Observations of the Great War by Westhoughton local history research into the ‘ Local Tribunal Minute Book’ – Bolton Archives AW/8/1
On the 2nd of August 1914, the Royal Navy was mobilised after the German Kaiser declared war on Russia and the British Government warned Germany that Britain would honour the 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. On the 4th of August German troops invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany.
Just two weeks into the start of the war, 20,000 casualties had already been recorded. Many of these men had volunteered to fight to defend Britain against German force and compulsory call-up for British men looked increasingly likely.
Pacifist members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, which was set up in 1915, successfully campaigned to secure ‘the conscience clause’ in the 1916 Military Service Act: the right to claim exemption from military service.
The Military Service Act of 27 January 1916 brought conscription into effect for the first time in the war. The Bill came into force on 2 March 1916 – the Act specified that men from 18 to 41 years old were liable to be called up for service in the army unless they were married, widowed with children, serving in the Royal Navy, a minister of religion, or working in one of a number of reserved occupations. A second Act in May 1916 extended liability for military service to married men, and a third Act in 1918 extended the upper age limit to 51.
Anyone who objected to an individual’s call-up could apply to a local Military Service Tribunal. These bodies could grant exemption from service, usually conditional or temporary. There was right of appeal to a County Appeal Tribunal.
Thousands of men made the claim for exemption from military service. They were required to attend a tribunal (an interviewing panel with legal authority) to have the sincerity of their claims assessed. The tribunals were intended to be humane and fair and it was left to local councils to choose the people who would sit on the panels.
The Westhoughton Urban District Council appointed a tribunal of 12 men: 4 businessmen (employers); 1 Auctioneer; 1 Solicitor; 1 Schoolmaster; 1 Newsagent; 1 Bleacher & Calico Printer’s salesman; 1 Colliery check-weighman; and 2 Cotton spinning operatives.
The following Resolution was moved by Mr Gleave and seconded by Mr Eatock, and was agreed to:-
That this tribunal protests against sending married men of 30 and over with two or more children, until the conscientious objectors now in, (and a menace to) this neighbourhood, along with the men already ordered to report, but have now got started as ‘munition workers’, are called up by the Military Authorities.
We further urge that men who have joined collieries since the war started should be dealt with.
This hand-written note from the Local Tribunal Minute book for Westhoughton Township, gives some indication of the attitude towards certain individuals who simply did not want to fight for varying reasons.
The reference to ‘conscientious objectors’ (CO’s) being a ‘menace’ alludes to the general opinion that the men who did not want to fight were cowards and unpatriotic. Although there may have been some element of this, most were prepared to accept call-up into the army, but not to be trained to use weapons and fight. They would be keen to ‘do their bit’ and would undertake many of the important ‘non-combatant’ roles. These included tasks which supported the military, such as loading and unloading, building, cleaning, cooking, medical orderlies and stretcher-bearer. Most were expected to serve. An example of commitment to the war effort was a group of young Quakers, who at the beginning of the war, trained in first aid and set up a humanitarian project in France which they called the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). They were brave and dedicated, feeling, as one said, ‘privileged to try to patch up some of the results of this ghastly mistake.’ A young man who worked in his widowed mother’s grocery shop in Market Street, Westhoughton, joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. He was willing to serve and to give what aid he could.
On the other hand, there is an example in the Westhoughton Tribunal minute book of one of the minority of CO’s who was classed as an ‘absolutist’ . After following up his story and researching the enrolment documents, it was found that this single man in his early thirties refused to sign the ‘call-up’ papers, but was drafted into the army anyway. He failed to report for duty and was sentenced to 2 years’ hard labour at a labour camp He served only a few months of his sentence before being transferred for useful employment, although what this was, and how he fared is unrecorded.
No doubt many more stories of this nature will unfold from this valuable resource in the Archive Collection in Bolton History Centre…
This thought provoking account was written by Pam Clark, President of Westhoughton Local History Group.
Local Tribunal Minute Book – Bolton Archives AW/8/1