What might a 19 year old pacifist think and feel under the threat of imminent military conscription? The papers of Harold Wild (1896-1979), recently received by the Library (MSS Acc. 11791), give us an insight into one young man’s experience.
Harold Wild attended the Rusholme Wesleyan Methodist Church, Manchester. He objected to military service on religious grounds, believing, after reading the Bible from cover to cover, that it was against God’s will to fight and that war was contrary to the teachings of Jesus. But there was opposition from some members of his congregation, and Harold began worshipping with Quakers, joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and attended meetings of the No-Conscription Fellowship.
His diary entry for 12 January 1916 expresses his determination not to fight or support the war in any way:
I came to the conclusion now that instead of doing as I started – revising all my matric. subjects with the hope of starting definite study again, at the end of March I must face conscription. The Government Bill is apparently going to swim through the House and I must be true to my conscience. I am determined to be imprisoned or shot before I will take up Munition Work or Mine Sweeping or any work distinctly Military under the Military Authorities. Meanwhile I study, German, French, Latin, History and Literature.
Under the Military Service Act, on 26 February 1916 Harold was called up for service in the army and told to present himself at Manchester Town Hall. He ignored the papers. On 11 May he was brought before the Appeals Court which granted him exemption from military service on health grounds, but not from non-combatant service. This he could not accept: he wanted total exemption from military service on grounds of conscience, and he was determined to say his piece, despite interruptions from the impatient Appeals Court Chairman. Asked what he was prepared to do for his country, he told the court he would continue to distribute peace literature. Clearly there was no sympathy lost between this young pacifist and his audience:
In leaving my chair I protested to the Chairman that non-combatant work was of no use to me, they might as well order me to combatant service. He replied something about the cocksureness of boys of 20.
The following month Harold was caught up in a police raid on the No-Conscription Fellowship premises at 41 Oxford Street, Manchester. He and four others were arrested and taken to Ashton Barracks where they were detained and charged with being absentees from the army, before finally being released three days later.
Towards the end of his life, Harold wrote to his daughter, Dorothy Spence (17 November 1974):
Looking back over the years I do not feel that I could have taken any other stand than I did, involving one night in the Town Hall’s Police Cells, a ride in the ‘Black Maria’ to Minshull St. Police Station & a night in the ‘Guard-room’ of Ashton Barracks, followed by an interview before the Officer in charge (without any clothing on me).
Besides a transcript of Harold Wild’s diary (March 1915–April 1919) by his daughter Dorothy Spence (also available online as part of the Echoes of the Great War project) the collection includes four albums of newspaper cuttings compiled between November 1915 and September 1917. These albums provide gripping documentation of the opposition to the War on the home front, with press reports on conscription, conscientious objection, erosion of civil liberties and censorship.
The papers of Harold Wild are a welcome addition to the Library’s existing holdings of First World War conscientious objection materials, which include diaries, official records and photographs. See our library guide Conscientious objectors and the peace movement in Britain 1914–1945 for further details.