Commissioned Officers… or Conscientious Objectors?

A First World War era photograph from our collections has thrown up an intriguing question… is this a group photograph of conscientious objectors in Breaston?


Picture the Past reference: DCRO100730

The photograph comes from collection D4978 ‘Breaston and Long Eaton Historical Notes’.  Our catalogue entry for this photograph reads simply: ‘”COs” Group’, c.1910, and when the photograph was put onto the Picture the Past website the “COs” were assumed to be Commissioned Officers.

This interpretation has now been challenged by a couple of Picture the Past’s users (including an expert on conscientious objection),  and there’s certainly good evidence to support the suggestion that they are conscientious objectors.  If they were commissioned officers, wouldn’t they be in uniform?  And why are some of the men holding what looks like newspaper front pages?  Might these be copies of ‘The Tribunal’, a paper published by the Non-Conscription Fellowship?

On the other hand, why is there a man in uniform on either side of the group?  They look like part of the group, not prison guards.  Were they objectors taking a non-combative role?  Many conscientious objectors became ambulance drivers, for instance, but these two men aren’t wearing red cross arm bands.

If anyone can solve the mystery, please leave a help us out by leaving a comment below…

6 thoughts on “Commissioned Officers… or Conscientious Objectors?

  1. These are almost certainly conscientious objectors in which case the date would be after March 1916 when conscription came into force. The uniformed men may have been serving in the Non Combatant Corps or possibly the Friends Ambulance Unit. The newspaper on the right looks too wide to be a copy of ‘The Tribunal’ so there may be different newspapers being shown. It is possible that they are a group of COs under military escort or supervision but I haven’t seen any similar images and it seems unlikely that the military authorities would have allowed or arranged a posed photo like this with all the men quite smartly dressed. Comparable images are of groups of COs at Home Office Work Camps at Dyce (near Aberdeen) and Dartmoor but the men are in rough clothing suitable for the rock breaking and other heavy work they had to do. COs would not have been ashamed to describe themselves as such despite the hardship and hostility they faced in military custody or prison. This film has other relevant images:

    • Thanks Simon – I agree that I it seems strange that the military authorities would have allowed a posed photo like this, so there must be another explanation for the uniforms. Thanks also for the link to the film – I’m very much looking forward to watching it.

  2. There is a scot, sitting, at the front. A clue, i think, is there. A name, maybe, of a scot in breaston, on the census 1911. He could be a mc, mac, a clan man. He wears his kilt so his psyche would for the scot.

    It seems unlikely that the men in uniform would be there in the photograph considering the outcry at men who did not wish to fight. The tar and feather was awful so a photograph would be dangerous. Best clothes are worn so i would say it is a photograph of men who have a common interest so perhaps it was taken at the end of the war with the uniformed men showing solidarity for conscience.

    • I’ve had a closer look, but I’m not sure I can see anyone wearing a kilt – are you sure about that? You’re quite right that most people were not at all sympathetic to conscientious objectors, so you may also be right that this was taken after the war. There are, however, a few group images taken during the war which show that some COs were proud of their stance – I’ve found a handful on Google Images ( so this may be another of these, possibly.

  3. Hi SarahI would guess that the answer may lie in the papers that three of the men are holding up – is it possible to get anything from the original in that regard?Christine Jackson

    • Hi Christine. We’ve zoomed into the newspapers and adjusted the contrast to see if we can pick up any headlines, but unfortunately they are too bleached out to be visible. Maybe if we had the kind of software they have on TV crime dramas we could do it, but at the moment what those newspapers say is tantalisingly outside our reach.

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