A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Jailed, strait-jacketed, starved, sentenced to death – the conscientious objectors who refused to fight

Jonathan Brown on a landmark trial for Britons whose beliefs prevented them from supporting the war effort

Howard Cruttenden Marten’s was the first name on the list. As he was led out to the centre of the parade ground on a summer’s evening in the French port town of Boulogne to hear the court-martial’s verdict, the first thing he noticed was that a large body of men had been brought out to bear witness to his humiliation.

There was little ceremony for them to observe, however, and the mood was sombre.

“The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot ... confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief,” the presiding officer intoned.

Marten, a 31-year-old Quaker businessman from north London, would later recall his reaction: “Well, that’s that,” he thought.

But then, after a cruelly long pause, the officer added a brief postscript: “… subsequently commuted to penal servitude for 10 years,”


Marten’s “crimes” – like those of three other men, Henry Scullard, Jack Foister and John Ring, who were also sentenced that night – were disobedience and a refusal to obey orders. Put simply: they would not fight. 

Actually, it was worse than that. Unlike the 800 other conscientious objectors in military custody at the time, Marten and his co-defendants refused to recognise the army’s authority at all, declining to carry out even such war-related activity as digging ditches or farm work.

Marten was a so-called “absolutist”, whose steadfast and principled stand against the might of the military machine was to become a thorn in the side of the political establishment.

Objectors were forced to cultivate the soil although many were said to have spent much of their time "strolling on the moors, reading, smoking and talking" (Getty)

It eventually earned him and his cause powerful supporters, including some in the House of Commons, where  H.H. Asquith, the prime minister, was humiliatingly forced to guarantee publicly the principle that conscientious objectors should not be jailed – or worse.

The sentences of Marten, Scullard, Foister and Ring had been commuted on the orders of General Sir Douglas Haig – although they were not allowed to know it. But their plight, along with that of 31 other defendants court-martialled in Boulogne (also sentenced to death, commuted to hard labour), proved a turning-point for those who opposed forced conscription under the Military Service Act, which had been introduced earlier that year.

These conscientious objectors were among the first  party to be sent to France – despite political assurances that they would not be  despatched abroad.

However, Marten’s indestructible faith made him immune to the privations he would experience.

“Standing there on the parade ground, I had a sense of representing something outside my own self, supported by a strength stronger than frail humanity,” he later recalled.

In a letter home to his family as he awaited his prison fate he wrote: “Through all I have been supported by a sense of the deepest peace and humbly conscious of my own unworthiness to bear my small share of testimony to the teachings of our dear Lord and thankful for the blessing of His Holy Spirit.”

Marten and other men of the Eastern Non Combatant Corps (NCC) had been gathered from prisons around the country and kept in Harwich, some in shackles.

Fellow inmate Harold Evans described conditions there: “(It) had been built to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars and was a vile place in which severe punishment was given out.

“For example, two of us were strapped up in strait-jackets and stood outside against the wall in the hot sun, and the vindictiveness of the military prison staff saw to it that the strait-jackets were strapped too tightly. I and two others were put into the cells, completely dark, dripping with water and overrun with rats, for three days without food,” he said.

News of their transfer across the Channel emerged only when a member of the NCC threw a letter containing details of the move from a train as it passed through a London suburb.

British conscientious objectors leaving Dartmoor Prison under a gateway inscribed with the words "Parcere subjectis" ("Spare the conquered") (Getty)

Taken to a camp at  Le Havre, the first group of men refused to participate in military drill on the huge parade ground there. Moved to a field-punishment camp at Harfleur for 28 days, they were strapped to a wooden frame by their wrists and left to hang and later forced to dangle face down over barbed wire.

At another camp in Boulogne they were similarly  ill-treated. 

“We were handcuffed with our hands behind our backs and put into a dark, underground cage about 12ft square and made of thick planks. With us was one latrine bucket with no lid,” wrote fellow  prisoner Harry Stanton.

In his subsequent statement to the House of Commons on 29 June, the Prime Minister told MPs that men found to be “genuine conscientious objectors will be released from the civil prison on their undertaking to perform work of national importance under civil control”.

But, he added: “Men who put forward objections of this kind as a pretext and a cloak to cover their indifference in responding to the national call, and are therefore guilty of the double offence of cowardice and hypocrisy, should be treated as they ought to be treated, with the utmost rigour.”

By the end of the war, an estimated 16,000 men had refused to fight.

Many were put to work on tasks of “national importance” such as farming, while around 7,000 served in non-combatant roles, either in the NCC or on the front line as medics. At least 6,000 saw out the war – and beyond – in jail.

Marten was not released for a further three years. He led the conscientious objection movement during the Second World War and died in 1981 aged 96.

Tomorrow: Slaughter on the Somme

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar