§ THE LORD BISHOP OF OXFORD had given notice to ask His Majesty's Government the following Questions—
- 1. Whether His Majesty's Government are prepared to take the necessary steps to remedy the apparent inequality in the treatment under the Military Service Act by the various Tribunals to conscientious objectors.
- 2. Whether means can be found to provide that the decisions of the Final Tribunal shall be extended in principle to those who have not been allowed to appeal.
- 3. Whether it can be provided that those whose claim for exemption has been rejected and who, having been handed over to the military authority have been sentenced for insubordination to imprisonment with or without hard labour, shall be transferred for their term of incarceration from the military to the civil authorities.
§ The right rev. Prelate said: My Lords, it is with the greatest possible reluctance that I rise to ask the three questions of which I have given notice, because I am, if I may so express myself, profoundly out of sympathy with those persons on whose behalf I am speaking—that is to say, I am not at all in agreement with their principles, and I cannot deny that I think they are largely an impracticable body of men with whom it is extraordinarily difficult to deal consistently with the safety of the country. At the same time I have been driven to feel that it is my duty to ask these Questions. 905 I suppose that our belief in the value of liberty of opinion is tested exactly at those points where the opinion which claims liberty is one with which we do not agree. It is easy enough to value liberty of opinion when the opinion is your own; the difficulty only arises when an opinion claims liberty with which you are in disagreement.
§ And, of course, it is especially distasteful to raise this particular matter at this moment. There is nothing which at this time I should desire more passionately than that, engaged as the country is in a struggle which I believe it was our most solemn duty to undertake and is our most solemn duty to fight through, every element in the country should be united; and we cannot but look enviously across the sea to France, where we are told there are no conscientious objectors and no exceptions to the law of military service. But I would ask your Lordships to remember this. England and America have stood to a degree which would not be true of other nations for liberty of opinion, and we have for centuries past allowed this liberty to run perilously in the direction of individualism. For my part I hope that the experience of this war will provide some correction for this tendency in the future, but we cannot correct it at once in any department. Therefore I venture to ask that we should consider with respect opinions which, perhaps almost with unanimity, we profoundly disagree with and resent.
§ I wish to make my own position clear, and perhaps I may do so by saying that personally there is hardly any class of people with whom I find it so hard to converse without getting into acrimonious discussion as these conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors take their stand upon an exception which has been granted them by law. On the ground of conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service a certificate of exemption may be granted, and the Military Service Act defines that by specifying three kinds of exemption which may be granted. A certificate of exemption may be absolute, conditional, or temporary, as the authority by whom it is granted think best in the particular case. Also it may take the form of exemption froth combatant duties only, or may be conditional on the applicant being engaged in some work which, in the opinion of the Tribunal dealing with the 906 case, is of national importance. There you have three, or you may say four, kinds of exemption—first, absolute exemption, which, again, may be subdivided into permanent and temporary; secondly, exemption from combatant duties only; thirdly, exemption granted in view of some other occupation. That is the law as it stands, and it is this law which in part these conscientious objectors claim has not been fairly carried into effect.
§ I do not know how far what has occurred was contemplated in the phrase "combatant duties only." For my part, when I first read that provision I certainly did suppose, as a mere layman, that exemption from combatant duties would have allowed the occupation of these men, for example, in the work covered by the Army Medical Corps; but I own that it did not occur to me that it would mean what has been granted in the Non-Combatant Corps. I venture to say that the Non-Combatant Corps has been from every point of view a great failure. I can hardly conceive any conscience—certainly not the conscience of those with whom we are dealing in this matter—which would refuse to allow a man to wear and use arms, but would allow of his doing all that work which is part and parcel of the same operation, such as the digging of trenches and barbed wire work. That kind of work does seem to me to be so absolutely part of the military operations that people whose conscientious objection is against taking part in military operations would hardly be expected to be willing to accept that work; and, as a matter of fact, I believe it has been universally rejected by the whole body of conscientious objectors.
§ Under this law we have to deal, I take it, with three different classes of people, which it would be very well to distinguish. There are, first, those who are members of traditional pacifist Churches, like the Quakers and the Christadelphians, who are under some hereditary dogma. I have the Quaker papers here, and I find that they are unwilling to dissociate themselves from the other conscientious objectors, but undoubtedly from our point of view they are easier to deal with. Some Quakers have gone so far as to accept military service and to fall under the formal condemnation of their fellows, but I suppose that would apply only to a minority. I imagine that a great many of them have been content to accept occupation in their own ambulance 907 work. Besides those, you have individual conscientious objectors, some of whom are members of the Church of England, who, without being able to claim any dogma of their Church fortifying or supporting them, hold, as an individual opinion, very much the same position as that of the Quaker. I could name some members of the Church of England, one in particular who has written widely circulating books, who hold that position strongly, and I have been surprised to find in the last few months how many there are in our own ranks who hold opinions of this kind. Then, again, you have to deal with what is a very different kind of person—the extreme Socialist, the member of the Non-Conscription Fellowship, for example. Those men object to war; they object in the highest degree to compulsory service in all circumstances; and I do not think it can be denied that they are out to break down the law and make its administration impossible. I think that these and a good many of the other two classes carry their objection to military service to a point which is totally unreasonable—that is, they are unwilling to engage in any other kind of service for fear that by so doing they might liberate others who would be able to do military service which they would not have been able to do otherwise. That is a point, it seems to me—and I have tried to press this upon them very often—at which they are showing in the acutest form a refusal to recognise the rights of other people's conscience, which is what they are objecting to in our treatment of them. But I think it is important that we should have in our minds these three classes of conscientious objectors, because their treatment seems to me to be necessarily somewhat different.
§ In dealing with these three classes of people I should like, first of all, to say that it seems to me that the decisions of the Central Tribunal have been, so far as we have obtained information as to their decisions, extraordinarily considerate and careful. I have in my hand Notes which have been circulated by the Local Government Board of some cases decided by the Central Tribunal, and perhaps your Lordships would not mind if I troubled you with one simply as a specimen case, because I think it is a good instance of careful and considerate treatment. The case was that of an unattested man, aged twenty-two, a member of the Church of England, and the application was on the ground of conscien- 908 tious objection. He was exempted by the Local Tribunal from combatant service only. That Tribunal, while admitting that the appellant had a conscientious objection to war, did not feel that they could grant him exemption from non-combatant service, as he stated that he was dependent on his father, whose income was partly derived from the manufacture of munitions of war. This decision was confirmed by the Appeal Tribunal, but the man obtained leave to appeal to the Central Tribunal. The Central Tribunal decided that he should be granted exemption from combatant service only, subject to the proviso that if within twenty-one days after notice of this decision he undertook some ambulance work which was under recognised control and approved by the Central Tribunal he should be exempt from service so long as he continued to act in the said capacity to the satisfaction of those in control, power being reserved to the Central Tribunal to extend the period of twenty-one days or to vary the Order if the appellant established to their satisfaction that he had done his best but had failed to comply with the condition. I will not read other cases, but I think that is a specimen of very careful and respectful dealing with a conscientious objection; and so far as I have any opportunities of knowing, I think there is nothing to complain of in the dealings of the Central Tribunal with these men. But the same cannot be said, so far as my information goes—and we are dependent upon casual reports—of either the Local Tribunals or the Appeal Tribunals.
