Dr Kelly has spent many hours amongst archives discovering the details of individual Herefordshire men who were conscientious objectors (COs) in the two World Wars. She was glad of the opportunity to share her findings with us as a prelude to turning them into a book.
The tribunals that examined the objectors were composed of local dignitaries who were determined to exempt as few men as possible from playing their part in the war effort. However, Dr Kelly said she found that she had sympathy with the authorities’ difficult part in trying to distinguish shirkers from those with genuine moral objections. During WW1 the treatment of COs was exceptionally harsh, especially after conscription in 1916. This harshness was the army’s method of maintaining discipline, unchanged since the Crimean war, and COs were faced with the possibility of a death sentence. Very few had complete exemption with many being sent to non-combatant corps or joining groups like the Friends Ambulance Unit. Herefordshire COs were a disparate group of individuals: They came from a range of faith backgrounds and a couple had political objections. They included agriculturists, tradesmen, teachers with no single body of support as had, say, the Quakers. A man in Ross was exempted as being the only support for his wife and sister but enlisted after being ‘white-feathered’ and by the end of the war his dependants were destitute. The commandant of Hereford gaol where COs were held was exceptionally harsh and in constant dispute with the bishop over his brutal regime.
By the time of WW2 many politicians were aware of the shambolic inconsistencies surrounding the tribunals of the earlier conflict. This time there was a tone of respect. Herefordshire men’s objections were heard in Birmingham, and more of them were prepared to accept ‘conditional exemption’ – taking on some non-combatant work.
William Richardson, Plymouth Brethren, Shop Assistant, Conscientious Objector