Tevia Rudinsky left behind his wife and baby son in Siemiatycze in Russian Poland when he fled to Britain to escape conscription into the Tsarist army in 1877, at the start of the Russo-Turkish war.
Conscription in 19th century Russia was particularly severe – men could be conscripted for 25 years and Jews were explicitly singled out for harsh treatment with boys as young as 12 potentially liable for military service. Forced conversion was not unusual. Such historic memories, and the fact that Russia not Germany was associated with the most brutal manifestations of anti-Semitism in the years leading up to the First World War, had a considerable influence on the often hostile attitude of Jews of Russian origin to the idea of compulsory service in the British Army.By 1916, when conscription was first introduced, Tevia Rudinsky, now aged 60, and having meanwhile changed his name to Tobias Shepherd and taken on British nationality, was living in Cambria Villa, 3 Tyfica Road in Pontypridd with his wife and his British-born younger children. He owned a successful shop selling glass, paper and decorating materials in Ystalyfera in the Upper Swansea valley. Three of his younger sons were liable for conscription and all three became conscientious objectors, as did his daughter, the author Lily Tobias.
The Conscientious Objectors
Isaac Shepherd- the oldest of the three young men, was 24 in 1916, and working as a decorator. He was an active member of the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF). However, the Conscientious Objector’s Register notes that his main motivation for his decision to resist conscription was his Jewish faith.
On 2 May 1916, Isaac was arrested in Pontypridd with his brother Joseph, tried in the Magistrates’ Court, fined 40/- (£2) and handed over to be taken to the recruiting office in Cardiff. He was held in Garrison Artillery Barracks in Dumfries Place and then transferred on 10 May to Kinmel Park Camp, Abergele, near Rhyl.
On 31 May 1916, Isaac was sentenced by a court martial at Kinmel Park to 2 years’ hard labour. He was held in Walton Prison in Liverpool from 9 June until 1 September 1916. He was then released on leave pending instructions about his Home Office Scheme placement under the Brace Committee. In comparison to his brothers, Isaac seems thereafter to have been given a relatively easy time by the authorities. Llais Llafur, the local radical socialist newspaper in Ystalyfera, reported on 30 September 1916:
“As announced in our column last week, Mr Isaac Shepherd… has been released from prison where he has served time as a conscientious objector. He has now returned to his home at Ystalyfera and will manage the business at the Wern paper stores”.
Isaac was officially transferred to the army reserve class on 20 December 1916.
Solomon Shepherd was 20 in 1916 and working as a wallpaper and glass salesman in the family firm. He was brought before the Military Service Tribunal in Pontardawe on 28 April 1916 where his claim, based on his Jewish faith and ILP and NCF membership, was dismissed. A county appeal in May 1916 was similarly dismissed and the following month he was arrested, tried in Swansea Police Court on 21 June 1916, fined 40/- (£2) and handed over to the military authorities.
On 1 July 1916 The Herald of Wales & Monmouthshire Recorder reported his trial thus:
Solomon Shepherd, of Ystalyfera, who was arrested at Ystalyfera by P.C. Cook, was charged with being an absentee under the Military Service Act. When the charge was read to him, he replied, “I object on principle.” The police officer produced two circulars found on defendant, and handed them to the magistrates. Major Jessel said defendant had been notified three times – on May 8, June 1, and on June 10 a reminder to report himself in 24 hours. He had taken no notice. He said he did not intend to serve. He had caused trouble. Defendant: I’ve caused no trouble. Major Jessel: It has been reported to me that you have. Mr. J. H. Rosser: If you don’t obey orders you get into trouble. Defendant: I object to it. Mr. Rosser: A great many object to it – shirkers like yourself. Defendant: I am no shirker. If others had done their duty I would not be where I am now. Mr. Rosser: You will pay 40s. and be handed over to the military. You must do your duty and not try to get out of it.
Solomon was held for a couple of weeks in Cardiff Barracks and then at a court martial on 14 July 1916 was sentenced to 112 days’ hard labour. After serving his time in Cardiff Prison he was released on 13 October 1916 to the Home Office Scheme.
The high number of conscientious objectors held in prison and scandals arising from the harsh treatment of some COs had led to a government decision to provide an alternative for “absolutists” who refused not only to obey military orders but also to undertake any war-related work. The Brace Committee, named after the eponymous Home Office Under Secretary of State, organised work of ‘national importance’ for men whom a central tribunal found to have a ‘genuine’ conscientious objection. These work schemes were often poorly organised, with the men living in appalling conditions that amounted to imprisonment and punishment by another name.
Under the Home Office Scheme, Solomon was sent to work at waterworks near Llangadog in Carmarthenshire. Here his health broke down and he went home to see his doctor. On 6 January 1917, Llais Llafur reported:
Mr Solomon Shepherd, of the Wern paper stores, who has served four months in a civil prison as a conscientious objector, was home during the early part of the week. He has now accepted alternative service, and is engaged on the Llyn-y-Fan water works. The camp, at which about 80 conscientious objectors are employed, is about a nine mile tramp from the nearest station, Llangadock.
Solomon was recalled to his unit on 21 January 1917. He must have ignored the summons as he was arrested again on 23 February 1917. At a court martial on 24 April 1917 at Kinmel Park Camp near Rhyl he was sentenced to 2 years’ hard labour.
Joseph, the youngest of the three brothers, was an academic high achiever who entered Cardiff University in October 1915 with a John Cory Scholarship worth £25 a year and a Glamorgan Exhibition worth £40 a year. He was arrested in Pontypridd with his brother Isaac on 2 May 1915. Llais Llafur reported on 6 May 2016:
Isaac Shephard (23) and Joseph Shephard (19), Pontypridd (late of Ystalyfera) were charged at Pontypridd on Tuesday with being absentees under the Military Service Act. Both pleaded not guilty and asked for a remand. Isaac said that he wanted to obtain legal advice, while the younger defendant stated that he held a four years’ scholarship at the University College, Cardiff, and wished to consult the Principal and the Registrar. They were each fined 40s. and ordered to await an escort.
After being held in Garrison Artillery Barracks in Dumfries Place in Cardiff, Joseph was transferred on 10 May 1916 to Kinmel Park Camp. From here, next day, he wrote a letter on behalf of himself and his brother, appealing for help, particularly with respect to the provision of kosher food.
My brother Isaac and I are being kept in the above hut owing to our conscientious objection to all forms – combatant and non-combatant – of military service. We are the sons of extremely orthodox Jewish parents. Our upbringing has always tended to uncompromising hostility to military service, and we intend, Sir, to be faithful to the Jewish atmosphere which we have always breathed.
After describing their arrest and sentencing in Pontypridd, the letter continues:
The armed escort […] took us to Castle Arcade Recruiting Office, Cardiff. Here in addition to the jeers and abuse that always assail the conscientious objector, we had sneers and threats of a very anti-semitic flavour. Despite all attempts at intimidation (threats to be shot, tortured etc.) we refused to sign anything or be medically examined.
During their nine days of incarceration in the Dumfries Place barracks:
[…] we had no complaints to make about our treatment or our food. We expected to suffer hardship and we must not complain whilst suffering it. At Cardiff our friends and relatives kept us well supplied with food, a hot kosher dinner being sent in every day. Here we don’t know what to do about dinner; we shall probably have to go without any unless arrangements can be made with the commanding officer […]
At a court martial in Kinmel Park on 25 May 1916, Joseph was sentenced him to 2 years’ hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs. Alongside his Jewish faith, he also emphasised ILP and NCF membership as his motivation for refusing military service.
The Merthyr Pioneer reported on 10 June 1916 that nine South Walians had been sent from Kinmel Park to Wormwood Scrubs on the same day.
Comrades Percy Pope, Albert Rudall, Arthur J. Hewinson, G. Reynolds, Dorian Herbert, J. H. Davies, Trevor C. Griffiths (all of Newport ILP and NCF Branches), Joseph Shepherd (Pontypridd), and W. T. Jones (Treforest) were on Friday removed from Kinmel Park to Wormwood Scrubbs (sic) to commence their period of two years’ hard labour for “disobeying in such a manner as to show wilful defiance of authority a lawful command given personally by his superior officer in the execution of his office.”
