Representing Resistance: 1916 and the Impact of Conscription

Sabine Grimshaw is an AHRC funded doctoral student at the University of Leeds and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on pacifism and protest during the First World War examines how the representation of male and female war resisters changed over the course of the war as well as considering how resisters have been commemorated in the war’s fiftieth anniversary and centenary.

This year marks the centenary of the introduction of a piece of wartime legislation that had significant ramifications for the war and the British public: compulsory military service.

"This little pig stayed at home": Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector.  Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334
“This little pig stayed at home”: Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334

The Military Service Acts of 1916 were particularly contentious not only because they brought an end to the British voluntarist tradition but because they offered the possibility for those with a conscientious objection to the war to refuse military service. These so-called ‘Conscientious Objectors’ (COs) were often the victims of public antagonism, and their relative prominence in society refocused the way that the anti-war movement was represented both by outsiders and themselves.

Before conscription, opposition to the war was framed very much as something specific to women. Indeed, anti-war publications often suggested that working for peace through opposition to the war was a task that was not only specifically suited to women but was the duty and responsibility of women. This type of argument was often underpinned by an understanding of women as naturally pacifistic, loving and nurturing which was primarily linked to their ability to become mothers. However in the aftermath of conscription the identification of peace as a feminine issue ended and instead male COs are framed as the leaders of the movement against war. The stance taken by COs was positioned as part of a specifically English struggle for liberty and freedom of conscience.

Moreover, the representation of objectors had to respond to substantial and widespread criticism and ridicule in a way that was not necessarily true for that of anti-war women. The intensity of this derision, which often specifically targeted the masculinity of COs, and the subsequent response of the anti-war movement to this, highlight the contemporary assumption that peace and opposition to war were not the preserve of men. In order to counter attacks on their masculinity, COs and their supporters frequently mirrored many of the qualities that were associated with the volunteer soldier who, during the war, was considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity. Sacrifice, duty, and patriotism all became significant themes in the representation of COs and demonstrate how particular wartime masculine qualities directly impacted upon the self-representation of the anti-war movement.

Accordingly, the introduction of conscription can be seen as having great significance not only due to its break with English tradition and impact of the waging of war itself but also because of its considerable implications for those who opposed the war. By examining the way that representations of the anti-war movement changed during the war, we can thus see how particular developments directly impact on those who opposed the war.

For more information about the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centres, please visit the website.

 

 

 

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