Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act, which came into force in March 1916. The Act allowed for objectors whose claims were accepted by the Military Service Tribunals to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army’s Non-Combatant Corps. The tribunals were intended to be humane and fair, but manned as they were by local notables – landowners, businessmen, retired army officers etc. – it could be difficult for a conscientious objector (CO) to get a sympathetic hearing, especially as each panel was also attended by a military representative to put the army’s point of view.
Around 16,000 men across Britain (just over 2% of all those claiming exemption) were recorded as conscientious objectors, with Quakers, traditionally pacifist, forming a large proportion. Of these, 4,500 objectors were sent to do ‘work of national importance’ such as farming and 7,000 were given non-combatant duties. One alternative to military service was provided by the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), set up in France at the beginning of the war by a group of young Quakers, trained in first aid, as a humanitarian project. Most of its 1,200 members were pacifists; they were all civilians; and if at all possible, they strove to treat the wounded of both sides.Read More