Tuesday 14th March 1916: Now that men are being conscripted into the armed forces some of those called up are refusing to serve, siting a conscientious objection to taking human life. Lance Corporal William Arthur Barker of 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment has sent us his opinion of such a stance(1).
“May I say a few words about conscientious objectors. I have just returned from the Front for seven days’ leave, after fighting out there all the time with the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment. We have a paper to read in the trenches now and then and we are disgusted to see columns about men who refuse to fight. Do these people realise we are fighting to protect the women and children of this country against the outrage and ill-treatment received by the people of France and Belgium? What do the conscientious objectors think when they read of the terrible German poison gas and the liquid fire they use against us? I am speaking for my comrades and myself, and we say that the conscientious objector who would see our fair country overrun by Germans without raising a hand to help it should not live another minute under the protection of the British Flag. Other nations look upon us as a great and powerful nation, fighting for the rights of the smaller peoples, and yet we have men afraid to fight. I say with a chorus of approval from my brother Tommies in the trenches that we are fighting for the right, that God is with us, and that victory will come to us, although it appears to come but slowly. I feel angry about these reports of conscientious objectors and I am glad I am fighting for my country. I would not leave the boys in the trenches for long if I could”. “
Just one more word – single men first and married men after. Why tear the married man from home and children whilst the single man remains behind?”(2)
Source: 20th April 1916
(1) Lance Corporal Barker, from Toddington, would be killed in action on 25th September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
(2) This is, indeed, how conscription worked, with single men and childless widowers between 18 and 41 the first to be called up, in March, though in May the call was extended to married men. The upper limit was raised to 50 and even 56 in 1918. The measure was not popular. By July 1916 about 30% of those called up had failed to show. Around 2% of those refusing to serve were conscientious objectors, of whom 7,000 were allowed non-combatant duties, 3,000 were sent to work camps and 6,000 were imprisoned.