Joseph’s case was eventually reviewed by tribunal on 1 September 1916 and he was released to the Home Office Scheme, which in his case took the form of road mending at Clare in West Suffolk.
The Reluctant Soldiers
Meanwhile Tobias Shepherd’s older sons Moses and Barnet followed a rather different path in their attempts to avoid conscription. Both had been born in Russia, Moses/Moshe, also known as Moss, in 1877 and Barnet in 1884. They were not included in Tobias’ British citizenship application in 1904, so technically were ‘aliens’.
When conscription was introduced in 1916 the question arose of what to do with ‘friendly aliens’, especially Russian Jews of military age. It was first agreed that they would be allowed to join the British Army voluntarily; their failure to do so in any great numbers led to a decision in June 1916, finally implemented in summer 1917, to conscript them on the same terms as British citizens or offer them the chance to return to Russia and join the army there.
Barnet seems to have been first conscripted in 1917 and attempted an appeal on the grounds that he had people dependent on him who would not be able to maintain themselves if he were forced to enlist in the army. On 12 July 1917, the Amman Valley Chronicle and East Carmarthen News reported a second unsuccessful tribunal hearing.
A meeting of the Carmarthenshire Appeals Tribunal was held at Llandilo (sic) on Thursday… Barnet Shepherd, 24, College Street, Ammanford, came up for a re-hearing, supported by Mr. E. Harries, solicitor, Swansea, who said one of the grounds of application, that he was a Russian subject, would not be gone into, as it was laid down that had nothing to do with the Tribunal.
The Clerk said the applicant was 34 years of age, and Class A. The application was dismissed at the first hearing, and a re- hearing granted.’ He claimed in the first instance that he was not liable for military service, being a Russian subject; secondly, he had a wife and five children, the eldest being nine years old. He had been in his present business twelve years, and had a large stock worth £12,000, which would take a considerable time to dispose of… He was only left himself in the business, and it would be impossible for his wife, being ill, or anyone else to manage the business. […] He was practically the only glazier left in the district. He formerly employed five men, and all were in the Army except one. Three of them were glaziers, and he did the glazing now, besides carrying on the shop. His wife was in a delicate condition of health, and had been suffering for two or three years past. If he were called away his business would have to be closed down, and it would not be possible to re-build it after he came back from the Army. He claimed that this was a case within the decision of the Central Tribunal, being a one-man business, and it was a case of serious domestic hardship. […]
The appeal was dismissed, applicant not to be called up for a month.
Barnet did then join the army but at some point, probably after the end of the war, he deserted. On 21 February 1919 the Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser reported:
Bertha Shepherd, wife of Pte. Barnet Shepherd, formerly in business in College Street, Ammanford, was charged under D.O.R.A. (Defence of the Realm Act) with withholding information as to the whereabouts of her husband, who is a deserter from the forces; and further with being an alien she changed her residence without giving notice to the registration officer […] Inspector Davies gave evidence and stated that defendant was a Russian subject. Cross-examined he had nothing direct to prove that the wife’s statements were incorrect. Re-examined he understood from her that she was in touch with her husband. Mr. Griffith, addressing the Bench, said the husband was a Welsh-speaking Jew, while the defendant came from some part of Germany or Russia, and had no friends here, and was not conversant with British law. The Bench found the defendant guilty of a technical offence in changing her residence without notification, and she would be fined the costs, with half-a-guinea advocate’s fee. As regards withholding information there was not sufficient evidence to justify a fine.
Moses/Moshe/Moss Shepherd was also called up in 1917 and again tried to avoid military service, in his case (falsely) on grounds of age. On 20 April 1918, the Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder noted:
On 26 January of this year Alfred Moses Shepherd (sic), of Grove Place, Swansea, described as a Russian subject, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at Swansea Police Court for making a false declaration in order to evade military service. Shepherd appealed against this sentence, and the appeal came on for hearing before the Recorder at the Swansea Quarter Sessions on Thursday.
