From the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Working Class Movement Library in Salford is running an exhibition to mark the centenary of conscription in WW1 (it’s on till the end of April). By late 1915, there were too many casualties and not enough volunteers, and the Military Service Act of January 1916 introduced conscription. The display contains both original documents and wall panels with illustrations and texts. It has a lot of interesting material, especially on the role of women in opposing the war and on opponents of the war who have previously been known mainly to their families. Presumably because of the library’s holdings, it emphasises the role in resistance of the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Independent Labour Party, with particular attention to activities in the north west of England, towns such as Hyde and Bolton.
Altogether in Great Britain (the Act did not apply in Ireland), there were 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs); compare this to the over five million who fought. Taking a stand as a CO required a great deal of courage, and over 6,000 spent time in prison. There is a short account of the two Basnett brothers, who were sent to Kinmel Park barracks in North Wales but escaped from there and managed to remain at large. Many COs agreed to undertake ‘non-combatant’ work, which involved things such as sewing mailbags and pulling ploughs: it was supposedly of national importance, but in fact its purpose was almost entirely punitive.
Alexander Haycock performed hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs, but was later the ILP MP for Salford West in 1923–4 and again 1929–31. Fenner Brockway, who helped found the NCF, did hard labour in Walton Prison in Liverpool, became a Labour MP and ended up in the House of Lords. Both stood for reforming capitalism.
Across the road, Salford Museum and Art Gallery is hosting an ongoing series of exhibitions on the war under the theme ‘Salford Remembers’. This has some displays on the allotments developed locally to support the war effort, and material on Salfordians who were COs, nurses or soldiers, including some killed in France or at Gallipoli.
It also notes that eleven COs from Greater Manchester died in prison or shortly after their release. No COs were executed, but mistreatment led to the deaths of quite a few.