§ I do not doubt that a great many of the Tribunals have done as well as the Central Tribunal. I mean that I am not making a general accusation. But I am making an accusation, which applies to a great many, that in some cases no attempt has been made to work the Act. Some Tribunals appear to have had a complete misconception as to their function. They allowed themselves to browbeat and attempt to argue down the people who came before them. They seemed to regard it as their business to refuse the application and to argue with the conscientious objector. For example, in the case of one or two members of my own Church I know that they indulged in a prolonged argument as to the bearing of one of the 39 Articles, assuming apparently that lay members of the Church of England are bound by all the 39 Articles. At any rate, I should contend that this was 909 not in the least the business of the Tribunal. Their business was simply to satisfy themselves as to whether the applicant had before the war, and was known to have had, a conscientious objection to military service. Their business was not to discuss questions of conscience but to ascertain that fact.
§ And sometimes the Tribunals deliberately refused to accept the responsibility of admitting that they could grant complete exemption. I should like to call attention to a statement by Mr. Long, who, when he was pressed on this matter in another place, said that in such a case the only remedy provided in the Act is that the applicant can apply to have the case reheard, revised, and so on. But there is no remedy against the decision of the Tribunal if they refuse, as some of the Tribunals have, to contemplate the case of complete exemption, and there does not appear to be any method provided by which they can be compelled to contemplate that as something which it is their business to consider. I say that in part the Tribunals have really misconceived their function. There is another, as it seems to me, very serious cause for complaint against the Tribunals. I refer to the great inequality of treatment, which would be tolerable only if there was an appeal, whereas, as a matter of fact, unless the Appeal Tribunal is willing to grant a further appeal to the Central Tribunal there appears to be no remedy at all.
§ I will give your Lordships a single instance. It is that of a man who is well known—I will not mention his name—in the literary world, who came before the Paddington Local Tribunal. At the first hearing they were unanimous in admitting the genuineness of his conscientious objection. They gave him all that, in their opinion, they could give him—exemption from combatant service only. He accordingly appealed. In support of his case he took to the Appeal Tribunal a witness prepared to give evidence that since the beginning of the war he (the appellant) had suffered financial losses and the loss of the esteem of his friends and relatives on account of his beliefs, which beliefs were well known to the witness, and also a letter from a distinguished literary critic who knew the appellant intimately, testifying to his personal integrity, sincerity, and so on. The proceedings at the Appeal Tribunal were as follows. First of all the appellant's written statement of his beliefs was read aloud in full, and reference was made by the 910 chairman to the fact that the appellant had expressed his willingness to undertake work of national importance. The appellant was then immediately asked by the chairman a question to which the statement which had just been read aloud formed a complete and carefully-reasoned reply. That being so, the appellant informed the chairman that he had nothing to add to his statement; whereupon the chairman remarked, "Put back to combatant service. Next case." The appellant was given no opportunity of calling the witness who was ready to give proof of the reality of his convictions and of the fact that he had already endured much in consequence of them. The proceedings are described as a travesty of justice, which set at nought the instructions issued for the guidance of the Tribunals.
§ I have read a good many cases which have been reported in different places, and I do not think it is possible to doubt—it probably falls within the experience of your Lordships individually—that cases which are practically indistinguishable in principle have been adjudicated upon with great inequality. Besides that, I cannot but feel that where conscientious objectors have been refused exemption and have been handed over to the military authorities, or where they have been granted non-combatant service and have refused to accept non-combatant service, they have suffered an amount of violent treatment which is profoundly to be regretted, and for which it is most necessary to provide a remedy. I do not make complaint of the military authorities, because I suppose they have no further business except to deal with these men as they would with ordinary soldiers. I suppose there is this difference between military discipline and the kind of penal discipline which is administered by the civil Courts. I suppose the civil Court allots to a man a certain punishment, and then the officers of the prison simply have to see that the period of incarceration or the terms of the sentence are worked out, but otherwise the man is left as far as possible in peace and is not interfered with. But I presume that it is true to say that the very object of military discipline is to break the man in, to break his insubordination, and that therefore the business of the military authorities is conceived to be the breaking of his spirit. I suppose that is true. At any rate, they act on that principle. I have accounts of 911 cases of the kind. One man states that he had been in a cell nearly all the time and was twice stripped naked, once for medical examination and once when he was ordered to dress in khaki and refused. He states that he had been bullied and coaxed until he was sick, but had disobeyed all orders in spite of that. He adds, "I am here in a labour battalion, I understand, and may be sent to France in a few days." It is, I suppose, the business of the military authorities meanwhile to do all that lies in their power to break the man's spirit. I have a picture here in the Daily Sketch of a minor poet clothed in a blanket—this is another of these cases—with a description of what the poor man went through.
§ To what are these men liable? Their friends are saving that they are liable to be taken to France and shot, and I suppose there is no doubt that this is the case. A recruiting officer was asked this question, "Supposing the man refuses to put on the uniform of the King and goes on disobeying orders, what will happen?" The officer replied, "He may in the end be shot." I have here a correspondence with Mr. Tennant in which that appears to be admitted, though Mr. Tennant adds, "It is most unlikely that the extreme penalty would be exacted in the cases to which you refer." But I suppose these men are liable to be sent to France, and then I suppose that the behaviour in which they would continue would render them not only liable to the death penalty but place them in such a position that it is hard to believe how the military authorities could have any escape consistent with the treatment necessary for soldiers in time of war but to inflict this penalty. The kind of bullying to which I have referred, however legitimate, however necessarily involved in military discipline, is, it appears to me, exactly the kind which should not be applied to this particular kind of man, and exactly the kind calculated to do the least military good and the most harm to the whole class. It is a very large class—there are 10,000 enrolled in the Non-Conscription Fellowship—and I believe that the effect of this kind of treatment on this particular class is in the highest degree disastrous.
§ I may be asked how I should propose to deal with cases of this kind. I do not deny that some of these people are so unreasonable that they may fairly be regarded in time of war as the enemies of their country. I have told a great many of them that, for 912 my own part, I thought they were so unreasonable that if they were treated as alien enemies and interned for the period of the war. I should not be able to regard that as persecution. But I profoundly desire that means should be found whereby these men could be handed over from this kind of treatment, which can do neither them nor us any good, to civil incarceration. If it is necessary that they should be incarcerated for the period of the war, then by some means let it be made possible that they should be handed over from the military to the civil authorities. I have here a statement of what happened at Carlisle on April 24, from which it appears that in certain cases it has been found possible that these people should be dealt with by the civil magistrate and incarcerated in the civil prison. I ask the Government whether that method of treatment cannot be made universally applicable. I am quite certain that you will get no military good out of these men. We may regret that it should be so, but they are an extraordinarily inflexible set of men. Their opinions are very firmly based and rooted. They have a profound sense of fellowship and agreement with one another, and I am persuaded that though you may smash their bodies you will not break the spirit which animates them, except in this case or that, and that if you continue to carry out the present treatment you will be causing a regrettable spread of bitterness in a very large class.
