We HAVE extensively covered the Great War in many of our articles, highlighting Oswestry’s contribution to the nation and some of the people who did their bit for their town and for their country, from soldiers to those who remained at home.
But today, we look at the story of another side to this war – one of those whose beliefs and faith were at odds with the fighting – known to everyone as a “conscientious objector”.
Henry Alty was a Primitive Methodist, who refused the conscription call-up in 1916 on religious grounds. As a result, he received persecution and was treated as a criminal. This is his story.
Alty was born on November 8, 1879, in Pilling near Garstang, Lancashire; his mother died shortly afterwards.
Living with his father and sisters, Alty worked for an undertakers firm around the start of the war.
Alty was finally received his conscription papers in 1916, to join the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment on the 4th of September, but but refused the call up, like many, on religious grounds. Alty was given a one-month exemption at the request of his employers.
By 1917, Alty had transferred to Class W (T) of the Territorial Force [now Army Reserve] when the government had changed its policy towards conscientious objectors.
The court martial was held at Park Hall Camp on October 6; his imprisonment at the camp was described by the National Database of Conscientious Objectors as so brutal, it was even subject to debate in the House of Commons.
One of his harsh and humiliating punishments included: “being tied from shoulder to shoulder with a rope and then on to a barrow handle; whether he was aware that he was then dragged along by men on either side while another forced his head back and he was prodded from behind with a sharp instrument until he collapsed on the floor, and that he was then dragged some considerable distance and afterwards thrown on top of the barrow”.
Naturally, the Secretary of State for War, Hugh Arnold Forster, attempted to sweep it under the carpet by claiming “The facts are not as stated”, while stating Alty and another conscientious objector, a Private Robinson, were only being held on remand; this was not so. Upon alleged visits by the commanding officer, both were supposed to have denied any complaints or issues arising.
After the court martial, Alty was sentenced to 91 days’ hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs, where conditions for him included not just strict punishment periods but “starvation and hardship” caused by an apparent reduction his rations, as was a common occurrence with how conscientious objectors were treated by the authorities.
Alty would later be transferred to Class W (T) and so become an Army Reservist. In doing so, Alty would be suitable to undertake “alternative work” pursuant to the rules of the Brace Committee.
Alty was moved to a work centre in Wakefield, which was less of a prison and more like a workhouse – no punishment, no locks, no prison officers in uniform. An example of the work given to inmates included sewing mailbags.
He was then sent to work at an oil factory in Liverpool, followed by another work placement in Morpeth, Northumberland.
Alty’s case notes are now located in the Library of the Religious Society of Friends.
Despite returning home to Pilling after the war, settling down, marrying and raising two sons, the trauma of Alty’s treatment from the state lived with him for the rest of his life.
He never discussed his treatment in person, but he developed an aversion for uniforms, to the extent his son was strictly forbidden from wearing his Cub Scout uniform in his presence.
Incidentally, he reared bantams but couldn’t bring himself to slaughter them.
Alty died on May 7, 1959.
n Don’t miss our 16-page First World War supplement starting on page 37.