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WWI Primary Resource Guide: Recruitment, Conscription and Conscientious Objectors

This guide aims to highlight a range of key primary resources relevant to the British experience of WWI.

Recruitment, Conscription and Conscientious Objectors

National Archives, conscription appeal records

The National Archives has digitised up to 11,000 case papers relating to individuals seeking exemption from conscription into the Army during WWI. The conscription appeal records are from the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal, and include administrative papers reflecting the changing policy towards conscription as the war progressed. This is one of only two complete surviving collections of tribunal records, and the sample provides a valuable insight into the impact of WWI on families, businesses and communities. The records reveal men seeking exemption on medical, family or economic grounds as well as the relatively small proportion wishing not to fight on moral grounds as conscientious objectors. The majority of appeals were dismissed and many people did go on to see war service.

Leeds University Library, Asquith Dalton Papers

Incorporated within the Liddle Collection at Leeds University Library are the Asquith Dalton Papers. Asquith Archie Dalton was a conscientious objector and member of the No-Conscription Fellowship, imprisoned at Wakefield Prison during WWI. His papers provide a fuller and more personal account of the experiences of conscientious objectors than most, including photographs, postcards, discharge certificates, letters, Dalton's charge sheet and a summary of evidence presented against him.

The Recruitment Drive, Cymru 1914

   Cymru 1914

CYMRU 1914, digitised resources

Publicity material with father and 2 children, asking "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?"

Britain’s army at the beginning of the First World War was relatively small and professional. With conscription not introduced until 1916, the recruitment of volunteers in large numbers became a huge challenge. The Parliamentary Recruitment Committee circulated leaflets and posters, and organised rallies and other public events in order to boost figures. Considerable social pressure was brought to bear on men to volunteer, and those who did not risked vilification as cowards.

For many men, however, awareness of their responsibilities towards their families as wage earners proved a compelling disincentive to volunteer. Posters like this targeted that sense of duty to family, but instead suggested that, in the future, children would hold their fathers to account on the service that they performed for their country rather than the security they ensured for their immediate family. This example, along with many other publicity materials utilised to boost recruitment, can be accessed at Cymru 1914, a project which has conducted mass digitisation of primary sources relating to the First World War from the Libraries, Special Collections and Archives of Wales. Much of this material (which is out of copyright and therefore free of restrictions under copyright law) can be downloaded and utilised in research.


IWM, oral history: conscientious objectors

The Imperial War Museum provides access to several interviews conducted with men who identified as conscientious objectors during WWI. The interviews provide fascinating insight to the military tribunals they endured, as well as personal reflections on imprisonment and social attitudes. Below is an excerpt from the recollections of Harold Frederick Bing, a British civilian absolutist conscientious objector imprisoned in Kingston Barracks, Wormwood Scrubs and Winchester Prisons.

Oxford University Roll of Service

Those interested in local history may wish to consult the ‘Oxford University Roll of Service’, which includes every member of the university who served in the war, typically giving details such as when they joined up, where they fought, their rank and whether they died in service. Readers can locate the document in the Lower Reading Room of the Bodleian Library. Alternatively, a digitised version is available online. Title page of Oxford University Roll of Service, 1920

Additional resources held locally

In 1916 the Military Service Act was passed, imposing conscription on all single men aged 18 to 41 except those in essential wartime occupations, the medically unfit, religious ministers and conscientious objectors. Copies of the Military Service Act can be consulted at both the Bodleian and the Bodleian Law Library.

Stephen Henry Hobhouse was an unconditionalist conscientious objector. Conscripted in 1916, he was granted an exemption at a tribunal in August 1916, conditional upon him joining the Friends Ambulance Unit. However, he refused to accept the decision or to appeal against it and was subsequently handed over to the military. He refused to put on uniform, was court-martialled and eventually sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour. Those interested in Hobhouse's experience can request from the stack a copy of the pamphlet 'I appeal unto Caesar': the case of the conscientious objector (1918), produced by his mother, Margaret Hobhouse, publicising the plight of conscientious objectors.