A game of cat & mouse: military challenges to the Home Office Scheme

In this final section of Maggie Smales‘ substantial research into Cardiff’s conscientious objectors, the author reveals the legal battles faced by Cardiff COs.

In March 1917, Philip Snowdon again raised the case of a Cardiff CO in the House of Commons.  Sydney Goodman from 62 Whitchurch Road was a Congregationalist deacon and lay reader who had been offered exemption from military service in May 1916 on condition that he accepted work of national importance.  However, at the end of December 1916 after some months working as a farm labourer, Sydney was suddenly arrested as an absentee, kept in cells for a few days and then handed over to the Training Reserve Battalion at Kinmel Park near Rhyl.  Here he was court-martialled on 19 February 1917 and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment with hard labour.

Hansard notes on 20 March 1917:

Mr SNOWDEN asked the Under-Secretary of State for War if he will order the immediate release of Sydney Goodman, at present detained at the guard room No 7 Camp, Kinmel Park who, while working on a farm at Bridgend, Glamorgan, and holding a certificate of exemption so long as he remained at that work, was illegally arrested on 30 December, and, after irregular proceedings at the Police Court, was handed over to the military authority, and having subsequently refused to obey military orders, has been court-martialled and sentenced to two years’ hard labour; and will he say what action he proposes to take with respect to the conduct of the military representative in committing this illegal act of arrest?

Sydney Goodman was far from being the only CO who was consigned to “work of national importance” and then had the decision over-ruled by the military authorities.  A long-running case was that of Henry Thomas, a Cardiff University student of Mount Street, Merthyr, who refused call up. His case went to-and-fro between Merthyr and the King’s Bench (the High Court) several times in the autumn of 1917 and the spring of 1918.

The Merthyr Stipendiary magistrate, Mr R. A. Griffiths, summed up the case in September 1917:

Defendant was tried at Merthyr 23 May 1916 as an absentee, when he was fined 40s and handed over to the military authorities. Whether one sympathises with his conscientious scruples or not it must be admitted that from first to last defendant has shown the courage of his convictions. There can be no doubt that his abhorrence to slaughter is deep and abiding. I am satisfied that no amount of discipline or hard treatment would ever make a soldier of him. Shortly after joining the colours he was court-martialled for his opinions and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

(Whilst serving his sentence Henry Thomas was called before the Central Tribunal at Wormwood Scrubbs)

Defendant appeared before the Central Tribunal and was found to be a Conscientious Objector; was transferred to Class W, Army Reserve, and was placed under the Home Office Scheme […] In pursuance of this arrangement he worked at Warwick, Lyme Regis and Dartmoor. On the 25th May last (ie 1917) a sub-agent at Dartmoor came to him and, without giving any reason, told him to go home. He returned to Merthyr Tydfil, where he has remained ever since.

On the 29 May a notice was sent to him recalling him to the colours. Having regard to this notice he was arrested by the Merthyr Police at the instance of the military, and brought before this court on a charge of being an absentee. There was no evidence before me – nor was it ever alleged – that the defendant had failed to comply with the conditions laid down by the Home Office Committee.

On the facts which I have just recapitulated, […] I came to the conclusion (on 19 June 1917) that the defendant – to quote the words of the letter of 24th August (1916) – had ceased to be subject to military discipline and the Army Act.” I, therefore, decided that he was not an absentee. […]

The Pioneer of 11 May 1918 takes up the story:

Henry Thomas, as some of our readers will readily recall, is a Merthyr CO who accepted work under the Home Office Scheme. He worked in various centres, including Lyme Regis, where, it is alleged by the Home Office Committee and denied by Thomas, he and some fellow C0’s jeered at some wounded soldiers. He was transferred to the Dartmoor Centre I from where he was sent home by the sub-agent, who in reply to Thomas’ question as to the reason for being sent home, notified defendant that he could give no reason.

Thomas was subsequently arrested as an absentee and brought before the Merthyr Stipendiary (Mr R. A. Griffiths) who refused to convict on the ground that the terms of the circular letter issued by the Committee to Thomas whilst serving his sentence in Cardiff was a contract removing Thomas from the army, conditional upon the Central Tribunal finding, as they did in fact find, that Thomas is a genuine conscientious objector, and his undertaking work of national importance under the scheme.

The prosecution appealed against this finding and the case was sent back by the Law Lords for rehearing. The rehearing resulted in a similar decision in Merthyr, and again an appeal was made to the High Court, where it came up for hearing on Thursday, April 25th, and was again remitted for rehearing.

Tantalisingly, the Pearce Register does not tell us how this story ended.

 

 

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