“I know what it is to kill a pig; I will not kill a man” Stephen Winsten, conscientious objector
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Military Service Bill, 1916 (becoming an Act on the 2 March 1916) which saw the introduction of conscription during WW1. This followed the failure of both voluntary enlistment and the Derby Scheme to provide enough fighting men for the front. Under the Act, men between the ages of 19 and 41, who were unmarried, were deemed to have enlisted for general service.
However, thanks to Quaker influence the Government added a “conscience clause” into the Act allowing for an exemption for those who objected to active combatant service. There were different types of objection, with Absolutist Objectors refusing to involve themselves in any way including alternative service such as driving ambulances. Although the law was interpreted to allow “absolute” exemption, in reality those claiming this type of exemption were treated differently than those willing to join the Friends Ambulance Unit or the National Non-Combatant Corps (NCC).
Those making a claim for exemption were required to attend local Tribunals where the validity of their claim was assessed by a panel. However, the panel always included one military representative whose aim was to get as many into the army as possible. Depending on the makeup of the panel it could be a harsh experience for Conscientious Objectors.
There are currently 22 known, named, Conscientious Objectors (COs) from the London Borough of Sutton area. One of these was Harry William Scullard, the youngest of five siblings, born in Sutton in 1890 to George and Maria Scullard. Harry was a Congregationalist with a religious objection to taking life. Before the war he was involved in the local Y.M.C.A. movement. We strongly believe this image, found in the Knights-Whittome collection, to be of Harry Scullard, photographed in 1909 at the age of nineteen.
His initial tribunal was in Sutton, a Tribunal that seems to have been more than unusually unsympathetic to COs. The Tribunal judged that he was a genuine CO with the right to be exempted from all military service but eligible for the NCC. But Harry stated he would “have nothing to do with the prosecution of the war, and would not take the military oath.”
Harry was arrested, fined and sent into the military even though he had flat-out stated he would refuse any military order as “the spirit of Christ is against all warfare”. He completely refused to have anything to do with the military machine – not signing any paperwork, refusing to have a medical exam and even went so far as to refuse his personal details to the army, including his next of kin. This refusal of military orders incensed the officers he encountered and Harry, alongside around 50 other COs, was sent to Boulogne, France. In Boulogne they were told that, as “soldiers” overseas, refusal to obey an order was a crime punishable by death.
By May 1916, Harry was in a cramped underground cell that rapidly filled with water. Sixteen other men were kept in the 12ft square cell, with only a bucket for toilet facilities. Fed only on a “punishment diet” of bread and water, he was given the dreaded Field Punishment Number One. For 28 days, Harry was tied to a barbed wire fence, incapable of moving any part of his body and left to the elements.
On the 2 June 1916, Harry was told that he was facing the death penalty, and that a last few days were being given in order to think it over – the choice was simple: join the army, betray his principles and fight to kill his fellow man, or face death. Not a single CO, including Harry, chose to join the army, even to save their own lives.
On the 7 June 1916, Harry was marched with other COs outside of the prison, and their sentence was read out: “The accused, tried by Field General Court-Martial, had been found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence has been confirmed by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig……..and commuted to ten years penal servitude.”
At the last minute Harry and the others were saved. Political pressure from CO supporters back in England led the government to denounce the military punishments and the Army backed away from shooting men who most considered to be civilians.
After 46 days in France, Harry was sent back to England, spending several months in Winchester prison before being moved to a Work Camp under the Home Office Scheme. This was set up as an equally harsh alternative to prison. This, the infamous Dyce Quarry, was shut down shortly after Harry’s arrival over the scandal caused by the death of Walter Roberts White. Harry’s photo was taken alongside many of the men he had been imprisoned with in France.
The Home Office Scheme proved to be Harry’s home for the next three years. Shuffled between camps, he would work at back breaking, pointless manual labour, still as determined as ever to refuse to kill. He was finally released in 1919 and officially discharged in March 1920. Harry returned to live in Sutton, first on Warwick Road with his parents and after marriage to Gwendoline Stevens in 1920, at 14 Salisbury Road, Carshalton. Not long before he died Harry, Gwendoline and their daughter Doris moved to 22 Highfield Road, Carshalton.
Harry died on the 25 November 1964, aged 74.
The Long, Long Trail: http://www.1914-1918.net/msa1916.html
The Peace Pledge Union: http://www.ppu.org.uk/cosnew/cos01.html
Sutton Censuses on Ancestry
WW1 Service Records on Ancestry
Sutton Tribunal: Sutton Advertiser available in the Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre
Sutton Congregational Church records: Sutton Archives Catalogue