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The 1916 Military Service Act allowed for exemption - on paper at least - for those who could show they had a conscientious objection, though the criteria for judging such was sadly lacking. As a result, anyone enlisted that believed they had good grounds needed to appear before Local Tribunals to state their cause. While it is easy to be critical of the shortcomings of the Military Service Act, the Watch Tower acknowledged in 1916 that "we are not to think of the British course at the present time as extreme. The fact is that, so far as we are aware, the United States and Great Britain are the only countries which have proposed by their law to recognise conscientious scruples on the part of their citizens as a reasonable basis for being excused from military service."
However, while the purpose of the Tribunals was allegedly to satisfy the criteria for exemption, in practice its provisions proved unacceptable to the local dignitaries responsible for implementing them. As a result, the Tribunals often ended up being little more than a recruiting agency for the War Office. The members of the Tribunals consisted of local Councillors (many of whom had experience in earlier campaigns of War), and sometimes a clergyman of one of the mainstream Churches (who had already shown their willingness to support the War). There was also present at every Tribunal a Military Representative appointed by the Army to cross-examine objectors on their obstruction of military objectives. A crucial question inevitably asked of the objector was 'how long have you held your present beliefs?' Newly converted men were viewed with suspicion since it was often held that these 'new' beliefs were being held as a cloak to disguise cowardice. This inevitably caused great distress for those whose recent conversion was as equally genuine as others who had long since held religious views opposed to war. Also, young men who had recently reached 18 were often viewed as incapable of holding strong opinions opposed to war. It is known that some - unnerved by the experience of presenting themselves before a Tribunal - were cajoled with the comment that "you're too young to have a conscience", although they were apparently not too young to die in their thousands on the field of battle.
The Rugby Observer of 3 March 1916 recorded the case of a widower who appeared before his local Tribunal. Under enquiry the Bible Student explained that he had vowed his life to the Almighty five and a half years before. As such he had followed the principles of Christianity and would regard employment in any branch of the military as a complete violation of his oath.
The resulting questioning, attitude and judgement of the Tribunal provide an intriguing snapshot of the working of the Military Tribunals in early 1916 and is by no means unusual. The Rugby Observer records:
The President: "Don't you think it is quite compatible with the Christian life to defend your country?"
The Applicant: "I have no country, sir. I gave up my citizenship. While I have always realised the privileges of being born in this country, yet my oath of allegiance is to the King of kings."
Shortly thereafter the Tribunal's Reverend Mr Challenor is reported to have asked the applicant's attitude to non-combatant duties as part of a relief service for wounded soldiers noting that "your work would be like that of the Master, to alleviate suffering."
The Applicant: "In this I should consider what the Master would do. It may seem to be very good to alleviate the suffering of the brave soldiers at the front, but I hear them say on coming back, "It is ten hells in one." Take a man who is in the jaws of death, and I am asked to nurse him back to life. For what purpose? To send him back to those ten hells in one. No, I am of the opinion that it would be better for him to die and await the Lord's coming."
Mr Flowers: "Do you refuse to take the military oath?"
Applicant: "Absolutely. I have taken my oath to the King of kings."
Rev. Challoner: "Many other people have taken an oath to the King of kings."
Applicant: "I hope they will have determined to keep it."
When asked whether he would defend his mother from violence, the applicant quoted the incident of the betrayal of Jesus Christ when Peter was reproved for taking up the sword. No cause, the applicant stated, was greater than that and yet Christ rebuked Peter for using the weapon.
Despite the conscience of the applicant and his obvious understanding of the issues at stake, he was granted exemption from combatant duties only. It is difficult to imagine exactly what this Tribunal considered was necessary to allow the total exemption the Military Service Act allowed for. In this instance, and others too, it is apparent that when applicants objected to all forms of military service the Tribunals often granted exemption to combatant duties only. In the case of the next Bible Student who applied before the same Tribunal (again only to be placed in the Non Combatant Corps) it is fascinating to note his final comments:
Applicant: "I would like you to understand that my determination is not to serve in any branch of the military service, and you as a Tribunal, have the right to give me the exemption I claim. You have been instructed by the Local Government Board to give me the exemption in such circumstances. At the same time, I shall appeal if you will not grant it."
The Chairman: "You can appeal to the County Tribunal."
Applicant: "You have the power and you have the intelligence to judge my claim."
The Chairman: "Perhaps the County Tribunal will have more intelligence than we have."
Applicant: "It might be so, of course."