World War One created an unexpected problem for the war government – how to deal with those who refused on principle to fight and kill for their country whatever the rights or wrong of the cause.
They were called Conscientious Objectors, men who because of either religious or political beliefs simply refused to bear arms in any circumstances whatsoever.
After the wholesale slaughter of the first years of the war, the initial rush of volunteers dried up. The war government therefore rushed through Conscription Acts in 1916 that forced all eligible men to join up.
As a result, an estimated 16,000 men nationwide applied for exemption as Conscientious Objectors. Many suffered grievously as a result.
Dubbed ‘Conchies’, they were often publicly vilified and humiliated as traitors and cowards. Some were threatened with being shot by military firing squads as cowards, others sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in military prisons. Only 400 exemptions nationwide were granted.
Only approximately 65 conscientious objectors came from Cornwall. Of those, 19 came from the parish of Paul, near Penzance, which had a particularly active non-conformist religious community.
The ‘Conchies’ were either forced to take non-combatant roles supporting the fighting men, or put in work gangs at places like Dartmoor Prison for the duration of the war doing back-breaking labour. Click here to download a Fact Sheet about Conscientious Objectors in Cornwall.