The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced to Britain conscription of unmarried men aged 18 to 40. It made provision for the exemption of those whose objection genuinely rested on “religious or moral convictions.” The government established tribunals to determine who should be granted exemption and to what degree.
Within a short time, some 40 Bible Students were held in military prisons, and 8 had been sent to the front in France. Prompted by this unjust action, the brothers in Britain addressed to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith a letter protesting the imprisonments, along with a petition bearing 5,500 signatures.
News then came that the eight sent to France had been sentenced to be shot for their refusal to accept military discipline. But when the brothers were lined up to face the firing squad, their sentences were commuted to ten years’ penal servitude. They were returned to England to serve their time in civil prisons.
As the war dragged on, conscription was extended to include married men. In a test case in Manchester, England, the defendant was Henry Hudson, a medical doctor and Bible Student. On August 3, 1916, the court ruled that he was a defaulter, fined him, and turned him over to the military. At the same time, another test case was heard in Edinburgh, Scotland. James Frederick Scott, a 25-year-old colporteur, was found not guilty. The Crown appealed the case but dropped it in favor of yet another test case in London. This time, a brother named Herbert Kipps was found guilty, fined, and handed over to the military.
By September 1916, a total of 264 brothers had applied for exemption from military service. Of these, 5 received exemption, 154 were given “work of national importance,” 23 were assigned to a noncombatant corps, 82 were handed over to the military, and some were court-martialed for disobeying orders. The public reacted to the cruel treatment these men received, so the government transferred them from military prison to civilian work camps.
Edgar Clay and Pryce Hughes, who later served as branch overseer in Britain, worked on a dam in Wales. On the other hand, Herbert Senior, one of the eight who had been returned from France, was sent to Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire. Others served their sentences of hard labor in the harsh conditions of Dartmoor Prison, where they formed the largest single group of conscientious objectors.
Frank Platt, a Bible Student who had agreed to undertake noncombatant duties, was subjected to prolonged and vicious persecution when sent to the front. Atkinson Padgett, who learned the truth shortly after enlisting, also suffered brutal treatment by the military authorities for refusing to engage in combat.
Although our position as Christian neutrals may not have been fully understood by our brothers nearly a century ago, they sought to please Jehovah God. Those mentioned by name in this report set a fine example of neutrality during an especially difficult “hour of test.” (Rev. 3:10)