§ I have certain particular cases in my mind in asking these Questions. I have in mind the case of a brilliant Undergraduate at Cambridge, and the case of an estimable Undergraduate at Oxford. I was surprised to find how pertinacious and how far gone they were in the direction of root-and-branch objection to any kind of participation in the war or any kind of work which indirectly might serve the purpose of the war. But there they are. They are men who, after the war, when the time for reconstruction comes, will be most valuable. They possess noble qualities, great powers, great enthusiasm, great self-sacrifice. I desire only that we should take steps to see that these men are preserved alive during the war and so preserved alive as that their spirit and capacity for service shall not be broken, so preserved alive as that no unnecessary bitterness shall taint the spirit and will of these men, who as writers, journalists, poets, novelists, are likely to be influential with the minds of men in the future.913
§ The first Question which I wish to ask is whether His Majesty's Government are prepared to take the necessary steps to remedy the apparent inequality in the treatment given under the Military Service Act by the various Tribunals to conscientious objectors. It does appear to me really intolerable that one man should be subjected to the kind of treatment to which I have referred when some other conscientious objector has obtained such exemption as he is able to accept. Some step ought to be taken to rectify the inequality of treatment, which I suppose cannot be denied.
§ Secondly—though this is hardly a separate Question, but rather a means of carrying out what I desire—I wish to ask whether means can be found to provide that the decisions of the Final Tribunal shall be extended in principle to those who have not been allowed to appeal. You may say that this would bring a vast body of appellants before the Final Tribunal, but I am sure that the difficulty is not very great, because these cases seem to me to fall under fairly well defined heads and in dealing with one you would be dealing with a large class. The Final Tribunal decided not to hear the men individually but only to receive their papers, and I do not doubt that they would find that these cases fall into large classes and could be dealt with in groups.
THE LORD BISHOP OF OXFORD
The third Question which I wish to put to His Majesty's Government is whether it can be provided that those whose claim for exemption has been rejected and who, having been handed over to the military authority, have been sentenced for insubordination to imprisonment with or without hard labour, shall be transferred for their term of incarceration from the military to the civil authorities. I can assure your Lordships that if this could be granted, or if I could be assured that it was going to be granted, it would be taken as the greatest possible boon by that unfortunate class of men in whose interests I have ventured, very reluctantly, to ask these Questions.
§ LORD SYDENHAM
My Lords, it would be very improper for me to attempt to discuss the ethics of conscientious objection, or to enter upon any questions which might 914 have to come to be tested before the Central Tribunal; but there is one point that I should like to try and make clear to your Lordships. In his speech the right rev. Prelate did acknowledge, I was glad to hear, that there are difficulties in dealing with this question. On the other hand, I do not think that he or your Lordships can form any idea of the very great difficulties which surround it. The right rev. Prelate said that we might deal with these cases in three classes. I wish there were anything like three classes only into which these people could be sorted and dealt with in accordance with their special predilections. I can assure the House that you find in dealing with them that the number of classes and the natures of conscientious objection are infinitely varied. The only points which these men have in common are a rooted aversion to war—a most meritorious sentiment—and also a strong desire to remain in the positions in which they are at the present moment.
The difficulty arises out of the great variety of kinds of objection. I will give your Lordships a few instances. The extreme objector will consent to serve in a civil hospital, but if three or four soldiers are put into that hospital he will decline to do anything. That is a difficult kind of man to deal with. Then, again, some will work at munitions, while others will have nothing to do with munitions because they say that this is the exact equivalent to doing combatant work. As the right rev. Prelate pointed out, even the whole of the members of the Society of Friends do not see with one eye in this matter. Some of them are doing admirable ambulance work in France; others are fighting—though perhaps surreptitiously—while others will have nothing to do even with a military hospital; so that in dealing with a body like the Society of Friends you are faced with a great variety of differences. Then there are some objectors who will do most things provided they do not do them under any form of military authority. The objection is not to the work, but to the authority under which the work is done. Then there is a quite considerable class of objectors who will do no work of any kind on a Saturday unless it may be work of mercy, and they will not do work of mercy if they are to do it under orders from anybody else. There are also many who will do nothing which they think might release other men for combatant service. In some 915 cases the objections are much more political than religious, and there are cases in which the objector himself is not quite clear whether his objections are political or religious. These are instances of the great variations of the forms of conscientious objection which come before the Tribunals, and I need not say that in some cases at least the conscientious objection arose after the war bcgan. Indeed, there have been cases of men who voluntarily attested and subsequently developed conscientious objections.
In difficult cases of this kind it is quite natural, perhaps inevitable, that there should be some apparent inequalities. But there are inequalities in the sentences of magistrates, and even in the sentences of Judges. And the Criminal Appeal Court, in, I believe, a large proportion of cases, alters the sentence; so that criminals who do not get an appeal probably think that if they had had an appeal they would have got a modified sentence, and cherish a grievance for the rest of their lives. It is far easier, surely, to make the punishment fit the crime, than to find an exact method of dealing reasonably and fairly with men who have such different kinds of objections. Your Lordships and the right rev. Prelate should remember that the work of these Tribunals is something quite new. It is therefore natural here and there that there may be decisions which may not be quite as they should be; but I am certain that the Tribunals on the whole are doing their work well, and that their work will improve as time goes on.
I venture to hope that the Government will not revise the decisions that have already been given, because that might have the effect of introducing worse anomalies than have as yet arisen. It does not follow by any means that the Central Tribunal, if a particular case came before them, would alter the decision of the lower Tribunal. When you look into all the facts of a case it may bear a very different complexion from that which you would gather from the ex parte statements which the right rev. Prelate has laid before the House. Each case has to be dealt with strictly on its own merits. While the Central Tribunal will in some cases release a man from combatant service if they feel satisfied that his conscientious objection is genuine and sincere, they do think that a man so released must be made to do something of service to the country in this hour of trial; and I feel sure that the right rev. Prelate will agree with that as a general proposition.
My Lords, in the interesting speech to which we have just listened the noble Lord has imparted part of the information which I desired to give to your Lordships. From the very nature of the cases it is almost impossible that some inequalities of treatment should not occur; but the President of the Local Government Board, in a variety of Circulars which have been issued, has laid down general principles for the guidance of the Tribunals. While no doubt the right rev. Prelate and many of your Lordships are acquainted with the forms of the different Tribunals and their functions, it may be of interest that I should make a few remarks in regard to them. If a man decides to appeal to a Tribunal, the first Tribunal that he goes before is the Local Tribunal, established under the Military Service Act, 1916. That Tribunal has a minimum of five members and a maximum of twenty-five, and it is especially laid down that there shall be on the Tribunal an adequate Labour representation provided by the local registration authority. The Local Tribunal may, and I believe in some cases does, act through committees, and there, again, it is laid down that on the committees there shall be adequate Labour representation. A military representative has the right to appear as a party to any applications to be heard by the Local Tribunal. Three days' notice to the applicant is given before he appears, and he may conduct his own case or have a representative.
