resistance in West Yorkshire – the Huddersfield hotspot
white feather – the symbol of cowardice and failing one’s
country – was handed out scornfully to those who refused
to fight during the First World War. The accepted historical
view of conscientious objectors in that ‘war to end all
wars’ is of a tiny minority, standing alone against the
overwhelming tide of patriotism and jingoism which swept
is this the true picture? Bretton history lecturer Cyril
Pearce has found that events in the West Yorkshire town
of Huddersfield tell a very different story.
was introduced in the 1916 Military Services Act, but
the law did allow for exemption on the grounds of conscientious
objection. All those who claimed exemption were sent before
a local tribunal, appointed by the local council, to have
the sincerity of their claim assessed.
one of the major figures of the non-conscription movement
in Huddersfield, Arthur Gardiner, appeared before the
tribunal, the town hall was packed with supporters and
the atmosphere was very charged.
the broad arrow badge of the no-conscription federation
interviewed Arthur about the hearing, and he described
a dramatic courtroom scene," Cyril Pearce recalls.
"He was very articulate and made an impassioned defence
of his views. The tribunal had never come across such
an articulate anti-war statement before and were unsure
what they should do, so they granted him a month’s exemption
from military duties.
Arthur complained that one month was not good enough,
the tribunal’s chair, the mayor, told him they’d made
the decision because they wanted him to appeal so that
such arguments could be judged by a higher authority.
It was very clear they didn’t know what to do with Arthur
and wanted someone else to make the decision.
were many people in Huddersfield who were bewildered by
the anti-war case but there were other well-placed people
who had a different and more sympathetic view."
history during WW1 is charted in Cyril Pearce’s new book,
Comrades in Conscience – an English community’s opposition
to the Great War. Using local sources, including the testimonies
of conscientious objectors themselves, he shows how objection
to the war in the town was not restricted to a few individuals,
but was part of a wider movement, supported or at least
tolerated by the local community.
Pearce said: "Historians have tended to portray conscientious
objectors in the First World War as heroic or misguided
individuals, lonely and isolated in the face of general
support for the war. By looking at a local picture, rather
than trying to generalise nationally, I’ve been able to
place objectors in context, and show how the individuals,
and the groups they belonged to, were expressing a broader
research Cyril Pearce
interest in the subject began when he met many former
WW1 conscientious objectors in the town while researching
labour history in West Yorkshire. He realised that the
picture they painted was very different from how historians
saw the national experience.
explains: "Huddersfield’s opposition to the war got
most of its energy, personnel and organisation from a
local Labour and socialist movement which was consistently
opposed to the war. In almost every area of working-class
social and political life, the anti-war elements were
in charge – in the local parties, the socialist Sunday
schools and clubs, and even most of the major trade union
addition to this groundswell of opposition at a grass-roots
level, there was sufficient support amongst the well-to-do
and well-connected middle classes to ensure the conscientious
objectors were dealt with by the tribunals less severely
than might otherwise have been the case. A general mood
of scepticism and wariness towards the war meant that
the conscientious objectors weren’t victimised in the
very few applicants gained total exemption, especially
those arguing on political rather than religious grounds.
Where a claim was successful, the objector would be sent
to perform non-combatant duties. When a claim was rejected,
they would be sent to the military.
objectors refused to answer their call-up papers, and
went underground; others joined the ranks but refused
to obey orders and so were court-martialled. Many ended
up in prisons, or later in work camps set up in local
prisons – including Wakefield – for the duration of the
war or generally longer.
than appeal, Arthur went on the run with another objector,
Percy Ellis, and ended up in Liverpool, where they worked
on the docks for a while. Although offered a passage to
Canada, they decided to go home and wait to be arrested.
conscientious objectors in Wakefield prison. Arthur Gardiner
is seated on the left, front row.
was arrested first and, as agreed, Arthur gave himself
up. Once in the military, he refused to obey orders, was
court-martialled and sent to prison. There he suffered
a nervous breakdown, and was sent instead to a work centre
where he remained until after the end of the war.
Gardiner was one of 120 conscientious objectors who appeared
before the tribunal in Huddersfield. However, Cyril Pearce
feels that official records may be misleading.
you add up those who went to tribunal and work centres,
you get part of the picture. But there is no record of
those who didn’t pursue their objection, who gave in faced
with what it meant to resist. There were undoubtedly more
people who didn’t want to fight than we know of. In one
local paper, recording the death of a young man, they
described him as ‘a soldier who still kept his views."
question which remains following Pearce’s documentation
of Huddersfield’s history during the First World War,
is whether, as an apparent ‘hotspot’ of pacifism, it was
is now hunting through the records to document all the
objectors across the country into one database, so he
can plot whether any other hotspots exist.
records of individuals who went before the tribunals were
destroyed in the 1920s," he explains. "The only
way to uncover the detail now is to follow the fragments
of information in press reports.
resisters in the Great War were under-reported, but a
journal produced by the No-Conscription Federation – The
Tribunal – has records of individuals going before tribunals,
and to prison, army camp, army prison and work centres.
By logging their movements it’s possible to see where
they came from, and what they went through."
gathered over a thousand records so far, Pearce has identified
other areas where concentrations of people opposed the
war, notably, Blackburn, Smethwick and parts of London.
looks like Huddersfield wasn’t an exception, which means
that what is accepted as the national picture of reaction
to the war doesn’t reflect reality. People pontificate
about a national history, but a national history is made
of local and regional variations. We don’t yet have a
true national history of the war based on these differences.
I hope that my book can help to rewrite some of these
treasured notions of our history – from the bottom up."
official launch of Comrades in Conscience – the story
of an English community’s opposition to the Great War
by Cyril Pearce is at Huddersfield Town Hall – where the
tribunals were held – on 9 November 2001. Orders before
that date are at a special price of £12 (full price £15).
a transcipt of Arthur’s defence on the Reporter website.