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The Richmond 16

The first conscientious objectors

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore understanding of conscientious objectors in the First World War (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and one reader.

  • Have available the song ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader: In 2014, we remembered the start of the First World War. There were events up and down the country, a magnificent artwork consisting of myriad ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, even a war-themed Christmas advert on TV, but it is easy for such events to drift into the background of our memories.

There was a not dissimilar frame of mind in operation 100 years ago. The outbreak of war triggered a massive burst of patriotism, with men volunteering to serve at the Front in large numbers. As time went on, however, and the battles in France and Belgium dragged on and casualties returned with horrific tales of life and death in the trenches, enthusiasm waned and volunteer numbers couldn't keep pace with the need to replace men who had lost their lives.

In January 1916, the British government at the time took the decision to passthe Military Service Act. Under the Act, implemented in March 1916, all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were required to report for active service. By May 1916, this had been extended to include married men of the same age. It was compulsory; there was no choice in the matter.

Reader: What about those men who didn't want to support the war? There were all sorts of reasons for them to object. Some did so on the basis of their religious beliefs. They believed that the Bible tells us not to kill anyone and Jesus was very straightforward when he commanded his followers to love their enemies. Other men simply believed that the war was wrong or had been started based on fairly slim political grounds, like a house of cards tumbling down.

Leader: That's very true. So there was a clause in the Act exempting 'conscientious objectors' from military service. Lord Kitchener, however - the man who appears on the famous posters, pointing and declaring, ‘Your country needs you’ - made sure that conscientious objectors were usually still conscripted or joined the Non-Combatant Corps, taking on supportive duties. This meant that, even though the men were not actually fighting, they were still providing back-up so other men could fight.

Reader: Was that enough to pacify the objectors?

Leader: Not all of them. There were a few who still defied the call-up. The most famous of these were known as the Richmond 16, so called because they were imprisoned in Richmond Castle in Yorkshire.

Reader: What sort of men were they?

Leader: One was the centre forward for Sunderland FC. Some were Bible students. Others held down ordinary jobs in business and factories, largely in the north of England. Most, but not all, objected on religious grounds. They weren't willing to be involved in any activity that supported the war effort. They believed that any war was wrong. They were termed ‘absolutists’.

Reader: So what happened to them? Did they spend the entire war in prison?

Leader: Lord Kitchener was a very stubborn man. He didn't like it when he didn't get his own way and he ordered that the Richmond 16 be transferred to France, to the Western Front. If they refused to comply with orders there, in the presence of the enemy, they would be regarded as deserters and shot. Two significant events happened, however, that meant the men's lives were saved.

First, on the train journey from Yorkshire to the coast, to cross the Channel, one of the 16 managed to throw a note out of the window addressed to his MP, Arnold Rowntree, a social reformer, concerning their fate and he alerted the then prime minister, Herbert Asquith.

Second, on 5 June, Lord Kitchener died at sea.

The Richmond 16 had all been court-martialled for not obeying orders and sentenced be shot on 14 June 1916 as Lord Kitchener wanted to make an example of them. As a result of the two events, however, their sentence was immediately commuted to ten years hard labour by the prime minister.

Reader: So that was the end of it? Presumably they sat out the war until 1918 and then continued their lives?

Leader: Not really. They paid a harsh price for objecting right through their lives. They weren't released from prison until 1919, well after the Armistice. They were treated as social outcasts in their home communities and found it hard to settle back into their old jobs. They were denied the right to vote for a further five years and many suffered psychological damage.

Reader: So, were the conscientious objectors courageous or cowards?


Time for reflection

Many of the world's major religions agree that killing people is wrong, yet most believers have been willing to fight in wars. Pacifism has always been a minority view, as has been illustrated by the recent debates in Parliament about wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It takes courage to stand for a principle in the light of public and private scorn.

There are other issues, too, that, in our society today, present similar dilemmas. These include welcoming immigrants, giving aid to the needier countries of the world, abandoning the UK's nuclear deterrent and so on. Within your family or this school you may find yourself in a minority regarding certain debates.

You may wish to describe a situation within your school that is relevant at this point.

How strong are your principles? What sort of opposition do you face? How far are you willing to go in taking a stand? What sacrifices and risks are you willing to make?

In a democracy, we all have the right to our own views and opinions, as well as a right to voice them. The question is, do we have the courage to actually do so?

Were the Richmond 16 cowards for not being willing to take the risk of dying at the Front or were they brave men who believed they should fight instead for a more imporant principle? Is it cowardly, or easier, to go along with the majority when there is a difference of opinion where you are? Which matters more - a peaceful life or standing for what you believe in?

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the principles you give us that help us make decisions about what is right and wrong.
Remind us of these daily as we negotiate the complex business of living with one another.
May we have the courage to stand firm for what we believe and the graciousness to listen to other people’s points of view.


‘Roar’ by Katy Perry

Publication date: April 2016   (Vol.18 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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