If dissatisfied, the applicant may appeal from the Local Tribunal to the Appeal Tribunal. This body is appointed, as the words say, by His Majesty, but to secure as far as possible fitting representation on the Appeal Tribunal the opinion as to its members has been taken of such authorities as chairmen of county councils and mayors of borough councils. The proceedings of both bodies are in public. The military representative appears. But, as your Lordships know, this is not all. If the man is again dissatisfied he may ask the Appeal Tribunal for leave to appeal to the Central Tribunal, which is presided over with such ability by my noble friend Lord Sydenham. When cases go to the Central Tribunal the form of application to the Local Tribunal in the first instance, the notice of appeal to the Appeal Tribunal, and other incidental documents and also the reasons for the decision of the Appeal Tribunal are sent to the Central Tribunal. Then there is, of course, the Advisory 917 Committee set up in each area to assist the military authority and watch the interests of the Service. This is formed through the instrumentality of the local Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, and no member of the Tribunal is on that Committee. Thus the man's case is investigated by two different bodies of his fellow-countrymen, the first with opportunities, certainly in country districts, of intimate local knowledge of the man, his family, his upbringing, his general surroundings and atmosphere, while the second has also local knowledge, though perhaps not so intimate, but possesses a wider and more general outlook. Publicity itself is, I venture to say, a further safeguard.
I do not deny that there has been inequality of treatment. Indeed, that seems to be almost inseparable from the case when we remember that there are upwards of 2,000 of these Local Tribunals and 71 Appeal Tribunals. One cannot leave out of sight the different characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the individuals who form the membership of the various Tribunals. You may have on some gentlemen who may be very long-suffering and gentle in examination and cross-examination; you may have on others gentlemen who may be more direct in their method of cross-examination, and some may take a sterner view of the duty that citizens owe to the State in this or in that direction. But the President of the Local Government Board has done his best to insure the proper treatment of those putting forward conscientious objections. This is one of the many documents he has issued—Some Tribunals appear to have subjected applicants to somewhat harsh cross-examination with respect to the grounds of their objection. It is, of course, necessary that the Tribunals should satisfy themselves of the bona fides of an applicant and of the precise nature of his objection; but it is desirable that inquiries should be made with tolerance and impartiality.In reference to what was said by the right rev. Prelate concerning Tribunals who thought that they could exempt from combatant service only, and who overlooked Section 2 (3) of the Act of 1916 which provides not only for exemption from combatant service but also for total exemption from military service conditional on the applicant being engaged, in the opinion of the Tribunal, on some work of national importance, I may state that Mr. Long has expressed his willingness to consider cases in which it is alleged that any genuine conscientious objector whose objections extend 918 to all forms of military service has been given exemption from combatant service only owing to a mistaken belief oil the part of the Tribunal that they had not the power to give total exemption. Moreover, if satisfied that there is good prima facie evidence that a case has not been properly heard (not simply that the man or his friends do not think that the decision meets the merits of the case) he will be prepared to make inquiry into it. In both cases he will communicate with the Tribunal and ascertain the real facts, and if it is admitted that the Tribunal acted in the belief that they had no power to give exemption other than exemption from combatant service, or he is satisfied that the case has not been duly heard, he will be prepared to advise that the case should be re-heard or that such other administrative action as is possible should be taken.
I will inform the right rev. Prelate as soon as I can. I understand that something of the same sort was said by the President of the Local Government Board in the House of Commons. Seeing the novelty and the inherent intricacy of these cases, and also remembering the boundless efforts and sacrifices that hourly are made by all classes on behalf of our country, while I think it must be admitted that there cannot be complete and exact equality of treatment in the circumstances I have described, I venture to submit that applicants for exemption on conscientious grounds do get, if I may use the term, a fair show. I do not think, with the greatest respect for what was said by the right rev. Prelate just now, that there is really a genuine ground of complaint, much less a deeply-rooted grievance. While we should desire to respect genuine and real matters of conscience, at the same time I do not think that any of us desire to render the path easier for those who, from less worthy motives, wish to evade their duty to the country.
As to the right rev. Prelate's second Question, I suggest that I have materially 919 replied to it already; and I think it was pointed out by Lord Sydenham, who is fully conversant with the working of his own Tribunal as well as of the other Tribunals, that it is extremely undesirable unnecessarily to prolong these investigations, and that finality is desirable. In regard to the third Question, as I understand the matter the man in question is already a soldier, and has committed a breach of discipline—
And he is therefore under the authority of military law. But I should like to make this one comment upon what we heard about discipline. I confess that, having been mixed up with soldiers all my life and having for a few years myself been a soldier, this is the first time I have ever heard that the object of discipline was to break a man's spirit. I might ask those who are soldiers now what their opinion would be of a battalion in which here and there a number of men were allowed to do as they chose. I have ventured to put these remarks before your Lordships on behalf of the Local Government Board and the War Office, and I have pointed to the fact that the President of the Local Government Board has issued instructions with the intention and the belief that proceedings in the interests of real conscientious objectors shall be carried out in a fair and tolerant manner.
My Lords, I think it necessary to carry a little further the other portion of the right rev. Prelate's speech, because the answer to which we have just listened has not really dealt with it. I do not refer to the decisions of the Tribunals themselves. That is a very interesting matter which might be discussed in a legal way and might give rise to various important questions such as were pointed out to the House, because I think most people will admit that many of the Local Tribunals have been very cavalier in their treatment of these questions. But that is only one of the issues. Another of the issues—to my mind perhaps the more important of the two, or quite as important—is the way in which these men are treated after their objections are disposed of, and what is done to them in the military prisons in their confinement, to which the right rev. Prelate alluded and which has been very shortly dealt with in the answer.
920 To take, first of all, the correctness of the decisions of the Tribunals, I have no doubt that in many cases great care is given to the decisions. I admit that in many cases it must be a very difficult question to decide, and of course I admit also that it is not desirable that those who are actual shirkers should escape, as it were, under the petticoat of a conscientious objector. But if a man who has been denied exemption by a Tribunal on the ground that he is not a conscientious objector continues to refuse to take off his clothes and to put on khaki and in that intermediate stage remains in a cell, as I understand these men have done, for an unusual period without food, it is obvious that he has some objection at any rate to military service, whatever may be the foundation of it, and it is a strong thing to say that anything short of a conscientious objection will make a man take those extreme steps.
Whenever one portion of the community endeavours to impose its will upon another portion there always will arise conflicts, at any rate where there is any individual freedom of opinion and individual way of thinking. There are many cases in which the community, nevertheless, does impose its will, but it always becomes a question how far it is in the interests of the community itself that this imposition should be continued. You had before the war similar elements of unreason on the part of the Suffragettes. On the whole, I think the conclusion which people came to was that letting them starve was not the method of curing the trouble; at any rate, it was not the method adopted. I do not think I need argue the question as to whether any recognition should be given to these men, because that has been already settled by the Statute. It is therefore not a question which one need now discuss.
But what exactly does the community desire to do with these men? Does it hope with people of inflexible determination, to make good soldiers of them? That seems to be wildly idealistic. Does it desire to shoot them? If so, the simplest thing is to say so at once and shoot them out of hand, which would cause fewer of these disgraceful scenes. I understood that there was in the Military Service Act a clause which it was stated in another place provided that persons who conscientiously objected to and refused to perform any kind of military service were not liable to be shot. I am told that many of these men who have been refused 921 exemption have been drafted into units and sent out to the Front where they will almost automatically be shot for refusing to obey orders in the face of the enemy. Is that desired? Because that is a question which may arise. I would also beg your Lordships to consider what effect it is likely to have on our men at the Front to have forcibly put into their regiments non-soldiers of this kind who will behave in this way. It may make them very indignant, but it certainly will not raise the prestige of any battalion that has these men drafted into it. The noble Lord who spoke last said, What would you think of a battalion a certain number of men in which refused to obey orders? But those men went there voluntarily, or at any rate raised no conscientious objection.
While I am sorry for the conscientious objectors on account of their physical suffering, I do not know that they require one's sympathy in other respects. But what I am more sorry for is a community that puts itself in tins position. I think we do a thing which is very unfortunate for our own national character in raising these kind of questions. Presumably when this clause was put into the Military Service Act it was recognised that conscientious objectors would be a difficulty. They have been a difficulty in other walks of life before. We have the instance of the education rate, and vaccination. The general sense of the community, as a whole, has been that the best way to deal with that sort of difficulty is as far as possible to slide over it, to suppress it, and not make it too prominent. But in these cases the action of the Tribunals and of the military authorities afterwards has done everything possible to increase the friction, discontent, excitement, and indignation which these cases have aroused. I am informed—and my information agrees entirely with what the right rev. Prelate said—that many of these young men who are conscientious objectors are men whom in ordinary times you would say were of the highest character and highest principles, and that they take this stand entirely on the ground of principle. What is done to them at present, I am told, is that they are not allowed food very often, and that, as the right rev. Prelate said, they are coaxed and bullied—men of education and of great ability.
Is it desirable to treat a class of the community in this way, no matter how 922 strongly you disagree with their opinions? I agree that all persons of strong opinions are a nuisance. It is very tiresome when people will not think the same as you do, and still more tiresome when they will not do what you tell them to. But if they will not, surely the best course is to take the easiest way out of it and make as little friction as possible. If it is true that these men are being bullied and starved and cajoled into taking military service, and if it is true that they are being sent to the Front where they will automatically commit a military offence that must be punished by death, it seems to me that what was said in another place when this clause was inserted in the Military Service Act is not being carried out. To accentuate this position is a thing which does not do any good to us as a country, which does not do any good to the Army, and which does not do any good to the conscientious objectors themselves. Non-combatant service is offered to them. This they will not accept in most cases because they consider that it is very near to combatant service. But there are plenty of other things they can be given to do, such as making roads, such as building ships—a very urgent necessity at the present time—or, as the right rev. Prelate said, if you desire to punish them you can intern them until the end of the war. But do not treat them in a way in which any noble Lord individually would be ashamed to treat a fellow creature. If they are not to be handed over to the civil authorities and to civil imprisonment, then we should at least have some assurance that they will be treated as human beings ought to be treated.
THE LORD BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
My Lords, I did not quite perfectly hear the noble Lord who spoke from the Front Bench (Lord Sandhurst), but if I understood him rightly he used one expression to which I felt inclined strongly to demur. I understood him to say that these men who are summoned for military service and are therefore, if they object, brought before the Tribunals are already soldiers. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is it is an entirely technical matter. When the Legislature provided for the conscientious objector it certainly meant that a man who was called up in that way should have an opportunity conscientiously to object. The seriousness of this point is, as my right rev. brother has pointed out, that in the working of these things upon the temper 923 of parts of the population a great deal of difference is made by the distinction between military treatment and civil treatment. I am not at all able to say whether my right rev. brother was right or wrong in what he said about the object of military discipline, which was rather severely commented upon by the noble Lord. He may be right or wrong about that. But that there is a considerable difference between military treatment and civil treatment is obvious, and still more obvious is it that such a distinction impresses the minds of a good many of the population. We have had in our recent controversies and troubles a good deal said about the relation of the Army to the people, and so on. What has come about has, of course, changed all that; yet there are no doubt large sections of the people who would be particularly sensitive about what they would think was an undue extension of military treatment to men of this kind. It will be much to be regretted if the Government do not at least carefully consider whether there cannot be an extension of civil treatment to such cases as these we are discussing.
We ought, I think, to be grateful to my right rev. brother for having brought this matter forward. It is quite evident, although he was listened to with great attention—and I think the character of his speech was such as to challenge attention—that the sense of the House was rather against him. But the more our own opinion runs strongly in one direction the more surely ought we to be careful lest it does not run away with us. The newspapers, as we well know, are out for piquant extracts, and therefore we may have had in the newspapers bits of what has happened in Tribunals which give a very unfair impression. On the other hand, the newspapers are a little inclined to give occurrences which fall in with the general feeling and not to give those which are of a different character. But certainly in the newspaper reports that we have read we have seen much that has shocked us. There has been a good deal of bullying, and of ungentlemanly treatment by some of the members of these Tribunals, whose position should have led them to withhold gibes at men who were in a sense down, and who should, at any rate, have been treated fairly. I do think that we ought to have fairness of mind enough to see the very real danger, when public opinion is rightly heated, of things happening which are very much to be regretted.
924 Attempts have been made to classify these conscientious objectors. The noble Lord on the Cross Bench (Lord Sydenham) says they are not classifiable. Nobody will deny that they comprise different sorts of people. Some are, of course, mere shirkers and whenever the Tribunals get hold of them the more promptly they deal with them the better. Then there are those whom we should all describe as cranks. But among the others are men of really high conscience and character, though, we will say, of very narrow opinions. Those men in a great community like ours, even in a time like this, ought to be dealt with very carefully. That, I suppose, was the intention of the Legislature. But it has not always been recognised that when men come forward to enter conscientious objections they are doing what the Legislature recognised that a certain number of people could quite legitimately do. I have seen sweeping expressions that all these objections were anything but sincere. We know that to be untrue. We also know that even a comparatively small number of cases treated in a way to create a sense of unfairness will go a long way to inflame feeling and opinion. May I end with words resembling those with which the Lord Bishop of Oxford began? I am, like himself, wholly in accord with the general feeling of the country and of this House. It is not, therefore, a pleasant thing to get up and speak in the spirit and sense in which I am speaking. But it does seem to me desirable always to watch those who are much less trained to judicial treatment and self-restraint than perhaps we may hope we ourselves are, and to see that the intentions of Parliament are carried out.
