Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.
1 Peter II, 13.
Photo: Bennett Clark, Wolverhampton
In mid August 1915, at which time I was in a situation at Northampton, the first Coalition Government under Mr Asquith, carried into effect the National Registration Act that required all adults between the ages of 16 and 40 years to become registered. For this purpose special forms were distributed among all dwelling houses, one form for each liable adult. These forms had to be filled in with the following data: - surname and Christian names, present address, sex, age, place of birth, nationality, married or single and number of dependants. The leading politicians gave an emphatic assurance that this measure was not intended as a preliminary for conscription. But those of us who knew how much to value the solemn pledges of party leaders and moreover recognised the essential necessity for the principle of compulsion in order to carry on an extended war, saw in it the sinister shadow of subsequent acts of Parliament. The age limits of 16 to 40 years were conclusively significant, and the inclusion of women in the provisions of the act was foreseen as so much ‘dust thrown in the eyes’. At the time when the returns were required I was single, but all arrangements completed for my marriage on September 2nd, i.e. about a fortnight later. Consequently I was in somewhat of a dilemma with regard to the questions relating to marital status, for I reasoned that the register could not be completed before September 2nd, in which case if I returned myself as single the entry would be inaccurate. Therefore after some cogitation, I entered on the form a note to the effect that I was to be married, thinking to leave it to the clerk to do as he thought best when posting it in the books. However my object was defeated, for an officious woman who collected the papers and evidently considered that the vocation gave her a little brief authority, promptly tore up the form and she made out another, on which I was recorded as single.
The next development was the inauguration of the historic Derby Scheme of Attestation. This was a skilful application, whose author was Lord Derby (chief of recruiting) of the ancient principle, divide and rule. Under the scheme, every man of military age was asked to volunteer for active service if the necessity for him should arise. In order to draw him into the mesh of the net, various promises were made (all of which were subsequently broken) to induce him to attest. All recruits under the scheme were enlisted in the regular way and received one day’s army pay. They were then immediately transferred to the army reserve, to be called to the colours in groups, the composition of which was governed by such items of circumstance, such as marital status and age. One of the promises given was the undertaking that no married men would be called until the supply of single ones was exhausted. While another was the right of appeal for exemption from active service before specially created tribunals. The impression was created among the public, no doubt intentionally, that all who did not attest would be conscripted before any of the groups were called up and that only by attestation could the right of appeal be gained. The obvious result, besides the recruiting of all who sincerely meant to serve in case of need, was that the cowards took fright and flocked to attest, thinking that only thus could they obtain permission to appeal and thus escape service. I myself had a canvasser visit me, who distinctly told me that if I did not attest, I should be fetched among the first and without the right of appeal. After listening to all he had to say, I plainly told him that under no circumstances would I volunteer for war service. My employer also applied pressure telling me that only by attestation could I hope to escape. I replied that if I refused to become a soldier, no power on earth could make me into one and to this uncompromising statement he replied, “No! But they can send you to prison”. I had him to understand that I was prepared to risk that contingency.
It is hardly necessary to state that immediately the Derby scheme was closed, the groups began to be called to the colours. When the married groups were reached, the feelings that they had all been duped were so strong that a demand for the conscription of all unmarried unattested men immediately sprung into being and forthwith the way was opened for the introduction of the first Military Service Act. From this it will readily be seen that those who had hoped to escape betrayed us into the hands of the militarists. The conscription of single men began on March 2nd 1916. Temporary, conditional, or absolute exemptions were provided for in the Act and might be granted on various grounds, including conscientious objection.
Before the Act came into force, remembering that I was registered as single, I consulted with several friends concerning the awkward position in which I found myself regarding my wife’s dependence on me. I subsequently entered an appeal for absolute exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection to participation in war, according to my interpretation of the teachings of Christ. I then learned that an official notice had been published intimating that men married before November 1915 were to be regarded as married for the purposes of attestation and conscription. Accordingly, before my case came under consideration, I despatched a note to the local tribunal, explaining that I was married and that I requested leave to withdraw my application. I received in reply a notice of decision stating that I did not come under the Act.
Meanwhile, on March 3rd, I received a yellow paper from the Northamptonshire Regiment ordering me to join the colours on the 5th instant for active service. I returned this to the barracks at Northampton by hand, nonchalantly declaring to the clerks in the recruiting office that it did not apply to me. I merely stated that I was a married man. While leaving the barracks I had my first experience of the arbitrariness of military usages, for the sentry at the gate refused to allow me to pass until I had made a lengthy explanation of my business there. This, despite the fact that I was in civilian clothes and he had seen me enter only a few minutes previously.
Towards the end of March 1916, my employer told me that he thought the military authorities would not allow two qualified chemists to remain in one business. As I had not attested and he had, he would probably be called to the colours and in that event he would close down the business. Seeing that my presence was undesirable because he considered that it jeopardised his prospects of exemption, I intimated to him that I would move on at once. Accordingly I concluded my engagement with him on April 20th.
In the meantime, I had accepted a new situation at Northwood, Middlesex. But confirmed in my belief that a Second Military Service Act for married men was certain, I did not regard it as a permanency. In consequence, I look lodgings and my wife returned to live with my parents at Luton, whilst our furniture was stored. To obviate the inconvenience to the registration officials by frequent changes of address, I had my parents’ address registered as mine also. Moreover I regarded it as my home address for many reasons: - my wife was there, much of my property was there and the address appeared in my registration as a chemist and druggist.
In May, my wife, realising with an unerring intuition that trouble lay in store for us, accepted a situation and returned to her old occupation. Also my anticipation regarding the advent of the Second Military Service Act proved correct and that Act come into force in June 1916.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector