A. Fenner Brockway's Court Martial Statement, Chester Castle, September 5, 1917.




A. Fenner Brockway's Court Martial Statement, Chester Castle, September 5, 1917.




statement read before 3rd court-martial court


statement of conscientious objection to war by WWI British C.O.


Chester Castle, Great Britain


Brockway, A. Fenner


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


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This is the third occasion on which I have been charged before a Court-Martial with disobeying a lawful order of a superior officer. For reasons I shall proceed to explain, I do not acknowledge the legality of any military order given to me, but even if I admitted myself a soldier I contend that this Court is not entitled to punish me for a offence [sic] for which I have already been twice punished. Section 157 of the Army Act lays it down that "where a person subject to military law has been acquitted or convicted of an offence by a Court-martial, he shall not be liable to be tried again by a Court-martial in respect to that offence." It may be argued that technically I have been guilty of three separate offences, but I submit with confidence that the repeated trials and punishments of conscientious objectors are entirely contrary to the spirit and intention of the Section of the Army Act I have quoted. Our offence is on every occasion one and the same -- we refuse to consider ourselves soldiers and we refuse to act as soldiers. If the Military Authorities insist upon regarding us as soldiers, I suggest that the proper punishment for this Court to impose is that laid down in section L 44 of the Army Act -- dismissal from His Majesty's service. By so doing it would (though very tardily) carry out the pledge given by Lord Sandhurst, when Under Secretary for War, in the House of Lords on July 4, 1916, when he said that a conscientious objector who refused to undertake work under the Home Office Committee would "complete his sentence of civil imprisonment and be discharged from the Army." This definite pledge given on behalf of the Government has never been carried out; it has been treated by the Military Authorities as a "scrap of paper", with the result that conscientious objectors are again and again being sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for what is in reality, if not literally, one offence.


I wish to make it clear, however, that I do not recognise [sic] myself to be a soldier. I have declined to please because I do not admit the authority of this Court. The Military Service Act, by which I am supposed to be deemed a soldier, contained clauses by which conscientious objectors were to be exempted. The Government realised [sic] that in such a individual matter as conscience, the degree of objection would vary, and there allowed three forms of Exemption. (I) Exemption from combatant service only, (II) Exemption from both combatant and non-combatant military service on condition that the applicant performed work of national importance, and (III) Absolute Exemption from the provisions of the Act. In a circular issued by the Local Government Board (R 36, par 16) the Tribunals were instructed as follows: "The Exemption should be the minimum require to meet the conscientious scruples of the applicant . . . . There may be exceptional cases, in which the genuine convictions and the circumstances of the man are such that neither exemption from combatant service nor a conditional exemption will adequately meet the case. Absolute exemption can be granted in these cases if the Tribunal are satisfied of the facts." I fulfilled the requirements of the law to the utmost limit my conscience would allow. After carefully and quietly considering the question, I decided that

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I could neither perform non-combatant military service, since it seemed to me equivalent to sharpening for the use of others the sword which I would not use myself, not alternative civil service, since its acceptance would imply to me acquiescence in others going to fight in my place. Hence I applied for the absolute exemption allowed by the Act for me unable conscientiously to accept anything less. My appeal was heard by the Local Appeal, and Central Tribunals; all agreed that I was a genuine conscientious objector, but they declined to allow me the Absolute exemption provided by the law. In consequence of my refusal to perform alternative civil service, I was arrested and handed over to the military authorities, but I must persist in the view that I am here, not in consequence of having disobeyed any law, but because the Tribunals entrusted with the administration of the Military Service Acts failed to carry out the law.


That this view is not unreasonable is borne out, I think, by the utterances of many public men who in no way sympathise [sic] with the attitude of the conscientious objector. Mr. Harold Smith, the Conservative member of Parliament for Warrington who strove recently to secure the disenfranchisement of all conscientious objectors, used these words in the House of Commons on May 30, 1916. That "every case . . . . of a man, who is to-day standing, first of all the ridicule, the abuse, the contumely to which he is subjected, and finally imprisonment, -- I say, without fear of contradiction, that every such case is a standing example of a mistake which has been made by a Tribunal. I think that is unanswerable. I do not think my right hon. Friend would suggest that a man who has stood the buffeting and igominy, and finally the imprisonment, and who is prepared to go on with his sentence, even although a year or two of hard labour, is not a conscientious objector, and I cannot hep thinking my right. hon. Friend must agree that each one of those cases I have in my mind becomes a standing example, I will not say of the inefficiency of the Tribunal, but of the mistake which has been made. Brigadier-General Childs, Director of Personal Services at the War Office, the Department responsible for the over-sight of conscientious objectors whilst under military control, has expressed himself on the same point as follows, according to a report in the Manchester Guardian, January 18, 1917: "A great deal of public and private trouble might have been avoided if the Local Tribunals had exercised their power of exemption more freely where the plea of conscience was unquestionably genuine," which in my case it was admitted by all three Tribunals to be. I submit that such statements add weight to the view I have urged that it is not I who am the law-breaker, but the members of the Tribunals who denied me the only form of exemption I could conscientiously accept.