§ LORD HAVERSHAM
My Lords, first of all I should like to dissipate the purely imaginary picture which the noble Earl behind me (Lord Russell) has drawn. I do not believe that there has been a single conscientious objector sent to the Front.
§ LORD HAVERSHAM
The noble Earl, Lord Derby, affirms that. Therefore all this structure of cruelty, of forcing men to be under fire when they have a conscientious objection to military duty, is a mythical imagination. With regard to the Tribunals, I happen to have been chairman 925 of two Advisory Committees ever since this system began. I therefore know something about them. First of all, I should like to assure the right rev. Prelate who last addressed the House that the man who comes up is not a soldier at all; he is not a soldier until he has enlisted and attested. He walks into the Tribunal, and, if exempted, walks out a perfectly free man.
THE LORD BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
But if he refuses to take the oath? I was referring to the words of the noble Lord (Lord Sandhurst), who said the man is a soldier. Perhaps the noble Lord will set that right.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I think the position is this. A man who has voluntarily attested has taken the oath and is a soldier. A man who compulsorily comes into the Army is under the Military Service Act, and is considered to be, and is taken as being, attested as from the date of the passing of the Act. He is therefore a soldier.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
If a man is taken under the Act he is deemed to be attested on the date of the passing of the Act, whether he has actually attested or not.
§ LORD HAVERSHAM
I understood that the roughness of treatment to which attention has been drawn was limited to a few cases, in which I am sorry to say the military representatives at the Tribunals were held responsible. I do not think there was any complaint as to the fairness of the Tribunals. Their judicial attitude has been recognised in this House, and I think everybody admits that they do their best to adjudicate fairly upon the cases that come before them. Those cases in which there were what is called insults to conscientious objectors met with immediate rebuke from headquarters, and I have no doubt that this caution caused a great difference in the conduct of the cases. The right rev. Prelate who brought this subject forward did not lay stress on the fact that 926 many people who profess to be conscientious objectors are not conscientious objectors at all; they are objectors without the conscientious part, who found their religious scruples rather late in the day. Many of them have come forward and professed what they do not really believe, and it is impossible to arrive at the truth in these cases without a local examination and a knowledge of what the man was before he was brought up.
The great merit of the Local Tribunals is that they examine thoroughly into the circumstances of each individual conscientious objector as well as they can. We may trust their impartiality. In the composition of the Trihunal over which I preside I was told to choose as far as possible from both sides of politics, and the first person I asked was the Conservative M.P. for the division, who proved an excellent member of the Tribunal, Mr. Ernest Gardner. He was also a large milk farmer. I then asked the agent of the largest landed proprietor, and he came forward and sat on the Tribunal. We do our best in selecting from the county division where we are to make up the Tribunal. Of course, the cases which the right rev. Prelate has brought forward are very difficult cases. I am sure he will allow me to say that laymen have as great respect for the views of these objectors as he has himself. At the same time he may be much relieved by the fact that a new Order has been issued by Mr. Long, in which he says that these men are to be treated with very great care. I am not quite sure, however, about exemption altogether, as the Order only reached us to-day. At any rate, if a conscientious objector is doing ambulance work I do not think he has any great grievance. I can assure the right rev. Prelate on behalf of the Tribunals that he may rest satisfied that every case is carefully attended to and every allowance is made, so that we may not have men in the ranks who are not themselves desirous of serving and who really would not be of the slightest military value to any commanding officer.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, as I have taken some interest in the establishment of these Tribunals and in the work which they have done, I may, perhaps, be allowed to say two or three words in support of what has been so well said by my noble friend who speaks on 927 behalf of the War Office (Lord Sandhurst). The right, rev. Prelate has called the attention of the House to what he terms the "apparent" inequality in the treatment given under the Military Service Act by the various Tribunals to conscientious objectors. It would not surprise me in the least to find that there had not only been apparent inequality, but some real inequality in the manner in which these cases have been treated. It would indeed be surprising to my mind if it were otherwise.
You have to consider what is the machinery by which this Act is being administered. It is machinery which has been improvised, put together, in great haste and under considerable pressure. You have over 2,000 of these Local Tribunals, and, I think, 71 Appeal Tribunals. My noble friend Lord Sandhurst said that the average strength of a, Local Tribunal was something between five and twenty-five. Supposing we average that, that will give you a body of something like 20,000 or 30,000 gentlemen engaged in administering the law. A great many of them are probably quite unused to legal work or to administrative work of any kind. I would even concede readily enough that in that great host of officials you may find here and there a man who, as has been suggested by the right rev. Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, may take a narrow view of his duties and perhaps even discharge them in a somewhat dictatorial and ill-bred fashion. But what I earnestly trust your Lordships will not countenance is the idea that, because there may be here and there cases of that kind, these Tribunals are not on the whole deserving of the confidence of the country. I think, on the contrary, they deserve not only our gratitude for the manner in which they have taken up their work, but our confidence for the conscientious spirit in which they have approached it. And, as was truly said by Lord Sydenham, is it suggested that there are no other Courts of law in which there are occasional discrepancies and inequalities of treatment? Another thing to be remembered is that the code which these Courts are administering is itself a code which has been somewhat hurriedly put, together and which is in a sense a piece of patchwork; it is to be found partly in the Act of Parliament, and partly in the numerous Regulations which have been from time to time issued by the Local Government Board.
928 There is also this to be noted, that quite apart from that the essence of the enactment is one which it is not very easy for any Tribunal to enforce with precision, because what runs through all these Regulations is that the Tribunal is called upon to decide whether the objection put forward by the individual is really a conscientious objection or not. I know of no machinery, judicial or other, by which you can weigh a man's conscience in the same way that you can measure the contents of a vessel, solid or liquid. But the intention of the Act is, I submit to your Lordships, perfectly plain and unambiguous. It was stated by the right rev. Prelate at the beginning of his speech that, under the Act it is clearly laid down that the Courts may grant exemption either absolute, conditional or temporary; they may grant it with the added condition that the applicant is to be engaged in some work which, in the opinion of the Tribunal, is of national importance. Then you find in a Local Government Board circular issued in February last the important intimation that absolute exemption can be granted in cases where 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. That is the outline of the law.
I ask Your Lordships to consider how this law is now being administered by the Tribunals. We have heard some rather hard things said, particularly by the noble Earl on the Back Bench (Lord Russell), as to the manner in which the Local Tribunals deal with these appeals for exemption. The noble Earl told us that they met the applications in a very cavalier manner; but even if they do meet them in a cavalier manner their treatment does not prevent the man from going to the Court of appeal and obtaining a reconsideration of his case, if he so desires. So that the Local Tribunal, whatever its faults, is not able to deny to the conscientious objector a hearing at the higher Court which, as the noble Earl knows, sits between the Local Tribunals and the Central Court presided over by my noble friend Lord Sydenham.
