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Pacifism and Conscientious Objection

With particular focus on conscription, Professor Martin Ceadal discusses instances of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War One in Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
‘Pacifism’ was coined in 1901 (in French) to describe the ideas of the peace movement as a whole. It thus applied not only to the absolutist minority that unconditionally refused to fight, but also to the reformist mainstream, which believed that war could be abolished (for example, by improving international law and arbitrating disputes between states) but nonetheless accepted that, until such abolition was achieved, military force could legitimately be used for self-defence and enforcing international obligations.

‘Conscientious Objection’ originated in sects such as the Society of Friends (whose members were better known as ‘Quakers’) that refused to bear arms on account of their distinctive religious scruples. Their stance later found some support within other Christian denominations and churches and in due course also among those without formal religious beliefs, including anarchists and socialists.

During the First World War, when those who refused to be conscripted into the army hit the headlines, pacifism and conscientious objection became increasingly synonymous – especially in the English-speaking world, since it was only here that pacifism in the absolutist sense was sufficiently recognised for any kind of legal provision to be made for conscientious objection.

Canada, New Zealand and the United States

In Canada, New Zealand, and the United States exemption was provided, but only for historic peace sects, and only from bearing arms. And in these young, settler societies most citizens resented as shirkers those seeking such privileges, and treated them with hostility. Thus after the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, 64,693 claims of conscientious objection were made, of which 58,830 were accepted. Those religious sectarians thus exempted had first to undergo a medical examination. Then, if deemed fit as 20,873 were, they had to enter an army camp, where such social coercion was applied that four fifths gave in and accepted combatant service.

The situation in Britain

In Britain, where conscription was introduced in 1916, the law was significantly more liberal, in principle exempting those of any or no religious affiliation, and doing so from alternative (non-combatant or civilian) service too. And, although many Britons disapproved of such generosity – as shown by the reluctance of many military-service tribunals both to recognise secular objections and to grant total exemptions – they hounded ‘conchies’ only in moments of military anxiety. Objectors totalled 16,500, four fifths of whom were awarded some kind of exemption by their tribunals; yet because an unexpectedly high percentage sought total exemption and only 350 were granted it, a third of those allocated to non-combatant units rejected this ruling. Almost 6,000 objectors were thus inducted into the army, though after a few weeks of harsh treatment – which famously included 34 death sentences, none of which was however carried out – they were handed over to the civil authorities, which resulted in compromise on both sides, as most objectors agreed to undertake non-military work of national importance under a new Home Office scheme.

In consequence, only 985 British objectors held out against any type of alternative service; yet they attracted disproportionate public attention because they included a handful of high-profile idealists, such as the socialists Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway and the Quaker-convert Stephen Hobhouse, whose widely publicised prison sufferings prompted the government to release medically unfit absolutists in November 1917. Educated and well-connected objectors of this kind were however atypical: much more representative were obscure sectarians who accepted the literal truth of the Bible and looked forward to an imminent apocalypse. It was moreover their foreign counterparts who provided almost all the war-resisters outside the English-speaking world, of whom there were very few.

Many of those who before 1914 had called themselves pacifists continued so to regard themselves, despite acquiescing in the war effort. Those on the radical wing of Britain’s ruling Liberal Party and in the mainstream of the Labour Party called for foreign policy to made accountable to parliament and for the post-war territorial settlement to respect the wishes of the populations affected. Mainstream Liberals campaigned for a league of nations to prevent future conflicts – a campaign that bore fruit once the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had become a convert. And those on the left of the Labour Party increasingly saw the introduction of socialism as the way to abolish imperialism and war – a view given impetus by the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s subsequent decision to make peace. However, these three groups shared a linguistic problem: pacifism having become largely identified with conscientious objection and absolutism, there was no word to describe their reformist approach to the abolition of war.
  • Martin Ceadel
  • Martin Ceadel is Professor of Politics, University of Oxford, and Fellow of New College, Oxford, where he has taught since 1979. His research has focused mainly on peace movements and the politics of war prevention; and he has published five single-authored monographs with Oxford University Press, of which the most recent is Living the Great Illusion: Sir Norman Angell, 1872-1967.