Men who refused to participate in the war effort on conscientious grounds – for example, because of pacifist beliefs – were known as conscientious objectors. In more recent decades, public opinion has grown more sympathetic to their position, but at the time, there was a strong view that their stance was a threat to the whole war effort, and deeply unfair to those who were doing their bit. Conscientious objectors met with widespread disapproval, and few people – including their employers – wanted to be associated with them.
In January 1916, for example, National Provincial Bank’s chairman told the bank’s AGM audience that of over 1,700 employees of military age, only 24 had not yet attested (that is, declared themselves willing) for military service. Those 24, he said, ‘either have good reason no doubt for not doing so, or possibly they may be conscientious objectors!’
Any clerks who from conscientious or other motives decline to serve their country as combatants shall be considered as having thereby severed their connection with the bank
Williams Deacon's Bank board resolution, 4 May 1916
Dismissive remarks of this kind were not the worst trial faced by conscientious objectors. Several banks made it a matter of policy to end their employment. Others were a little less severe. London County & Westminster Bank, for example, did not dismiss men at the time of their declaration of a conscientious objection, but did require them to resign when they were called away to work on the land as part of the terms of their exemption from combat. They were not entitled to the part-pay that staff on military service received, and were given no guarantee of reinstatement after the war, although the bank agreed that it would consider their cases when the time came.
A minority of conscientious objectors refused any kind of labour, including farm work and other non-combatant roles, that could be said to be supporting the war. In their cases, the bank was more rigid. Immediately upon refusing, they were expected to resign from the bank.
Manchester & County Bank also kept conscientious objectors on its staff until they were called away for other war service. In at least one case, the bank chose to view a man as being away on ‘military service’, even though he was serving with a civilian ambulance unit as part of the terms of his exemption. He was welcomed back to the bank after the war, and – for the bank’s part – nothing more was said about his having been a conscientious objector.