A group of conscientious objectors pose in a show of unity during the First World War.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, thoughts are, naturally, turning to the millions of people who fell in the mud and slime of Flanders, their lives laid down heroically to preserve the country which meant everything to them.

But what about those heroes who didn't go to war? How will we remember those who channeled their bravery and convictions into opposing the conflict which was sucking in so many around them? For decades the conscientious objectors were a dirty secret of the First World War, yet now, perhaps, their story can be told.

It's arguable that, in Britain during the First World War, it took more courage to stay at home than go off and fight. The jingoistic bally-hoo of the early days saw millions of young people flock to the recruiting halls, lured by the promise of glory and adventure. Those that strayed from the flock were forced to look at guilt-tripping recruiting posters everywhere they went, and taunted with white feathers by women in the street.

Conscription was introduced by act of parliament in early 1916, as the war's dreadful toll began to eat into Britain's manpower. A group called the No Conscription Fellowship had managed to wedge a "conscience clause" into the act, allowing those with a valid claim for exemption to avoid the draft. However, these claims had to be proved before a tribunal, whose membership was chosen by the local council. The tribunals were invariably, inevitably dominated by patriotic zealots who held little truck with those who thought differently.

Those who could not convince the tribunals were forced to go to the front, or, alternatively, take up an occupation which abetted the war effort, such as driving ambulances or working in essential industries. However, thousands refused, as renowned First World War historian Adam Hoschchild, who has written extensively about the conflict's conscientious objectors, explains:

"The movement against the war as more widespread in Britain than in any other country. More than 20,000 men of military age refused to go to war when conscription began in spring 1916, and many of them refused the alternative [occupations]. Up to 6,000 men went to prison."

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell, the heartbeat of the conscientious objector movement.

Furthermore, in the chaotic early days of conscription, those who wished to state their opposition to the war were sometimes denied a hearing altogether.

Rothschild continues: "When they first started conscripting people in Britain, the government hadn't sorted out how it was going to deal with people who weren't going to accept conscientious objector status, and the first batch of such people, 49 in all, were actually forcibly conscripted.

"They were shifted across the channel in France, and told they were now in a war zone. They were told they'd be shot. Yet none of them gave in. They smuggled a message to their supporters in England, telling them what had happened, and [the left-wing writer and activist] Bertrand Russell led a delegation to parliament, which brought the men home."

What sort of men decided to object, when faced with prison or arbitrary deportation to France? Well, they spanned all walks of life. A list provided by The Guardian earlier this year revealed that Britain's battalion of conscientious objectors included electricians, carpenters, farmers, painters and illustrators.

Yet there were a number of high-profile figures among them. As well as Russell, the anti-war roll call includes Albert Samuel Inkpin, the leader of the British Socialist Party, and Edmund Morrell, a journalist who had exposed the Belgian King Leopold's atrocities in the Congo during the pre-war carve up of Africa.

Hochschild says: "They were a remarkable group of people, because they stuck to their principles at a time when the air all around them was filled with super-patriotic oratory, a time when peace rallies were broken up by the police or mobs hurling rocks and rotten eggs. It took courage to speak out against the war; there's nothing harder than going against the grain, rejecting an idea when everyone else is saying it.

"A great many of them were Quakers, and they lived in families who honoured and supported them. It was a lot harder for people who lived in areas where everyone had gone off to war, but you still find cases where people respected each other.

"One of the people I wrote about, the author Stephen Hobhouse, who was himself a Quaker and an author, went to prison as a conscientious objector. He had two brothers in uniform at the front, one of whom was killed, but before he was killed he sent greetings to his brother in prison, wishing him well."

Preserving hope through the printed press

Hobhouse and his fellow objectors faced prison conditions which were harsh and demeaning even by the standards of an early 20th century British lock-up. Hochschild continues: "They were usually kept separate because it was feared they would infect murderers, thieves etc with their subversive ideas. Conditions were very harsh because of the wartime shortage, in particular shortages of coal, and in winter time prisons were the last to receive it, so the prisons were freezing cold.

"But they kept their spirits up. There were eight or nine clandestine prison newspapers in the UK, hand-written and posted somewhere like toilets and showers. The most famous of them was edited by Fenner Brockway, who had been a newspaper editor before the war. He went to prison, where he published a clandestine newspaper for his fellow objectors, and he did this for a full year before he was discovered and placed in solitary confinement."

No-one was ever killed for being a conscientious objector in Britain, largely because the government, by including an exemption clause in the Conscription Act, had encouraged the population to believe that being anti-war was, in some way, acceptable. Yet public hostility ran high; some were pelted with tomatoes in the street, and one Scottish objector was even burned in effigy in his hometown.

Furthermore, a number of objectors were subjected to ludicrous and hugely traumatic witch hunts. The most famous case centered on a woman from Derby called Alice Wheeldon. According to Hochschild, "the government was angry at her and her family because they'd been harbouring men on the run from conscription.

"They cooked up a completely sham case against her that she'd tried to poison the prime minister [using a shipment of curare imported from South America]. She, her daughter and her son-in-law were all sent to prison."

Forgotten, but not forgiven

Attitudes finally softened after the war, as the British public realised the true horror of the conflict and began to criticise the generals for sending so many men to their deaths. A total of eight objectors were later elected to parliament, the most famous being Morrell, who stood as a Labour MP in 1922. He managed to unseat Winston Churchill, who had been one of the war's central protagonists and fiercest proponents. Six years after emerging from prison, Morrell was appointed Labour's chief spokesmen on foreign affairs.

Yet, 100 years on, the vast majority of those imprisoned as conscientious objectors have yet to be formally forgiven. Although a campaign to grant an official pardon to Wheeldon is now in progress, the vast majority of cases, it seems, have been forgotten, gladly swept under the carpet by the British authorities.

Hochschild hopes the centenary commemorations will finally correct this glaring oversight.

"There'll be a lot of 100th anniversaries in the months to come, and perhaps we need to look for acts of defiance of this sort [the act of conscientious objection] and honour those anniversaries too. There's been a small start in this direction with the ceremonies for the Christmas Truce – there's a commemorative soccer game that's going to be played at Ypres.

"The conscientious objectors were treated with scorn they didn't deserve. I see them as brave people who, at the time, saw the war with the same perspective that most people see it with today – a catastrophe which remade the world for the worst in every conceivable way.

"Relatively few people today would say the First World War was worth it. These were people who were saying it at the time, and they should be honoured for it."