Pacifism is a belief that violence, even in self-defence, is unjustifiable under any conditions and that negotiation is preferable to war as a means of solving disputes. In the First World War pacifists did not join the rush of volunteers for the army in 1914, but the passing of the Military Service Act in January 1916 made every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one liable for military service. Pacifists refused to fight and became known as conscientious objectors. Many, like Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , worked as civilians on farms. About 7,000 were willing to work alongside soldiers in non-combat roles such as medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers , ambulance drivers, or road makers. These included Kingsley Martin , Stanley Spencer , E. M. Forster , and Christopher Nevinson .
Some pacifists, known as absolute conscientious objectors, rejected any involvement in the war. People who fell into this category included Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway , who formed the pressure group the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF). They were supported by men too old to be forced to join the army, such as Bertrand Russell and E. D. Morel.
The No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. By the end of the war, 16,000 appeared before Military Service Tribunals. Over 4,500 went sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 6,000 were handed over to the army, and then sentenced to severe penalties for disobeying orders. These included 35 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), and many others who spent up to three years in prison on repeated sentences. Conditions were very hard for conscientious objectors, and ten of them died in prison; more than sixty died afterwards as a result of the way they had been treated. A plaque to commemorate them hangs in the offices of the pacifist organisation the Peace Pledge Union.
In April 1939 Neville Chamberlain announced a return to conscription. However, lessons had been learned from the First World War. Conscientious Objection Tribunals were set up to deal with claims for exemption, but this time there were no military representatives acting as prosecutors. Most importantly, the Tribunals were willing to grant absolute exemption. Over the next six years a total of 59,192 people in Britain registered as Conscientious Objectors (COs).
In 1940, with the British government expecting a German invasion at any time, public opinion turned against Conscientious Objectors. Over 70 local councils dismissed COs who were working for them. In some places of employment workers refused to work alongside COs. In other cases, employers sacked all those registered as pacifists.
During the Vietnam War the United States re-introduced conscription, as in the two World Wars, and between 1963 and 1973 over 9,000 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the US Army. Some young men burnt their draft cards in public, while others left the country rather than fight in the war.