Then I come to what was said about the Appeal Tribunals. My noble friend Lord Sandhurst read to the House a Circular issued lately by the President of the Local Government Board. There were two Circulars, one in which the Appeal Tribunals, while they were warned against the danger 929 of flooding the Central Court with business, were especially told that it was their duty to send on to the Central Court any cases raising an important question of principle. Then there was a second Circular, probably issued because rumours of this arbitrary treatment had reached the Local Government Board—a Circular in which the Tribunals were especially enjoined to avoid anything like browbeating or the unfair examination of witnesses. I say that because I think the House should know in what spirit it is desired that these Regulations should be applied.
Of the Central Tribunal, I will only say that I noticed with pleasure the right rev. Prelate's admission that the cases published by the Central Tribunal showed a desire to deal with these cases in a thoroughly careful and judicial spirit; and I have no doubt that the publication of these cases from time to time will afford very valuable guidance to the Appeal Tribunals. It is, indeed, for that purpose that their publication is resorted to. What, then, is the principle which runs all through these Regulations? I think it may be expressed somewhat in these words—that, while we desire that the honest, objector on conscientious grounds should be given the most liberal measure of protection, while we are ready that he should in certain cases get exemption without any conditions whatever, while there are other cases in which he may be given exemption from combatant service and others again where the condition is that he is to be usefully employed upon some national work—while at all these points we are ready to deal in a generous spirit with the man who is really a sincere objector, we earnestly desire that no protection should be given to those men who plead conscientious objections for the mere purpose of sheltering themselves and throwing upon others the burden which they are themselves unwilling to bear.
In his second Question upon the Paper the right rev. Prelate asks whether means can be found to provide that the decisions of the Final Tribunal shall be extended in principle to those who have not been allowed to appeal. The right rev. Prelate made his meaning quite clear to the House. What I think he has in his mind is something of this kind. You have two cases apparently not distinguishable from one another on the merits. One of those cases is dealt with by one Court of appeal and 930 the other by another Court. One Court grants relief to the man; the other refuses it. What I think the right rev. Prelate desires is that in a case of that kind some remedy should be afforded to the man who has been deprived of an exemption which has been given under similar circumstances to another applicant. I must say I see considerable difficulty in applying that proposal.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
How are you going to give redress to the aggrieved man? I venture to say that you could not possibly do it administratively. It would never do to allow any Public Department to take upon itself to say to A, "We think your case is the same as B's which was decided the other day; therefore we will give you the same relief that B has obtained." I say that for this reason. Everything in these cases, where you are trying to find out whether a man's objection is a genuine objection or not, depends upon his personal demeanour and behaviour when he appears before the Court, and it would be, to my mind, a fatal thing to allow any one—I do not care who it is—to dispose of cases merely upon a written memorandum without having had the opportunity of cross-examining the person who seeks relief. If that is true, it follows that the only remedy that could be afforded would be a rehearing of all these cases. That, I think, would be a very serious enterprise, and I should be sorry to see His Majesty's Government embark upon it. But, as my noble friend has indicated, if in any case it can be shown that the decision of the Tribunal has really proceeded upon a mistaken view of the law or upon an obvious misapprehension of the facts, we are quite ready to consider applications that may be made to us to have those cases looked into again. I suppose that what would happen in a case of that kind would be that a reference would be made to the Tribunal asking them to put in a statement of the grounds upon which their decision was arrived at; and, subject to precautions of that kind, I see no great objection to an endeavour to set right a mistake where a mistake clearly has been committed. There have been mistakes. There is no doubt about that. But, on the other hand, a general reopening of all these cases would, I venture to think, have a most unsettling effect and would be much to be deprecated.
931 Now, I want to say a word with regard to the appeal which was made by the right rev. Prelate and emphasised by the noble Earl on the Back Bench on behalf of the men whose objection was not allowed to prevail, who have entered the Army, and who, having entered the Army, refuse to obey commands given to them by their superiors on the ground that they do not desire to be subject to military control of any kind. There is one fact in connection with cases of this kind which I hope the House will not leave out of account. These, be it remembered, are men who before two separate Courts have had a full opportunity of convincing the Tribunals of the genuineness of their application, and who in each case have failed.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
They have been really by the action of the Courts earmarked as shirkers—that is what it comes to—and it seems to me a very serious thing that when that has happened some other agency should interfere in order to give them relief. The right rev. Prelate gave us his own suggestion. He said, Why not transfer them to the civil authorities? I am not at all sure that the men would gain very much by being so transferred. He said that they might be treated as enemies of their country, and he thought they might be incarcerated for a period of years in a civil prison. I do not think that would be a very good bargain for them, and I should be rather surprised if many of them would care to accept it. The real fact is that this suggestion is made upon what I cannot help believing is a complete misapprehension as to the kind of unrelenting ill-treatment to which it is suggested these men are liable by their military superiors. I dare say they will not have a very pleasant time of it. But that they are going to be crushed in mind and body, which is the apprehension of the right rev. Prelate, and preserved alive only on condition that they are to be crushed in mind and body before they are released, I do not for one moment believe, any more than I believe that they are likely to be, as some one else suggested, ultimately shot for their offence.
I do not suggest that these cases may not require a good deal of further consideration, and I am far from desiring to brush on one side any of the suggestions which the right rev. Prelates have made to us. But I do beg them, and I beg the 932 House, to remember that there are two sides to this question, and that if there exists, as possibly there may exist, a certain amount of resentment on the part of the friends of these conscientious objectors, there is another feeling of resentment with which you will also have to count, and that is the feeling of resentment—I believe it is already very intense and will become much more intense if it gets abroad—that at a time when the men of this country are risking their lives for us at the Front any considerable body of their fellow-subjects should be allowed to shelter themselves behind a scruple of some kind in order to avoid incurring the liability which others have so gladly assumed. I believe that this feeling is at least as strong as the other, and it should not be lost sight of when this subject is discussed.
§ LORD COURTNEY OF PENWITH
My Lords, the noble Marquess who has just addressed your Lordships has spoken in that usual temper of candour and good faith which commands the respect of us all. No one can have listened to him without seeing that he has appreciated the difficulties of the situation and is most desirous to meet them in every way possible. If I venture to intervene in this debate one excuse may be that on the Committee stage of the Military Service Bill I did try to put before your Lordships a consideration of the situation of the conscientious objector, and to urge upon your Lordships that the existence of that person would certainly be attended with many difficulties in working out the Bill then under consideration if it became an Act, and that it was essential that due regard should be paid to the sincerity of the large number of those who declared themselves to be conscientious objectors.
I observe that many speakers dilate upon the mischief which would ensue if shirkers escaped under the guise of conscientious objectors. I entirely agree. I believe that those who are putting forward the case of the conscientious objector wish to discriminate, and to allow every possible means of discrimination, between him and the shirker. But when you are once convinced that a man has a conscientious objection to being an element in the conduct of war you will find that mere prudence, not to speak of any higher motive, must induce you in the end to see 933 the wisdom of letting that man as much as possible alone. Once convinced of his sincerity, you are in front of a power before which ultimately you will have to yield. Punish if you will the shirker; nay, punish if you will the sincere conscientious objector for not taking what you think is his proper part in the burden of every citizen of the country; but do not—and this is really the essence of the situation now—do not let that punishment take the form of making the man a soldier against his will. You cannot do it. Punish him for not being a soldier, but do not make him a soldier when he absolutely refuses to have any part or lot in the conduct or in the sustenance of war.
