary confinement, and all were eventually sent back in small groups to other prisons as the experiment collapsed.

"Two Year Rule" and Dishonourable Discharge from the Army

After the Armistice, the Home Office felt that conscientious objectors in prison should not be released until all soldiers had been demobilised.

From the outset of their imprisonment some absolutists had taken direct action, including one-hundred and thirty who went on hunger strike and had to be forcibly fed. The Government in turn used the "Cat and Mouse Act" passed to deal with suffragettes, to deal with conscientious objectors. Those refusing food were released to recover, only to be re-arrested once their health had improved. Then in March 1919 forced feeding was abandoned and those already released on grounds of health were not re-arrested.

By now absolutists had increased their refusal to co-operate with the authorities. Edward Harby [6]is known to have hunger struck; and he was also involved with other non-pacifist COs in the large-scale rioting that took place in Wandsworth gaol in the early period of 1919. Pacifist COs were shocked by the violence instigated they believed by anarchist and socialist COs, whose sanity they questioned. [6] The Home Office, however, was concerned both by the adverse publicity of rioting and the effect such indiscipline could have on other prisoners, particularly imprisoned soldiers. They responded with what became known as the “Two Year Rule” whereby all prisoners convicted of army offences were released after April 1919, if they had served two years or more.

Absolutists released from prison were sent discharge papers by the army that stated that they faced another two years in prison if they tried to sign up again; proof if it were needed that the military had no sense of the absurd.

Lewisham COs who were Absolutists

1. COs are often reported in the Lewisham Borough News and the Kentish Mercury particularly in the period March - May 1916 saying that they would wait to be "fetched"
2. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, (1922) Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969 Chapter IV.2
3. Databases for Lewisham and Deptford COs in Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors
4. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, Augustus M. Kelley, (1922) reprint NY 1969 Chapter IX.7
5. John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970, pp. 228-229
6. Letter from Mrs S. Cahill, Secretary, Dulwich Branch NCF to Miss Catherine Marshall, Parliamentary Secretary of the NCF Cumbria County Council Archive' Service ref:DMAR/4/97.
7. The Tribunal, Thursday, March 6 1919 on the Wandsworth disturbances

Clare Cole, The Objectors to Conscription and War, published Manchester: Workers' Northern Publishing Society, 1936
John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, (1922) Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969
John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970.
Jo Vellacott, Conscientious Objection:Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, Spokesman Books London, 2015 edition

Web Pages
Peace Pledge Union's history of Absolutists http://www.ppu.org.uk/cosnew/cotx05b2.html

Postcard from the PPU http://www.ppu.org.uk/men/context/index.html and reproduced with their permission.

Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2014, revised September 2015

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