Parliament debates the fate of conscientious objectors
News of the death sentences against conscientious objectors quickly found its way back to Britain. Peace campaigners seemed to know of it before many members of the government. Harold Tennant, Under-Secretary of State for War, had told Parliament that no COs had been sent to France, before making an embarrassed climb-down and admitting what had happened. This exchange took place in the House of Commons on 26 June 1916.
Harold Tennant (Under-Secretary for War) It is the case that courts-martial held in France have, in the exercise of their judicial functions, sentenced certain men professing conscientious objections to death for offences punishable by death under the Army Act. In all these cases—thirty-four in number—I am informed the sentence has been commuted to penal servitude by the Commander-in-Chief in France.
In accordance with Sections 61 and 62 of the Army Act, prisoners sentenced to penal servitude must undergo their sentence in the United Kingdom in a civil prison, and this statutory provision will, of course, be given effect. In reply to Question 103, I would state that no companies of the Non-Combatant Corps are to be sent to France this week. On the matter generally, I may inform those honourable members who are interested that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister hopes to make a statement on this subject to-morrow.
Philip Morrell (Liberal) May I, in the first place, ask whether the Prime Minister's statement will be made in such a form as to allow of debate afterwards?
Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister, Liberal) I cannot say that, but opportunity will doubtless be given in debate afterwards.
Philip Morrell May I ask, further, whether all the conscientious objectors who have been sent to France, and are and have been disobeying orders on conscientious grounds since they have been in France, will now be immediately recalled to this country?
Herbert Asquith No, Sir, I can not give such a pledge.
Robert Outhwaite (Independent Liberal) How can the right honourable gentleman account for the fact that he has again and again misled the House as to the condition—[HONOURABLE MEMBERS: "Order, order!"]—yes—
Mr Speaker The honourable member can hardly expect a reply if he puts his question in that form.
Joseph King (Liberal) Are we to understand that thirty-four men have been sentenced to be shot, and that all of these have had their sentences commuted to penal servitude for ten years, or some other period?
Harold Tennant The reply to the first part of the honourable member's question is in the affirmative – that is to say, that all the sentences have been commuted. Whether or not they have all been commuted for ten years I do not know, but the first lot, at any rate, have been.
Philip Snowden (Labour) If these cases have been commuted to penal servitude or imprisonment, as I understand they have, why are these men not to come back to England at once and put into a civil prison?
Harold Tennant If my honourable friend had listened to my answer –
Philip Snowden I did listen to it.
Harold Tennant He would have understood that they have been.
Colonel Griffiths (Conservative) If these thirty-four men are sentenced to death for disobeying the orders of their superior officers, why are they not shot like other soldiers?
Source: Hansard, 26 June 1916.
Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.
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