I speak, as those who before me have spoken, as one who does not hold the view that all war is an unholy thing. On the contrary, I believe in and recognise the necessity of war as an instrument of international society in the case of necessity, and I recognise also the duty of the citizen to take part in sustaining that war. Therefore I am not speaking as a conscientious objector, but I have had some means of seeing such men and knowing them, not in connection with this war only but on other occasions and in other connections, and I do beg your Lordships to realise that the conscientious objector is a person in whom there is such an intense feeling that it is not only an unholy thing, a crime against civilisation, a crime against human society, to indulge in war or to be in any way an instrument in the maintenance of war, that you will perforce have to yield to that man the liberty of carrying his own convictions. You will be beaten if you try any other course. I ventured to point this out in Committee on the Bill, and the scope of my remarks then tended to this conclusion, that your machinery must be directed simply to the question of the sincerity—a very difficult thing, no doubt, to determine—of the objector. Once you have found that the man is sincere, you had better conclude to have no more to do with him. You will only get from one trouble into a greater trouble by endeavouring to enlist the service of such a man in the conduct of a war with which he will have nothing to do.
I am conscious of the difficulties which have attended the working of the Act. I sympathise very largely with Mr. Long, who has evidently been deeply aware of the irregularities, which are confessed, and he has done 934 his best to get them prevented in future if not remedied so far as they have happened in the past. His two Circulars have been very welcome. But the situation yet wants more action and more clearness of decision, as I venture to think, on the part of His Majesty's Government if they are to escape from the difficulties which have hitherto attended their action and which threaten to become more and more serious. It is not surprising that with 2,000 or more Tribunals there should be irregularities. It is, perhaps, true that the newspapers, in pursuit of what are taking paragraphs and attractive headlines, have given more prominence to irregularities than they should. But it is obvious—it is confessed by Mr. Long himself—that these irregularities have been very grave, and that some men in consequence of them have found themselves in a position in which they ought not to be. The noble Marquess hesitates to recognise any means of correcting the injustice, the malfeasance, which has happened in the course of the working of the Act up till this time. It is troublesome, no doubt, to have to review a very great number of cases, to have to re-hear them, but I am persuaded that the noble Marquess will have to meet the question of overcoming that difficulty in the case of very many of the men who have found themselves pushed into a position in which they ought not to be, confessedly by comparison with others who are in exactly the same category, and confessedly according to the conclusions which the Tribunals themselves have in some cases expressed.
And then comes that last and most fatal situation to which the right rev. Prelate the Bishop of Winchester called attention, the situation which my noble friend opposite (Lord Haversham) apparently had not thought possible, but which is confessed—namely, that you have, under the operation of the Act, considered and treated as soldiers those who have never attested, but who, by virtue of a decree on a particular day at a particular time, acquire the status of soldiers, although they protested before and continue to protest that they will have nothing to do with the practice of soldiering. What are you going to do with those men? That is the situation. They are considered and treated as soldiers, though they have never for one moment consented to accept the situation; and they have protested from first to last that no power shall compel them to lead the life, 935 or to accept the function and responsibilities, of a soldier. It seems to me that a rather simple method of treatment, which it is not, perhaps, too late now to accept, would have been this. Take such a man, conduct him up to the point of being a soldier; if he refuses, punish him, deprive him of his civil rights, if you like; intern him for the rest of the war, and otherwise make him liable to penalties; but do not make him a soldier when it will be worse than useless and when the ultimate way of correcting his insubordination is the one way of shooting him. Mr. Tennant says that such a man is not likely to be shot. I do not think he is. The noble Marquess certainly said he would not be shot. I do not think there is any real chance of his being shot. But you will have to recoil when you come to the step of shooting him or giving him up. You must either shoot the man if he is a soldier, or let him have his own way in the end. Surely that is a most unsatisfactory conclusion, and one that will in the end revolt—and this is what, perhaps, ought to be impressed upon your Lordships and the country—the conscience of mankind. The British conscience, the human conscience, will revolt at the situation. You cannot take a man and thrust him into the ranks while he is protesting against it and saying, "I cannot and will not be a soldier. The most eternal mandates which I obey prevent my accepting such a position." You thrust him into being a soldier, and then expose him to the penalties of refusing to act as a soldier. I say, punish him for his refusal if you like, but do not change his status. Punish him as a civilian who has refused to accept what you consider to be the duty of a civilian, but do not make him a soldier and punish him as a soldier for refusing to do that which in a most sacred and solemn way he has refused to do.
It is easy to raise a cheer by suggesting that the conscientious objector brings under his cloak a mass of shirkers. Those who feel most strongly with the conscientious objector abhor and detest the species of person who would come forward and pretend to be a conscientious objector while not being so. Nor do I think there are many in that category. But what a satire it is upon the Tribunals you have Set up, upon the Tribunals in which you put your confidence—rather a misplaced confidence in many cases, we all know—to say that they cannot discover the difference between the real and the sham 936 conscientious objector. I go back to the suggestion which I made to your Lordships in the Committee stage of the Military Service Bill. Let the duty of your Tribunals be simply this—this is a matter of conscience or it is not. Once you have got that solved, you may depend upon it that the best thing to do to enlist that man to do his service as a citizen and a member of the community is to let him do it; he is a conscientious man, and will act as a member of the community. Punish him if you will, but, as I say, punish him as a citizen. But when you have done that do not, I beseech you, because the thing is difficult, because there is trouble in retracing your steps, do not hesitate to recognise that the necessity of the case requires that he should be got out of the position of being a soldier unless you wish to excite strong feelings and strong condemnation, not merely in present society in the present time, but in the generations that will follow afterwards.
The noble Marquess expressed the difficulty in meeting the resentment of those who would be indignant with false conscientious objectors. The true conscientious objector is ready to meet the brunt of that resentment. He does not shrink from any penalty that may follow upon his asserting his creed and the fulfilment of his duty. Do not let the fear of that resentment, which I take not to be very substantial, at all events which the conscientious objector is ready to meet, be in any way operative to diminish the recognition of the necessity of dealing with the problem of rescuing from the Army those who have been thrust into it by mere edict without enlistment, without consent, and, indeed, against the most vehement and continued protestations.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, may I, with the permission of the House, clear up a point as to which we have some of us been a little at cross purposes in regard to the military status of the man who desires to claim exemption as a conscientious objector? I think this is how it stands. A man who before the appointed day—the appointed day was March 2—either had actually obtained a certificate of exemption or had applied for such a certificate does not become a soldier or liable to military service until his application has been disposed of—that is to say, until he has been dealt with by two separate Courts.
§ LORD PARMOOR
As soon as the application has been disposed of he becomes ipso facto a soldier, which is the point raised. He is a soldier.