Conscience and the Draft

The United Kingdom recognized the right of men not to fight in the 18th century following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. 

A more general right to refuse military service was not introduced until during World War I, when Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act of March 1916. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army, according to the extent to which they could convince a Military Service Tribunal of the quality of their objection.

Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors, with Quakers, traditionally pacifist, playing a large role: 4500 objectors were sent to do 'work of national importance' such as farming, 7000 were ordered non-combatant duties, but 6000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison. When the well-known pacifist and religious writer Stephen Henry Hobhouse was drafted in 1916, he and many other Quaker activists took the unconditionalist stand, refusing both military and alternative service—and these men too were sent to prison. Cases regarding conscientious objectors formed only a tiny proportion of Military Service Tribunals' cases, estimated at 2%; in the first six months of following the Military Service Act, tribunals heard 750,000 cases, of which 16,000 (the total number of conscience cases for 1916–18) is 2.13%. Tribunals were notoriously harsh towards conscientious objectors, reflecting widespread public opinion that they were lazy, degenerate, ungrateful 'shirkers' seeking to benefit from the sacrifices of others.

Across the page we set out the story of one such "shirker" - Charles Bayliss Abbatt. Each month we will present a different story. 

Charles Bayliss Abbatt

Charles Bayliss Abbatt, (known as Bayliss) was a bank clerk and cricketer from Bromley Cross, who risked his life saving wounded soldiers in World War One. He was 20 years old and had been working on the hospital ship Glenart Castle for only one month, when the ship was torpedoed at 11.40pm on 1 March 1917 off the Isle of Wight. No one was killed but the damage caused an increasing list to starboard. Within an hour all 300 patients and most of the staff had been evacuated. Bayliss helped the wounded men off the ship and then climbed down a rope ladder to safety. Glenart Castle limped into Southampton but was too badly damaged to serve again.

What is remarkable about this story is that Bayliss was a Conscientious Objector, or ‘C.O.’ with the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and the 461 bed hospital ship he served on, Glenart Castle (previously SS Galician of 6,770 tons), was one of two ships paid for and run by the FAU, a body set up and run by Quakers in 1914 as a practical way of relieving the suffering of war without breaking their 250 year old testimony to the evil of taking human life.

From 10 August 1916 the Glenart Castle entered FAU service with the following staff: 6 doctors, 2 chaplains, 1 RAMC sergeant-major, 13 nurses and 40 orderlies. Initially in the Mediterranean, on one occasion rescuing crew from the torpedoed SS Welsh Prince, the ship then worked on the cross channel ambulance service. The casualties were attended to on board and the more seriously wounded were returned to hospitals in Britain. From early 1917 the Government took steps to protect vulnerable hospital ships, which were removed from Red Cross control, given armed escorts and expected to carry troops and munitions as well as patients. In these circumstances FAU reluctantly withdrew its staff, who left their remaining hospital ship ‘Western Australia’ in May 1917. The FAU also ran field hospitals on the Western front and its own ambulance trains.

It was on one such train, FAU Ambulance Train No.17, that Bayliss then worked, busily collecting the wounded from near the front. Some of the casualties died on the train. Bayliss would sometimes have to work 24 hour shifts and he got used to missing whole night’s sleep. At this time he regretted that he had not trained as a surgeon, which would have enabled him to help the wounded more.

Charles Bayliss Abbatt was born in Bolton on 26 March 1896 His parents Edward and Lily were members of Bolton Quaker meeting and Bayliss went to the Quaker school at Ackworth in Yorkshire. Before the war, Bayliss worked at the District Bank in Bolton from 1911 to 1916 and was living with his parents at 580 Darwen Rd, Bromley Cross. When forced military conscription was introduced in early 1916 Bayliss refused to fight due to his commitment to the Quaker Peace Testimony.

At Bolton Military Service Tribunal in March 1916 he was granted Absolute Exemption as a Conscientious Objector, but this was revised on 11 January 1917 to ‘Exempted from Combat Service’ on condition that he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, which he did the same month.

At least 92 young men from Bolton and District took a similar stand against the war, 24 of them were Quakers or influenced by Quakers, with 13 of these men working for the Friends Ambulance Unit in France or in non-military work of national importance at home. 26 other COs were Methodists,  Anglicans , Congregationalist or from other Christian denominations and 10 were Socialists.

During the war, Bayliss’s brother George worked as an engineer on a merchant ship and continued doing this after the war, before moving to the firm of Hick Hargreaves in Bolton, where he later worked in the drawing room. Their eldest brother Edward ‘Ted’ emigrated to Canada at an early age.

After being demobilised from the Ambulance Unit in February 1919, Bayliss returned to the District Bank initially, before joining the family business - Abbatt’s Cane and Willow Merchants and Manufacturers at Bridgeman Street, Bolton. Among their products were baskets, skips and cricket bat handles.

Bayliss and his wife Phyllis (1902 – 2005), from a Quaker family at Colwyn Bay, were very active with Bolton Quaker Meeting for many years. In 1938, they gave a home for 8 months to Rosa and Mariel Telcher, refugees from Austria after the Nazis came to power. They also provided a temporary home for the wife and son of a London trolley bus driver evacuated during World War Two.

Bayliss used his financial ability as treasurer for the Lancashire and Cheshire Quaker Quarterly Meeting and for Egerton Cricket Club. He was not a strong cricketer but was a keen cyclist and a walker, who loved the Lake District. After suffering from Motor Neurone Disease, Bayliss died in 1979. He was a much loved and honoured member of Bolton Quaker meeting.

Bayliss’s son Michael was also a Conscientious Objector against National Service, after World War Two and was exempted conditional to serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. He undertook a variety of work for them from March 1947 to August 1949, including road making in France and driving a tractor on a Sussex farm. After leaving the FAU in August 1949, Michael worked for the family firm and later for Metal Box at Westhoughton. He is still living in Bolton.