Non-Combatant Corps

After the passing of the Military Service Act in early 1916, it was decided to form a Non-Combatant Corps of conscientious objectors. Set up in March 1916, eight Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) companies existed by the middle of June 1916. They were part of the army and run by its regular officers and non-commissioned officers, and NCC units were usually comprised of about 100 men. Over the course of the war 34 NCC companies were formed. There was no formal overarching organisation and they largely served under the command of regimental and reserve battalions.

The Military Service Tribunals and the NCC
The Lewisham Military Services Tribunal initially believed that the only option open to them under the terms of the Military Services Act was to offer conscientious objectors a non-combatant certificate and they expected it to be accepted. Almost one-third of Lewisham and Deptford men appearing before its Military Service Tribunals accepted conscription into the Non-Combatant Corps, many like Frank Griffin Stone with great reluctance. From the details given in Cyril Pearce's data base, thirty-two of these men spent the war assigned to Eastern and Southern Commands of the Corps working on the 'Home Front' and six served in France, including Samuel Lang and Frank Rockingham, a dissenting minister of religion, who had been forced to accept a Non-combatant Certificate.


Public Hostility towards conscientious objectors and those serving in the NCC

The Non-Combatant Corps was called the 'No-Courage Corps' and the South London Press reflects some of the loathing felt for it, and the conscientious objector, in an editorial on its formation
when it wrote: "We do not, we believe, misjudge him in saying that he wants to be left at home "strafing" his fellow-citizens engaged in the horrid war, and generally ministering to milksops who prefer to enjoy the liberties and share the comforts won for them by those fellow-citizens." [1]

Duties of conscientious objectors in the NCC and Disobeying Orders

Conscientious Objectors assigned to the NCC were enlisted as army privates and subject to army discipline, but they didn't carry weapons or take part in battle. Their duties were mainly to provide physical labour in support of the military such as work on roads, timber work, quarrying, sanitary duties, and the handling of supplies, but excluded anything that directly helped the war effort such as loading and unloading munitions. They wore army uniform and had a cap badge, and initially they received the same wage as private soldiers, but they could never be promoted and were refused the pay rise given at the end of the war to stop dissent in the ranks because of delays in demobilisation.

The Military Service records of NCC men are full of large and small acts of resistance, a refusal to compromise their principles by moving munitions, weapons, or even components that might have been made into weapons. They were after all conscientious objectors, and Newhaven in particular saw the arrest of many NCC men who refused these specific orders and spent time under armed guard or confined to camp. The Deptford CO, Henry Rivett Albrow gives an account of mutinies in Newhaven and other acts of disobedience; his memoir can be found in the Imperial War Museum. [2] While in Weymouth with the 5th Southern Coy.; Arthur Edwin Raitt was particularly harshly treated for minor offences by being sentenced to 14 days Field Punishment No. 2; and Harry Yeates was court martialled and sentenced to hard labour in Lewes prison for refusing to work on the Sabbath, while with the 4th Southern Coy.

Posted to France and Belgium

Some units were posted to France and Belgium, but were not deployed on the front line, neither were they supposed to be issued with weapons, be given tasks such as erecting barbed wire, could only be used for manual labour and were forbidden from taking on clerical or administrative work, whatever their skills or previous occupations. At times, particularly when the army was under stress, attempts were made to force them to take up arms, Samuel Lang was disciplined with others for refusing to carry arms during the great German push in the spring of 1918. At other times a change of non-commissioned or commissioned officers could lead to their being court martialled. If court martialled and sentenced to imprisonment while on the front, unlike in Britain, they served their sentences in a military rather than civilian prison. An account of the suffering of 14 NCC Seventh-day Adventists in Le Havre Military Prison in November 1917 was printed on the front page of the No-Conscription Fellowship’s weekly The Tribunal on 4 April, 1918. [3] The last NCC men were returned from France in March 1920. Around 35 are known to have died while abroad and are buried in Commonwealth War Graves

By August 1918, around 3,500 men were willingly part of the NCC. Soldiers in the NCC had co-operated with the authorities' concept of the behaviour expected from a CO, but after the Armistice they were not considered a priority for demobilisation, were denied the pay rise given other soldiers while waiting to be returned home, and were among the last to be released. Norman Knappett, an Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, was conscripted in December 1916, spent the war in the Agricultural Corps, and was finally released on 7 January, 1920.

Biographies have the tag "NCC" added. This tag lists all those from Lewisham and Deptford who served in the NCC and can be accessed by clicking on "Tags" in the navigation bar on the left.

1. South London Press, Friday March 17, 1916 page 5.
2. Henry Rivett Albrow's memoir contents description Imperial War Museum collections.
3. Link to the Tribunal 4 April, 1918 with permission of

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
Henry Rivett Albrow's contents description of his memoir held in the IWM collections
Peace Pledge Union's history of the NCC

Image taken from Peace Pledge Union's history of the NCC and reproduced with their permission.
Postcard image also taken from the PPU website.

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

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