World War 2, Conscientious Objectors

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No Conscription league

The peace movement during the 2nd World War was far different to the type of movement that formed during the First World War. The 1914-1918 peace movement was a mass movement with women playing a major role, and featured marches and demonstrations. Also the left on the political field were united in their total opposition to the war. During the 2nd World War, the political left was split with most seeing it as a war against fascism, and that they therefore supported the war. The main groups of the left that remained opposed to the war were the Independent Labour Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and the Anarchists. The No Conscription League also had branches in most towns and cities throughout the country, and Glasgow was no exception. The Glasgow City branch met in the SSP rooms at 70 Robertson Street, Glasgow. The Glasgow Branch of the NCL held a meeting in the Central Halls on Bath Street on Wednesday 2nd November 1939; the hall was packed and another meeting was arranged for Wednesday 17th November. The first meeting of the Glasgow (South Side) NCL, was held in Nov 1939. Regular meetings were arranged for every Thursday at 7:30 in the ILP rooms 643 Govan Road. The NCL Glasgow (Central Branch) filled the St. Andrew's Halls on Sunday 19th November 1939 with a meeting at which the speakers were Guy Aldred and Councillor Tom Kerr plus two "conchies". The Glasgow Clarion Scouts commander, W. L. Taylor, held meetings in support of the ILP and the Peace Pledge Movement.

In October 1939, Baillie Thomas A. Kerr, a Glasgow Senior Magistrate, and a conscientious objector in the 1st World War showed his convictions by joining the Glasgow Branch of the NCL as soon as it was formed. In doing so he expected political victimisation.

Glasgow & West of Scotland Tribunal Results

Between conscription being introduced in Britain in 1939 and April 1940 26,681 conscientious objectors had registered. The Glasgow and West of Scotland Tribunal for conscientious objectors opened its proceedings at Glasgow Sheriff Court on 16th of October 1939. Those sitting were: Sir Archibald Campbell Black KC, OBE, Sir Robert Bruce LLD, William Lorimer OBE, Robert Bryce Walker CBE, and J J. Craik Henderson. according to the Reverend T. J. Harvey, Minister of Partick Baptist Church, all of those sitting on the Tribunal supported the war, and seemed to believe it their duty not to grant exemption. During the first three days 59 cases were heard, with the following results:

Non combatant service, 26.

National service of a civilian nature, 15.

Entered on the Military Register, 11.

Unconditional exemption, 7.

On the first day the first case took only a few minutes; this was the best period of the tribunal hearings. After the first day, with certain rare exceptions, the Tribunal was openly hostile to the applicants. Recruiting for the forces and open hostility towards the applicants became the norm for days 2 and 3. From then on the tribunal ceased to enquire into the sincerity of the applicants, having decided that its duty was to persuade, guide or command the applicants into some form of service. To youths unaccustomed to a courtroom atmosphere, this was nothing short of brow-beating.

The Reverend Richard Lee MA, of Ross Street Unitarian Church Glasgow stated "that it was amazing that men of scholarship and intellect should uphold the distinction between a political CO and a religious CO, and proceed to condemn the conscience of a political CO as mere cowardice, while accepting the conscience of a Plymouth Brethren or Christadelphian. It is assumed that a man's conscience is regarded as having some relation to an ethical religion. If the CO can quote from the Bible, he has a greater chance of remaining on the valid CO list." By the 16th November 1939, the Glasgow tribunal had placed only 30 objectors (13%) on the unconditional register. Other figures were 41% removed from the CO register, (therefore having to go to the army or to jail), 24% registered for non-combatant service, 22% registered as COs on condition they undertake civilian work or training. When these figures are compared with the rest of the country it becomes clear that COs in Scotland had a greater risk of being removed from the register than anywhere else in Britain. The figures for other parts of the country were London 21% removed from the CO register; SW England 3% removed from the register and 41% registered as unconditional COs; whilst in North Wales no objectors were taken off the CO Register. In Britain as a whole the average for refusal was 19%, whereas the figures for Scotland were:

SW Scotland, 41% refusal.

SE Scotland, 34% refusal.

N Scotland, 50% refusal.

NE Scotland, 22% refusal.

In Glasgow reasoned political argument was usually turned down, whereas religious objectors were considered much more favourably.

