‘Structures, Experiences and Discourses’: The Middlesex Military Service Tribunals and their Appellants, 1916-1918.
The Military Service Tribunals were established following the First Military Service Act of January 1916 to consider applications for exemption from military service by men eligible for conscription. Conscription was not unprecedented in British history, but there was no tradition of military impressment en masse. The creation of tribunals was therefore a liberal semi-democratic society’s attempt at preserving yet prescribing the boundaries of individual liberties and conscience within the context of a deepening military crisis and the consequent extension and centralisation of state power. The tribunals were vehemently criticised by contemporaries for being incompetent and tyrannical with appellants, particularly those who sought exemption because of conscience. Early commentaries which emerged after the War and more recent histories have disseminated this view. A revisionist case has been made by other historians who draw attention to mitigating factors such as ambiguous legislation and the enormous caseloads with which the tribunals struggled. The traditional view is found not only within academic studies of the tribunals, but is exclusively the view of popular histories and the Media. Studies of the tribunals at national and local level exist and aspects of the history of the Middlesex Tribunals feature in Rae’s study of conscientious objectors (henceforth known as C.O. and C.Os.) and McDermott’s national study of the tribunals. However, no specialist study of Middlesex exists whose Appeal Tribunal’s documents fortuitously were preserved for future reference by the Ministry of Health. It is the purpose of this thesis to contribute originally to the study of the history of the tribunals through a specialised study of the Middlesex tribunal system in order to determine whether it deserves the traditional reputation of the tribunals, or whether a revisionist case can be made. The task of chapter two is to assess how efficient the Middlesex tribunal system was by examining how they were established and what their procedures were. Chapter three will explore to what degree Middlesex appellants found the tribunal system to be hostile by exploring their subjective experiences of making an application or an appeal. A neglected aspect of the experience of objection is the experiences of the tribunalists themselves and this will be the focus of the latter part of chapter three. The application for exemption was made in writing and the hearings were dialogues between tribunalists and appellants. The discourses of exemption are therefore central to the history of the tribunals. Public and tribunal discourses are infamous for their condemnation of conscientious objectors. Chapter four will assess to what extent the public language of Middlesex and the tribunalists’ language was condemnatory. This chapter will also conduct an inquiry into the content of C.Os.’ written applications as no extensive investigation of the language of conscientious objectors exists. Finally, this thesis will evaluate the opinion that Tribunalists generally were myrmidons of the War Office by examining the politics and work of Herbert Nield, the Chairman of the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal.
- PhD