Pressure for the introduction of conscription in Britain - the only Great Power without universal military service - had grown in the early years of the 20th century. The National Service League, founded in 1906 after the Boer War, had more than 315,000 members and 'supporters' at its peak in 1912. Five consecutive conscription bills were tabled in Parliament in the years before 1914.
Yet opposition to universal military service remained strong. The governing Liberal Party opposed the idea, as did large sections of the Labour Party and some Conservatives. Even after war broke out in August 1914, the Cabinet unanimously dismissed Winston Churchill's proposal for 'compulsory [military] service'. British strategy, as the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey argued, was 'to pursue a European policy without keeping up a great army'.
This is a brief guide to researching records of British conscientious objectors. Those records which do exist are mostly available at The National Archives and local record offices.
What do I need to know before I start?
Records of British conscientious objectors are varied and incomplete. Few records of conscientious objectors survive, especially after 1921. Those which do survive are generally samples.
The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced compulsory conscription to Great Britain for the first time in modern history. Before this act, the armed forces were generally made up of volunteers.
While conscientious objection was not specifically defined in the act of 1916, the government recognised those whose ‘objection genuinely rests on religious or moral convictions’.
Only a small number of conscientious objectors were exempted from service absolutely. Most were obliged to serve in non-combatant roles or faced courts martial.
Britain abolished National Service in 1960.
In 1921 the Ministry of Health decided that all papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service and tribunal minute books (except those of the Central Tribunal), should be destroyed. Thus the vast majority of files do not survive.
What records can I see online?
What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?
What records can I find in other archives and organisations?
What other resources will help me find information?
Middlesex military service appeal tribunal records (1916-1918)
Search case papers from the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal and a sample from the Central Appeal Tribunal in London.
The case papers are for those applying for exemption from conscription and include conscientious objectors.
Browse MH 47 for minute books and letter books of the tribunal, and other related material.
Nominal lists of appeals (1939-1962)
Browse Discovery, our catalogue, for sample documents and nominal lists of conscientious objectors during and after the Second World War in LAB 45. These are arranged by surname.
Records of Ministry of National Service (1915-1918)
Browse the following policy files:
- NATS 1/909 and NATS 1/935 for those who had fled to Ireland to avoid conscription
- NATS 1/964 for a plan to ‘comb out’ hunting and racing establishments for people evading military service
- NATS 1/975 for the problem of men enrolling as war work volunteers in order to avoid the call-up
Names of individuals are not given although they are all generally referred to as ‘shirkers’.
Additional material (1916-1918)
For additional material related to conscientious objection or exemption tribunals, search our catalogue using terms such as ‘conscientious objection’, ‘conscription’ or ‘military service tribunals’.
- policy papers in WO 32
- examples of conscientious objectors seeking employment from the Civil Service Commission in T1
- Home office papers in HO 45
To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).
Lothian and Peebles tribunal records
Contact the National Records of Scotland for sample records of the Lothian and Peebles tribunal (ref: HH 30).
Records held elsewhere
Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.