Picture Postcards from the Great War

WW1 Conscientious Objectors on Postcards 

Tony Allen

During the Great War, the conscientious objector (C.O.) was a perfect subject for ridicule and fun on picture postcards. Each C.O. pleaded his case before a tribunal comprised of people who saw it as their duty to gain as many recruits for the army as possible and openly hated and despised those whose conscience would not allow them to kill on political, religious or moral grounds. However, many of the man who objected to serving in the army did agree to serve in non-combatant roles or as ambulance drivers or stretcher bearers whose work often took them near the front-line and their bravery soon came to be recognised. Nevertheless, conscientious objectors were ridiculed on comic picture postcards as being weak and cowardly men.

CO ww1 postcard
In spite of the bravery of many serving conscientious objectors who worked in areas of extreme danger, the comic postcard shown above - number 730 in the ‘H.B. Series’ - depicted them in a less than favourable light. It was mailed from London to Bexhill-on-Sea in October 1916 - three months after the start of the Somme offensive.
CO ww1 verse card
Another card in the 'H.B' Series. The initials on the card are those of the artist Archibald English.

The 1916 Conscription Act, contained a 'conscience clause' - "The right to claim exemption from military service."  Over 16,000 men made a claim for exemption from military service. Each applicant was required to attend a local tribunal which would asses his sincerity to the claim, The panel consisted of four members. The first three were selected by the local council and could be business men, landowners, shop keepers, civil servants and the like. The fourth member of the panel was a army-selected military man with the right to cross-examine the applicant. The brief of the 'military representative' was to "to get as many men for the army as possible."

Before the committee comic card ww1
This card was signed by Donald McGill and was number 2331 in the Inter-Art "COMIQUE" series. It depicted a man "going before the tribunal" to plead his case against being conscripted into the army. The intention of the panel was "to get as many men for the army as possible." One report said, "The tribunals usually included a Military Representative, a Magistrate and two upstanding citizens of the community'." Even the man's reply of "…helping to make airyplanes." would not have saved him, as most men engaged in this work were released for military service anyway and their jobs took over by women.
On 25th February 1915, architect Sidney Turner appeared before a tribunal in Deptford to plead his case for exemption from military service. The two page "APPLICATION AS TO EXEMPTION." that Turner laid before the tribunal, gave, in his own words, his belief why he should have been exempted. The tribunals' decision was written at the bottom of the second page.
Sidney Turner was given a custodial sentence for refusing to undertake military service and sent to Exeter Prison to serve it. One of his letters from there, to his mother and father has survived and it is shown below. It is dated 3rd march 1917.
Many of the 1,000 or so conscientious objectors who did go to prison did not suffer in silence. They were usually committed, articulate and clear-headed men and picture postcards were among the methods they used to get their message across to the public. The artists in the anti-war and anti-conscription movements showed a wry sense of humour in depicting what it was like to be a conscientious objector in prison.
ww1 card What a CO feels like
ww1 card The CO in prison
These cards, produced by C.O.s and their supporters in 1917, were an attempt to get their point of view across to the public and to expose the harsh treatment they frequently endured in prison. The card on the left is titled "WHAT A C.O. FEELS LIKE", while the one on the right is "THE C.O. IN PRISON."
As the war progressed one or two cards began to show just a hint of sympathy (in the image and caption) for the plight of the conscientious objector who "went before the tribunal." The card below on the right - was one.
Three C.O.ww1 postcards
The card on the right was number 874 in the "Ludgate" Series published by 'E.J.H. & Co.'

In 1916, in an extraordinary turn of events, a humble Field Service Post Card almost certainly saved the lives of 16 conscientious objectors

What was a Field Service Post card? Almost from the start of British involvement on the continent in 1914, the Army Postal Service realised it had problems regarding censorship. That was tackled by supplying soldiers with a buff‑coloured Field Service Post Card (FSPC), known as 'Army Form A2042'. On the back of the card was a series of messages which could either be 'retained' or 'deleted'. By using this simple method, essential information was conveyed to the recipient about the senders` well‑being without the need for the card to be censored. The soldier was not allowed to write anything on it except his name and the date, and was warned that "If anything else is added the postcard will be destroyed.".

At first, each soldier was rationed to two a week, but later the cards were issued on request and were greatly in demand during periods of heavy fighting. As they were not usually liable to scrutiny the cards traveled through the postal system more quickly than most other types of military mail and were known as 'Wizz‑bangs'.

It is recorded that a member of the "Richmond Sixteen" ‑ a group of conscientious objectors who had been illegally sent to France ‑ 'coded' a FSPC in such a way it almost certainly saved their lives.

During the build up to the Somme offensive in 1916, the Army decided it needed to send some kind of message to recruits who might have been thinking of refusing to fight in the forthcoming battle. It came up with the idea of making examples of a number of objectors who were in prison in the UK.

The Richmond Sixteen ‑ who were mainly International Bible Students, (now Jehovah's Witnesses) Quakers, and Wesleyan's ‑ were secretly moved from Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire, to Southampton and then to Boulogne. There, they were subject to the full rigor of military law and after refusing to obey a direct order were sentenced to death.

One of the condemned men, John Brocklesby, was allowed to send a FSPC to the U.K. and ingeniously 'coded' the card, so it gave a clue to their whereabouts. Although Brocklesby deleted certain phrases on the card in the normal way, he also retained certain letters, which resulted in this secret message '" I am being sent down to/b/ou/long/e". When the plight of the Sixteen became public knowledge - Arnold Rowntree, the liberal MP for York - asked questions in the House about the men, which resulted in their safe return to England and their sentences reduced to 'life'.

It is not known whether the "Richmond Sixteen" card still exists, but below is an example of how a FSPC should have been filled in and next to it an example of how Brocklesby is believed to have coded the card which saved their lives.

The card on the left is an example of how a soldier would normally complete a FSPC before handing it in to the army post office. The card on the right shows the method Brocklesby used to alert sympathisers back in England that the "Richmond sixteen" had been  secretly sent to Boulogne, where they had been court-marshaled and were awaiting execution.

These two cards once belonged to Sidney Turner. The one on the left depicted the conscientious objectors Coat of Arms. The one on the right was a 'Key' to its make up.

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