Philip Boyle

Although there was no united front from the political left, those who took up the stance against the war did so with conviction and courage. Some with a small act of defiance such as Douglas Campbell, son of Ethel Campbell, Secretary of the SSP, who was sent home from Queen's Park Secondary School for refusing to obtain or carry a gas mask; a sign of the stand he would make in later years as a CO. Another courageous stand was that of Philip Boyle of 246 Todd Street Dennistoun Glasgow. Phillip was the first 2nd World War CO in Glasgow to face court martial, and also the first Catholic CO in Britain to face court martial. Arrested on Monday May 6th 1940 at 10 pm at home, he was held overnight; the following morning at Glasgow Eastern Police Court he was handed over to the military authorities. From then until his court martial on May 24th he suffered very rough treatment. The "New Leader" of May 16th published a description of Phillip Boyle's treatment on being handed over to the military Authorities. "When the father of the arrested CO visited his son in prison he found that the young man was clad only in an old macintosh. The soldier's uniform which had previously been forced on him, lay on the floor. . The CO, Phillip Boyle, of Dennistoun Glasgow, had been placed under arrest and taken to Maryhill Barracks. After he had been forced into a uniform, he was taken before the Commanding Officer, who told Boyle to go home for the day and then come back tomorrow and be a good soldier. . Instead, Boyle went back to his cell and stripped himself of the uniform. . Boyle had been refused exemption by the Local and Appellate Tribunals on the grounds that as a Catholic he could not be a CO," The Catholic hierarchy, seconded by the Catholic press, maintained that a Catholic cannot be a CO.

Court Martial

On the 24th May 1940 Phillip Boyle faced his first court martial charged with having, while on active service, disobeyed a lawful command given by his superior officer and refused to wear his military uniform when ordered to do so. On June 6th Phillip was found guilty and sentenced to 112 days, reduced to 28 days, and removed to Barlinnie Military Prison. He was released from Barlinnie Military Prison on September 19th and returned to Maryhill Barracks. On Monday July 15th Philip Boyle faced his second court martial. He was found guilty and sentenced to 98 days imprisonment without hard labour in Barlinnie Civil Prison. The "Scottish Daily Express" on Saturday 5th October 1940 reported the case of Phillip Boyle under the heading "Private CO Appears in Civvies". The report contained the following passage:

"Phillip Boyle, a Glasgow civil service student, now a most unwilling private of the HLI, said last May; "nobody will make me a soldier." The army took away his suit, but he refused to "sign it in". They used force to uniform him. He was court martialled. He did "solitary". Then he did the regulation 90 days detention, and yesterday he appeared to the outside world. Still stubborn and unbroken, this 21 year old man was led in by an officer and a lance-corporal to the CO Appeal Court in Edinburgh wearing his own brown suit. At the hearing Mr Gordon Stott, Advocate, pointed to the dress and said "It shows that in the eyes of the military authorities he had proved his case" The Chairman asked Boyle if he would be a non-combatant; the reply was an emphatic no. "Would he do farm work?" -"Nothing I am compelled to do." "Boyle seemed to be going the limit" added Mr Stott, "I have seen his cell and I think that anyone who is prepared to put up with such conditions is a very strong objector."

On the 15th October 1940, Mr Campbell Stephen was advised by the Ministry of Labour that Phillip Boyle had been granted conditional exemption, the condition being that he should work on land drainage, forestry or agriculture. It would be correct to say that another case, that of Glasgow CO Bert Campbell, set a pattern that would be repeated throughout the country. Bert as a conscientious objector was sentenced to one year in prison, his appeal was refused which meant that at the end of his sentence he would again be handed over to the Military, after which he would be sentenced to a further two years in prison, and so it could go on. The medical examination after the call up was not all that it should have been, as in the case of Glasgow CO, James Curran. James suffered from St. Vitus Dance and had been under the doctor's care since 1931. He was graded A1, and after being manhandled he was sent to Liverpool, then sentenced to 28 days at Chorley.

The Order in Council, made at Buckingham Palace on May 9th 1940, order No. 680, 1940 adding Regulations 2c and 94a to and amending Regulation 39a of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, made under Section 1, Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939, gave the Secretary of State a raft of new measures he could use against individuals and organisations plus the right to seize printing presses.