Mr. Marlay Samson […] for the respondents […] dealt with the various sections of the Military Service Act. When war broke out Shepherd registered as an alien (Russian), and later in 1917 a Proclamation was made by the King calling upon all Russians of military age to join the Colours. These men could either return to Russia for that purpose or remain in this country and join the British Army. Shepherd, on registering in 1914, had said he was born in January 1879, but on his form of appeal for exemption sent to the Tribunal he said he was 44. In view of that fact (the army) did not oppose the application, and the Tribunal decided that as he was 44 he was ineligible.
Enquiries were (later) instituted and proceedings were taken as the result of which Shepherd was convicted and sentenced. Evidence was then called. Mr. Llewelyn Williams submitted that when Shepherd stated his age to be 44, any doubt cast on that was a matter for a Court of Summary Jurisdiction to decide. The man had not been called before the Tribunal, and in any case the Tribunal could not decide the question of age. Shepherd adhered today to his statement that he was 44.
The Recorder upheld the conviction, but reduced the sentence from six months to one month.
After serving his sentence, Moses joined the army, serving latterly in the 9th Labour Battalion, which was formed in April 1918 from non-naturalised Russians domiciled in UK. By that stage, following the October Revolution, Russia was out of the war and considered to be an enemy power. As a result the Russians were kept segregated; probably for fear that they might spread the revolution to Great Britain, with the 9th Battalion being stationed at Fort Scoveston, near Neyland in Pembrokeshire.
Like his younger brother Barnet, Moses also deserted at the end of the war. On 4 January 1919 Llais Llafur reported:
At Swansea on Monday, Mrs Fanny Shepherd (35) of Grove Place, Swansea, was charged with withholding information in her possession which might reasonably be required to furnish particulars concerning Pte. Moses Alfred Shepherd, “he being a deserter from the Russian Labour Company at Fort Scoveston”, from Detective-Sergt. Gubb on 28 November. Defendant refused to inform Detective-Sergt. Gubb of the whereabouts of her husband, Pte. Moses A. Shepherd. Mr. Edward Harris, for the defence submitted that defendant did not know where her husband was, and that she only had a vague idea of the town in which he was staying. She had stated to the detective, when asked, that she would make inquiries. Pte. Shepherd was granted special Jewish leave in September last, and had never returned. A fine of 40/- was imposed.
Lily Tobias (née Shepherd) was Tobias Shepherd’s oldest daughter and his first child to be born in Wales. Lily was a committed socialist and began to write short pieces for the influential local socialist newspaper, Llais Llafur, in 1904 when she was in her late teens. She and her sister Kate (mother of the poet Dannie Abse) were both active supporters of the Independent Labour Party. With her husband Philip (they married in 1911) she was also very involved in the Jewish literary and debating society movement in South Wales.
As a political activist and a writer, Lily fought for female suffrage, the rights of working people and a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. She, like her younger brother Joseph in particular, held a strong socialist pacifist belief that the First World War was being fought for imperialist interests against the interests of the workers. Fenner Brockway, editor of the Labour Elector (the newspaper of the ILP) and co-founder of the No-Conscription Fellowship, knew her well. He remembered her in conversation with Leo Abse as “an active and belligerent pacifist… showing great resourcefulness and courage in defying the authorities and assisting draft dodgers, and those in prison”.
Lily’s second novel Eunice Fleet drew on her brothers’ experiences as conscientious objectors to draw a picture of a middle-aged businesswoman trying to live with the negative reactions of herself and others to her late husband’s stand as a conscientious objector in the First World War. First published in 1933, it was considered radical at the time, making the suffering of pacifists, rather than the suffering of soldiers, its central concern.
Details of the tribunals and sentences of the three younger Shepherd brothers are taken from the Conscientious Objector Register to be found at https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/
All newspaper sources quoted can be found in the National Library of Wales digitised database http://newspapers.library.wales/home
Information about Lily Tobias, as well as Joseph Shepherd’s letter to his family from May 1916, is taken from Jasmine Donahaye: The Greatest Need: the creative life and troubled times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine (Honno, Dinas Powys, 2015).