Since declaring its commitment to peace in 1660, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has opposed all wars. World War I was no different and many Quakers resisted the call to arms.

Some volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit or the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, providing relief from suffering at the front. Others assisted those at home and campaigned for peaceful resolutions.

Quakers resisted the introduction of conscription in 1916 and many chose to register as conscientious objectors. A small but substantial number of young Quaker men did choose to join the armed forces, feeling this was the quickest way to end the war.

Quaker work during WWI


    The Testimony 1916

    A fictional newspaper inspired by Quaker activities during WWI. Using archive and original material to explore Quaker work for peace in 1916 and work for peace today.

    Humanitarian relief

    Quakers provided humanitarian relief for civilians affected by war. The Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) carried out this important work.

    In France the FWVRC helped with construction, medical aid and agriculture. Relief workers built homes to meet the urgent needs of those in the war zone. In the city of Verdun and the departments of Meuse and Aisne they built 1,300 houses, providing homes for 4,500 people. The Committee also ran hospitals at Sermaize, Bettancourt and Samoëns. They provided dental, optical and maternity care, and set up a district nursing scheme.

    Quakers also undertook relief work in Austria (1914–25), Hungary (1919–23), Russia (1915–19), Poland (1914–26), Serbia (1912–21), Germany (1914–25), Belgium and the Netherlands (1914–21).

    FWVRC's work in post-war Russia during the famine of 1921–22 meant that thousands of peasants received at least one daily ration of food.

    Caring for the wounded

    The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was a civilian volunteer ambulance service set up by a group of Quakers in 1914. It worked under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

    The FAU carried out work in Britain and abroad. The Foreign Service Section carried out relief work in allied occupied Belgium. They supported wounded men from the active French divisions in the regions of Champagne and Argonne.

    The Home Service Section dealt with applicants to the unit, organised supplies to mainland Europe, and sent staff to hospitals in England. After the introduction of conscription in 1916, they helped to organise alternative work for conscientious objectors.

    Assisting enemy aliens

    The Friends Emergency Committee (FEC) was set up in the early days of the war. It supported long-stay British residents of German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish nationality.

    On 5 August 1914 the Aliens Restrictions Act came into force. It required foreign nationals to register with the police and stay within five miles of their homes. These restrictions increased over the course of the war. In 1915 the government issued an order to arrest and intern all male 'enemy aliens' of military age and repatriate all men over 55. This left many of their families destitute.

    The FEC provided assistance; finding homes for stranded people, helping people find work and supporting those held in internment camps. Find out more about the work of the FEC.

    Conscientious objection


    War, in our view, involves the surrender of the Christian ideal and the denial of human brotherhood. ...We regard the central conception of the [Military Service] Act as imperilling the liberty of the individual conscience – which is the main hope of human progress...

    - From a minute of London Yearly Meeting 1916, Quaker faith & practice 23.92


    The Military Service Act 1916 introduced conscription in Britain. Conscription required unmarried men of working age to join the armed forces. The Act included a 'conscience clause', providing exemption for those with a conscientious objection to combatant service. Quakers believe there is 'that of God in everyone' and therefore it is wrong to take a life. This led them to campaign against conscription. When it became clear that conscription would be introduced, Quakers were amongst those to lobby the government to include a 'conscience clause'. Arnold Rowntree, John E. Barlow, and T. Edmund Harvey were three Quaker MPs who were involved in drafting the clause.

    Conscientious objectors (COs) had different reasons for objecting to military service. These included religious belief, political ideology, and moral or humanist principles. Local tribunals assessed those claiming an exemption.

    At the tribunals COs were questioned on the sincerity of their beliefs. Tribunals had the power to grant absolute or conditional exemption but COs were frequently rejected. COs who were denied exemption were considered soldiers absent without leave and expected to report for duty. Those continuing to refuse military orders were often sent to prison.

    In 1918 the Representation of the People Act – which extended the right to vote to men over 21 and introduced votes for women for the first time – banned certain conscientious objectors from voting or standing for election for five years.

    Alternativists and absolutists


    Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God's purposes. If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply.

    - Advices & queries 35


    Alternativists were conscientious objectors who felt that accepting alternative work did not compromise their belief that killing others is wrong. Some joined the military as part of the Non-Combatant Corps or the Royal Army Medical Corps. Others took on work such as farming or road building.

    Absolutists were COs who rejected any war-related work and refused to obey military orders. They believed that any work that directly or indirectly supported the war effort contributed to a continuation of war. They were sent to prison and often held in solitary confinement. Some were sent to the front where they received 'field punishments' and were sentenced to death for refusing to obey orders. These sentences were commuted to hard labour and they were imprisoned in camps until 1919.

    Alternativists are often contrasted with absolutists. However, the difference was probably on a spectrum rather than a case of two distinct groups. Many conscientious objectors changed their position, in one direction or the other, during the war.

    Campaigning for peace

    Quakers were actively involved in campaigning for peace before, during and after the war. Work included campaigning against the militarism that lead to the war, challenging the introduction of conscription, supporting conscientious objectors in prison, and resisting censorship laws by publishing without submission to the censor.

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