Mr. Hayes Fisher, the President of the Local Government Board, in reply to a question in the House of Commons on May 24, 1917, stated that 400 conscientious objectors had been granted Absolute Exemption by the Tribunals. In these 400 cases the Tribunals accept the word of the applicants that only by Absolute Exemption could their scruples be met; in over 1,600 cases the word of the applicants was not accepted, and consequently they have had to prove their sincerity by resistance to military authority and by the acceptance of imprisonment. It has been argued sometimes that imprisonment is less disagreeable and dangerous than life in the trenches and

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that its acceptance cannot, therefore, be considered as proof of sincerity. But in the case of these men the alternative to imprisonment is not the trenches, it is work of so-called national importance at home; hence it is impossible to suggest that they are actuated by cowardice since, if they had been prepared to forego their scruples against Alternative Service, they could have enjoyed the comparative free and comfortable conditions of employment rpovided by the Home Office. In the case of every one of these men I venture to assert that the genuineness of their convictions has been unmistakably proved, and that they ought now to be given the Absolute Exemption which the Tribunals have wrongly withheld.


The attitude I am now maintaining has not been recently or suddenly adopted. During the last nine years I have been a consistent anti-militarist, using both voice and pen in the service of Pacifist principles. Six years ago, when war was threatened in consequence of the Moroccan situation, I publicly declared that I should decline to fight, and on the Sunday preceding the outbreak of the present conflict I repeated that declaration and stated that I should resist Conscription if it were enacted. My objection to war and military service is founded upon the belief which I hold most deeply of all the beliefs I cherish -- the belief that every human being is the temple of the divine spirit and that all mankind is united in a sacred brotherhood by the indwelling of the One Universal Spirit. When I began to study social conditions and political questions I found that this belief was totally denied by modern civilization. I found that in the existing industrial system human lives were remorselessly sacrificed for the advantage of the comparatively small class which controlled it. I found that the peoples of one nation were armed to the teeth against the peoples of other nations. I found that the foreign policies of the different Governments were based on greed and selfish rivalry, and conducted by intrigue and deceit. And I determined to devote my life, as far as I could, to an effort to assist the hastening of the time when freedom and co-operation shall be the supreme principles of human relations both within and between nations. Thus I became a Socialist, an anti-militarist, and an Internationalist.


When the present war broke out I seriously considered what my duty was as a citizen of this country. I saw that the War could be concluded by one or two ways -- the Militarist way of victory by human slaughter, or the Pacifist way of reconciliation by human sympathy. I saw that the Militarist way meant that the fighting, with all its terrible loss of life, with all its degrading effects upon the mind and spirit of the peoples, must continue until one side or the other had crushed the enemy into exhausted submission. I saw that even when this awful price had been paid there would be no guarantee of a just or permanent peace. I saw the victorious side exalting in its triumph; the vanquished hanging its head in humiliation. I saw the lust for domination grip the mind of the conquerors; the list for revenge grip the mind of the conquered. Within a generation I saw another war, more terrible even than this.

In direct opposition to all this destruction and death and hatred involved in such a policy, I saw the Pacifist way leading to a Peace based not on force but goodwill. I saw that the Pacifist way must be education of the peoples of every country to a realisation [sic] that they have no cause for

[page 4] quarrel, that the conflict is the result of the Imperialist policies pursued by all the Governments involved and of the machinations of interested financiers and capitalists, that the masses have no reason to desire territorial conquest from each other, that they have, indeed, every reason to desire freedom and justice for all nations, and that the democracies of the world, whatever the military situation, must take common action to secure a settlement by agreement based on principles of liberty and co-operation. I saw that a permanent Peace depends not on the position of armies, but on the mind of the peoples, and consequently from my first day of the war I did what I could to influence my fellow-citizens towards that broader attitude of mind from which alone reconciliation can come, knowing that in every country my fellow-pacifists were carrying on the same work.


All that has since occurred has deepened my conviction of the wrongfulness and futility of war and strengthened my faith that the Pacifist way is the only way leading to a permanent Peace. Six months ago, when I was last tried by Court-martial, my hope that the war would be concluded by the common action of the democracies of the belligerent nations seemed impractical and visionary; today, despite the postponement of the Stockholm Conference, it seems not only possible of realisation [sic] but probable. In every country the International Socialists are leading a larger and still larger section of the public, and I believe, before many months have passed, the time will come with the forces of Organised [sic] Labour in all lands will rally in support of a common Peace programme. When that day dawns, if the Governments do not listen to the demands of the workers, I hope we may see the soldiers of all lands laying down their arms, declaring a general strike against war, and entrusting the settlement of Peace to representatives of the people, not to the ambassadors of the ruling classes. If my attitude and actions during the war have hastened by one hour the coming of such a time I can never feel they have been in vain.



Brockway, A. Fenner, “A. Fenner Brockway's Court Martial Statement, Chester Castle, September 5, 1917.,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed January 21, 2019, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/1196.

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