Conscientious Objectors in Norfolk

Some more research that has been undertaken in preparation for the Armistice: The Legacy of the Great War in Norfolk exhibition.

Conscientious Objectors in Norfolk during WW1

One of the main areas of research and investigation that I undertook in helping with the Armistice exhibition at Norwich Castle was into Norfolk, agriculture and the war and while this became all-encompassing and fascinating I also found myself side tracked into two more controversial aspects of the War – the use of Prisoners of War and the stories of the Conscientious Objectors.

I have always thought that the Conscientious Objectors were possibly some of the bravest people – to have the conviction in your opinions to stand up against the authorities and public expectation and risk prison in doing this certainly took courage. I have never thought that it was simple squeamishness or fear that drove their actions, to fight the entire state certainly takes bravery.

The Imperial War Museum has made the Pearce Register of British World War One Conscientious Objectors available on their website to help tell the story of the 16,000 (or more) UK men who refused to be conscripted in the British Army after the introduction of conscription in 1916.

Military Service poster from the IWM

Using the database I discovered that 211 Norfolk men are listed on the Register, and while not all the records contain full biographical data it would appear that the age of these men ranged from 18 to 46.

Again due to the incomplete records I couldn’t discover the reasons for all of the declarations religious beliefs certainly led many men to their decision – Quakers, Plymouth Brethren and Baptists featuring in the highest numbers.  The most common reason given by the men registering was membership of the No-Conscription Fellowship, which was a non-denominational pacifist organisation that was opposed to all forms of conscription, even non-combatant roles.

The men who refused all types of service (active, non-combatant and War Work of National Importance) were also known as ‘Absolutists’ and treated under the harshest military rules.

Of the Norfolk men listed on the Pearce Register:

  • 74 were refused exemption from combat and non-combatant service and when they refused to follow military orders were imprisoned, often with a sentence of hard labour. Two Norfolk men died while in prison and another man died while awaiting his trial. The death of one man, in Dartmoor Prison from diabetes was the subject of an official investigation.

 

  • 72 men were granted an exemption allowing them to serve in non-combatant roles, including working with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. At least 30 of these men served in France, and two dying while serving, one of these men is Herbert Laight who is buried in Etaples, France – and who sadly died after the Armistice.

 

  • 55 men were granted total exemption from service on the grounds that they held jobs that were of significance or that they would undertake work of national importance.

Certificate of Exemption, with name redacted

Work of National Importance included working on the land, which how the CO stories fell into my original research. Farmers and Landowners were not keen on using Conscientious Objectors on their land – and often would rather employ POWs rather than who they saw as unpatriotic cowards.  If you are interested in finding out more about this then I recommend Season 14 of the BBC Radio drama ‘Homefront’ where both of these groups feature prominently in the storyline.

Researching these men has increased my respect for them immensely and I’d like to think that in their memory I would be strong enough to stand up for my own beliefs in the face of such adversity.

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