Charlesworth, Alfred (b 1895)
'Absolutist' from Oldham
Alfred was 20 when he was called up in 1916. He was the son of William and Annie Charlesworth, and lived with his family at 248 Copster Hill Road, Oldham, two doors away from his cousins, the Parker brothers, whose mother Maria was William’s sister. William Charlesworth worked as a Cotton Spinner, and by the age of 15, Alfred was working in the Cotton Mill as a ‘Piecer’.
Like his cousins, Alfred went to the Copster Hill Primitive Methodist Chapel, and it may have been through the influence of the Sunday School that he decided he had to stand for peace. Following the introduction of compulsory conscription, Alfred received his calling up papers, and decided instead to declare that he had a conscientious objection to the war.
On 8 March 1916, Alfred applied for a certificate of exemption, which he was entitled to do under the ‘conscience clause’ that had been inserted in the Military Services Act.
This meant appearing before a Tribunal at Oldham Town Hall, made up of local worthies, often the Mayor, and a member of the military services. Tribunals often tried to show that the applicant’s objection was based on cowardice, but Alfred convinced the Tribunal that his objection to fighting on the grounds of conscience was genuine. He was given a certificate of exemption from combatant service, but ordered to join the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC).
Absent without leave
When he failed to report for military service, Alfred was arrested, and charged with being ‘absent without leave until apprehended’.
On 18 April 1916, he was fined 40 shillings at Aston under Lyne Magistrates Court, and then handed over to the Army. He was to be held in detention, awaiting transfer to the No. 803, 1-4 Western Company, Non-Combatant Corps.
On 26 April 1916, Alfred was taken under military escort to the army training camp at Kinmel Park, in North Wales. However, as an ‘absolutist’, Alfred took the view not just that it was wrong to kill, but it was also wrong to obey military orders, as that meant supporting the war. He refused to join the armed forces, even as a non-combatant, because it meant supporting the war. It also meant that he would be subject to military authority, and Alfred may have shared the view of another absolutist, Victor Murray, that as a Christian he was called to ‘obey Christ, not Caesar’.
Absolutists were often known as ‘the blanket brigade’, because in an attempt to force them to put on an army uniform, their own clothes were taken away, and they were given just a rough blanket to cover themselves. Extreme measures were sometimes given to force men to put on a uniform, exposing them to cold and wet conditions in an attempt to force them to obey military orders. So when Alfred was ordered to put on an army uniform, he refused.
His disobedience led to a court martial, on 5 May 1916. This gives us a glimpse of the drama that unfolded when Alfred was escorted off the train at Abergele Station, and refused to put on his cap or pick up his kit bag.
1st witness for prosecution, Lance Corporal R N Bradshaw: ‘at 4.00 pm, on 26th April 1916, I attended … at Abergele railway station to meet two recruits, one of whom was the accused. I took charge of the accused from a corporal of the Manchester regiment, and the accused was then carrying his coat, cap and kit. He put down his coat, cap and kit, and refused to carry them when ordered by me to do so. I ordered him twice to carry the articles, but he refused, saying ‘I refuse to carry these things. I am testifying that I have a conscientious objection.’ I then brought him up to No. 19 Camp, and reported the matter to Company Sergeant Major Glass. The articles of kit, coat and cap were left at Abergele station. The refusal of the accused to obey orders caused a crowd to assemble at Abergele station.’
Cross-examined by the accused: ‘How large was the crowd which assembled at Abergele station?’ ‘Between 10 and 20 persons.’
2nd witness for prosecution, Company Sergeant Major W Glass: at 5.00 pm on 26th April, ‘when Lance Corporal Bradshaw returned with the accused, he reported to me that the accused had refused to carry his coat, kit, or cap. I saw the accused leaning against the verandah of the guard room at No. 19 camp, and I ordered him to stand up. He refused, saying ‘I obey no military orders.’ I then confined him to the guard room.
Policy of Passive Resistance
At 12.30 on 28th April, Alfred was brought before the Commandant, who read out to him the section of the Army Act relating to disobedience to a superior officer, and asked him if he proposed to obey orders. He replied ‘I am still going to disobey orders’.
One has a certain sympathy for the commanding officer, who had to make an example of Alfred if he was to keep control of the large number of conscripts in the camp at Kinmel Park, many of whom were conscientious objectors, who had agreed to serve as non-combatants.
As the prosecution statement stated,‘The accused is apparently a man who objects on conscientious grounds to any form of Military Service… on arrival at Abergele Station on 26th April 1916 he declined when ordered by the … Officer who met him to carry his Kit and on the same day at No. 19 Camp Kinmel Park refused to obey any Military Order. Apparently this conduct is in pursuance of Policy of Passive Resistant to Military authority. In view of the fact that a considerable number of men of the Non-Combatant Corps are quartered at No. 19 Camp, it would appear that an important and far reaching question of Military Discipline is involved.’
As a result, Alfred was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. The punishment was designed to be so severe that it would act as a deterrent to others.
Wormwood Scrubs Prison
On 16 May 1916 Alfred was sent to Wormwood Scrubs to begin his sentence. Hard labour was just that. For some men this meant sewing mail bags. Conscientious objectors like Alfred were treated as criminals. Alfred had been used to working with his hands so was probably better prepared than some. Professional men often found their hands were cut to pieces by the physical labour, when they had only been used to holding a pen.
Unexpectedly, on 4 June 1916, his sentence was reduced to 112 days imprisonment with hard labour. The reason for this was probably the fact that the government could not cope with the number of conscientious objectors who were by now filling the prisons. No preparations had been made for this eventuality, and the system could not cope.
Under the direction of the Brace Committee, the Home Office set up work camps to provide work for conscientious objectors, and free up the prisons. For most COs this meant being transferred from Wormwood Scrubs to work camps on Dartmoor, or at Dyce near Aberdeen. At both these camps COs died as a result of the harsh living and working conditions, and medical neglect.
In Alfred’s case the system seems to have been so overloaded that he was released from Wormwood Scrubs on 11 August 1916, and unnoticed by the authorities, he went home to Oldham.
Eventually the authorities caught up with him, but not before he had gone under the radar for nearly two years. On 13 May 1918 Alfred was arrested and tried at Oldham Police Court for being absent without leave. He was fined 40 shillings, and handed over to the military authorities.
He was taken initially to Prees Heath Army Training Camp. Where he faced a second court martial on 31 May 1918. He was again sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour, and taken back to start his sentence at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
On 9 July 1918 he was transferred to Dartmoor Prison, which had been set up as a work camp for Conscientious Objectors under the Home Office scheme.
Although peace was declared on 11 November 1918, Alfred was to serve almost the whole of his two year sentence, not being released from Dartmoor until 17 April 1920.
Cost of Commitment
What sort of a reception did Alfred get when he finally returned home? For many COs it was the start of another sentence, which lasted their whole lives. They were denied the vote, refused employment, and rejected by many former friends and family. This was the cost they had to pay for having the courage to follow their convictions.
Alfred and others like him paved the way for the conscientious objectors of the Second World War. Never again would they be treated as criminals, but given the respect they deserved.
In the face of the savagery and waste of lives cut short, after the First World War many who had supported it changed their minds about war, and vowed ‘never again’. In today’s world, questions about peace and war are ever more relevant. What would we do if we were faced with the dilemma Alfred faced?
I am grateful to Jean Reinhardt for telling me about Alfred, who was her grandfather’s cousin. Details of what happened to Alfred have been taken from his British Army WW1 Service records, and the Pearce Register of British WW1 Conscientious Objectors.