The No-conscription fellowship (NCF) was formed to support those who objected to taking up arms in the First World War. In the autumn of 1914, at the suggestion of his wife Lilla, Fenner Brockway the editor of the strongly anti-war Independent Labour Party (ILP) newspaper The Labour Leader invited those who were eligible for conscription, but who were not prepared to fight to get in contact. There was an immediate response and the NCF was established in November 1914 initially with 300 members. The NCF was the voice of the whole anti-war movement working closely with two other organisations: the Friends' Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, (FOR) a Christian pacifist organisation also founded in 1914. The ILP gave its conscientious objectors its full support but left it to the NCF to actually organise resistance.
By the beginning of 1915 membership had grown to such an extent that an office was opened in London and a network of branches were established across the country and within the London boroughs including one in Dulwich and another in Blackheath. Initially the NCF campaigned against the Military Service Bill and when that campaign was lost it campaigned to support all conscientious objectors in their opposition to conscription. The NCF's organisation was meticulous, they kept records of every CO, the grounds of his objection, his appearance before tribunals, civil courts, courts martial, and even which prison or Home Office work camp he was in. They also maintained contact with COs, arranging visits to camps, barracks and prisons and had special funds for the maintenance of the dependents of those in gaol. According to the NCF’s figures, some 20,000 men refused to fight, 6,312 men were arrested for resisting conscription and over 800 served more than two years in prison. Thousands of other COs refused to bear arms but accepted service in the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Friends Relief Committee or "work of national importance” and the Non Combatant Corps.
Ranged against them was the full might of the government, the police, the army, most churches and the press. Sermons were preached in favour of the war and the press whipped up public opinion against COs or 'conchies' as they were labelled. Immense personal pressure was put on them not just by the church and state, but also by communities, neighbours, friends, even families and they also had to withstand pressure to conform when isolated in barracks, army camps and prisons.
To counteract this the NCF had a press department, that constantly sought to draw the attention of the public to what was happening to COs and the ill-treatment and brutality many were subject to. Shadow committees of associate members were formed of women and older men, and women were largely responsible for the running of the secret presses. They published leaflets and pamphlets and from March 1916 a weekly newspaper The Tribunal. The Political Department, whose Parliamentary secretary was Catherine Marshall, briefed MPs and drafted questions to Ministers. The government tried to suppress The Tribunal, by raiding its printers, the National Labour Press, and dismantling their printing machinery, but the NCF had made preparations and had secret presses which continued to bring out the paper.
The final convention of the No-Conscription Fellowship took place at the end of November 1919 at Devonshire House and was attended by over 400 delegates from branches all over the country, after which the fellowship disbanded.
Jo Vellacott, Conscientious Objection:Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, Spokesman Books London, 2015 edition
John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919, Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers N.Y. 1969
Peace Pledge Union's history of the No-conscription Fellowship
Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2014, Revised March 2015
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