The 1916 Military Service Act required every man of military age to enlist, bringing to an end enlistment on a voluntary basis. Although not unexpected the Act provoked anti-conscription convulsions throughout the country. Bradford, with a long history of peace movements and strongly non-conformist and radical traditions, was a leader in this movement. Its voice was heard through the Bradford Pioneer, the newspaper of the Independent Labour Party, and through the growth of women’s protest groups.
The Act gave the opportunity for men to apply for exemption from combatant, in favour of noncombatant service, in work of National Importance.
The No-Conscription Fellowship, a national organisation, was set up in 1914 to oppose the prospect of conscription. Membership of the NCF in Bradford rose from 15 members to over 250 in 1916.
Bradford’s Independent Labour MP, Fred Jowett, was persistent in raising questions in Parliament about the treatment of men, often Independent Labour Party (ILP) members, who faced imprisonment for their absolute opposition to the war in all its aspects.
Ethel Snowden, wife of Philip Snowden MP, addressed 3000 women who joined the march organised by the Women’s Humanity League on 9 September 1917.
Applications for exemption at local level were heard by Military Service Tribunals (MSTs) which were extended under the Act. These applications, based on religious and/or political beliefs, covered a continuum of response ranging from out-right rejection of any involvement in war activity (“Absolutists”) to acceptance of non-combatant roles under military authority such as stretcher bearers, labouring work or membership of Non-Combatant Corps.
In November 1916 the Bradford Pioneer reported some 50 arrests had been made. The men were fined 40s and costs and then handed over to the military authorities, court-martialled and imprisoned on sentences ranging from 112 days to 2 years, with or without hard labour.
Ernest Henry Brown, a boot repairer and member of Shipley ILP, had his case rejected by the Military Service Tribunal. This page comes from the autograph book of William Tetley, a Quaker from Leeds who was held with him at Dartmoor.
In the Bradford area, 279 conscientious objectors have been identified as coming before Tribunals. These include 23 from Bingley, 2 from Clayton, 18 from Keighley, 29 from Shipley. Those linked to faith groups included 42 Quakers, 14 Methodists, 15 Christadelphians and 3 Jews. Eight men from Bradford joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, 12 men from Bradford and 3 from Keighley accepted service with the non-combatant corps and over 100 accepted ‘work of national importance’.
Among the Absolutists imprisoned was Revis Barber, son of a Bradford Alderman, who was sent to Dartmoor in 1917. His mother Alice formed a Mothers and Wives supporters group and was also active in the Bradford Women’s Humanity League (BWHL) which was formed in March 1916. Amongst other activists were Esther Sandiforth, Fanny Muir and Hilda Wilson. The League concentrated on opposing conscription, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the problems of food queues and the provision of pensions for disabled servicemen.
This postcard shows members of Bradford and District NCF visiting Dartmoor Convict Prison in September 1917.
The Bradford Pioneer was seen as a major vehicle for anti-war sentiment and was the channel chosen by the supporters of Siegfried Sassoon MC to publish his Soldier’s Statement. This heart-felt appeal not to prolong the war appeared on 27 July and 3 days later was read out in the House of Commons. A Medical Board concluded that he was neither insane nor pro-German but suffering from shell shock. He was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital.
A Soldier’s Declaration, Captain Siegfried Sassoon MC.
Published 27 July in The Bradford Pioneer.
Peace Delegates on the Noordam – Mrs. P. Lawrence, Jane Addams, Anna Molloy. Library of Congress
Charlotte Despard, suffragist, civil rights and peace campaigner spoke at the BWHL meeting at the Friends Meeting House, Fountain Street, Bradford on 10 October 1917. Her brother, Sir John French, was Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Force in 1914.