Defence Regulation No.39A

The pressure of the State was not only felt by COs, but by their supporters. On Wednesday July 31st 1940, Frank Leech, James Kennedy, Frank Dorans and Edward Shaw were arrested under Sheriff's Warrant and charged with contravening Defence Regulations No. 39A Leech was charged that, between June 8th and July 20th, in premises occupied by the Anarchist Federation at 127 George Street Glasgow he publicly, in a window facing the street, placed an advertisement in the following terms, "Conscientious objectors and those about to register, meet here every Wednesday at 8pm. Call for free advice anytime. Assert your right to freedom." The charge alleged that this was an invitation and incitement to persons who had become, or might become, liable under the National Services Armed Forces Act 1939, to be called up for service to attend a meeting in the premises when advice and guidance were given concerning methods of procuring exemption from combatant military service. The charge continued, Leech did, preparatory to an endeavour being made at these meetings by the three other accused and others unknown, incite persons attending the meeting to evade the duties and liabilities which they might become liable to perform or discharge by virtue of the said Act, contrary to the Defence (General) regulation 1939. The charges against Shaw, Kennedy and Dorans was that, on various occasions they held mock Conscientious Objectors Tribunals, thereby providing the most effective methods for procuring exemption and did incite those present to evade any duties or liabilities they were, or might become, liable to discharge. The case was called in the Sheriff Summary Court the following morning Thursday 1st August, with Sheriff Robertson presiding. The trail was set for Thursday 4th September 1940. The prosecution later advanced the hearing to Tuesday 20th August. The trial took place with Sheriff Wellwood Johnston presiding; evidence was given by two police constables who described visiting, in plain clothes, the mock tribunals held in the back shop at 127 George Street. Among questions asked were these two put by Sheriff Wellwood Johnston to Constable John McHardy:

Sheriff; "Did you see anything in the nature of people who were not conscientious objectors being urged to pretend to be COs ?"

Witness; "No."

Sheriff; "Did you notice any sort of attempt to advise people to profess opinions, which they did not really hold, in order to evade service?"

Witness; "No."

The trial was adjourned until Thursday 22nd August. After further questioning Sheriff Wellwood Johnston intimated that he did not propose to hear the four accused. Finding the accused not guilty, he gave a most important ruling and a statement of the right of civil liberty during those very trying days when freedom was menaced. The Sheriff stated; "In order to succeed in this case the Crown must establish that an endeavour was made to incite persons to evade their duties or liabilities under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act. . According to the dictionary , to "incite" means "to rouse or stir up, to move to action, to spur, or urge on." It is not easy, or perhaps it is not possible, to imagine incitement without some sort of direct exhortation, and in the present case direct exhortation to evade duties was not only not proved but disproved." This trial legalised mock tribunals.


The COs who were sent to work on farms were under the control of the farmers and their treatment got so dreadful that there were calls that for humanitarian reasons they be removed from the farmers' control and placed under the control of some other body. Some Municipal Councils sacked any COs in their employment. The press kept up a campaign against COs and their supporters, claiming that most COs were "pansies" or "gay". They also claimed that they were cowards, but when we consider the treatment from some of the general public, the institutions, the effect on their families and friends, the treatment in courts and prisons, and the separation from 99% of the population, we have to accept that only a very determined, very strong conviction would carry them through. This is not the characteristic of a coward. The Peace Pledge Union continued holding its meetings throughout the war at the Dick Sheppard Centre, 48 Dundas Street, Glasgow. They managed to raise funds by donations, collections and a stamp card system whereby regular donors had a card and bought stamps for varying amounts. Notes from their audit for the period 8th October 1941 to 30th April 1942 show the income for the period as £473.15.3. They also managed to produce a twice monthly bulletin. Others working for the conscientious objectors like the Scottish Pacifist Fund for Conscientious Objectors raised funds by various activities run by the Women's Conscientious Objectors Fund. These groups along with the Fellowship of Conscientious Objectors and the National Council of Civil Liberties, though working independently, also worked under the umbrella group, the Scottish Central Board for Conscientious Objectors. Bearing in mind the number of these groups, it is obvious that up to the end of the war the public were still supporting them with donations, as shown by the audit sheet of the Fellowship of Conscientious Objectors, at their meeting held in the Geneva Room of the Green's Playhouse in Renfield Street, Glasgow in late 1945. The audit sheet gives the income from 1st March 1944 to 26th July 1945, as £269.3.7 On the 21st September 1946 at a special meeting held in the Central Halls, Bath Street, Glasgow the Scottish Central Board for Conscientious Objectors passed a motion to voluntarily dissolve itself.

Peace Pledge Union

In spite of the considerable pressure brought to bear on COs and their support groups, their effort never wavered. Groups such as the NCL, the ILP, the Anarchist Federation, and the Workers Open Forum continued with their anti-war meetings throughout the war. Near the end of the war the Peace Pledge Union held meetings under the banner of "Has conscription come to stay", while the NCL went with the banner "How to prevent another war". The mock tribunals continued, and the Anarchists, among others, continued to try and find "safe houses" for deserters.

Posted by John Couzin

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