The Non-Combatant Corps

The introduction of compulsory military service in 1916 brought with it a need to consider the rights of men who had genuine objection to such service on moral, religious or political grounds. Certain parts of the army, such as the Royal Army Medical Corps, were of course non-combatant and many such men accepted service with them. A new Corps was formed in 1916 for those who had no objection to service as such but did not wish to be trained in or use arms.

From the “Illustrated War News” of 23 August 1916. A group of men said to be of a company of the NCC working on a military road in East Anglia. 

Army Order 112

AO 112 of 10 March 1916 authorised the formation of the Non-Combatant Corps under Royal Warrant. It confirmed that it was to be regarded as a Corps for the purposes of the Army Act; that rates of pay would be the same as the infantry of the line; that no proficiency pay would be drawn by men serving in the Corps except by officers, NCOs and men transferred into it from other Corps.

Army Council Instruction 551/16

Many matters relating to the establishment of the Corps were dealt with in ACI 551 of 11 March 1916. They key points are:

Men accepted for service who hold a certificate of exemption from combatant service will be appointed by the area commander to the Non-Combatant Corps;

A brass badge “NCC” would be worn as both cap badge and shoulder title;

Recruits will be organised into companies. The establishment of a company will be the same as that of an Infantry Works Company: 1 officer (a Captain or subaltern), 1 Colour Sergeant, 2 Sergeants, 4 Corporals, 6 paid Lance-Corporals, 94 Privates. The companies will be numbered consecutively within each geographic command area;

The officers, NCOs and Lance-Corporals will be selected from regular infantry personnel who are not fit for general service but who have been rated as fit for overseas service on the Lines of Communication. They will be attached (not transferred) to the NCC. Any promotions required to fill establishment will be in Acting capacity only;

Companies will be trained in squad drill without arms and in the use of various tools used in field engineering. Privates will be equipped as infantry but not armed.

Companies that only served at home

NCC Headquarters
Warwick. Established March 1916.

Aldershot Company
Aldershot. Raised in May 1916.

2nd Scottish Company
Gailes

3rd Scottish Company
North Berwick

3rd Northern Company
Kirk Whelpington

4th Northern Company
Leicester

5th Northern Company
Winchester

4th Eastern Company
Dublin

5th Eastern Company
Cosham

6th Eastern Company
Oxford

7th Eastern Company
Bedford

8th Eastern Company
Perham Down

9th Eastern Company
Winchester

10th Eastern Company
Gravesend

11th Eastern Company
Canterbury

2nd Western Company
Dublin

3rd Western Company
Athlone

4th and 5th Western Companies
Oswestry

2nd Southern Company
Cosham

3rd Southern Company
Larkhill

4th Southern Company
Portsmouth

5th Southern Company
Weymouth

These units are known to have been engaged in a wide variety of manual tasks, for example in the production and movement of timber and stone. The locations named are where they were based and not necessarily where the men were employed.

Overseas service

1st Eastern Company NCC went to France on 22 April 1916 (and was initially sent to work at the quarries at Rinxent);

1st Southern Company NCC went to France on 28 April 1916;

1st Northern Company NCC went to France on 29 April 1916;

2nd Eastern Company NCC went to France on 8 May 1916;

3rd Eastern, 1st Western, 1st Scottish and 2nd Northern Companies NCC all went to France on 30 May 1916.

There are no existing war diaries or other forms of operational record of these units. With the men being physically fit they were regarded as ideal material for carrying our labouring work (this is a year before the formation of the Labour Corps for less fit men, for example).

According to the monthly analysis contained in “Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War” (War Office, 1922), the NCC in France reached a peak of 3,219 men in August 1918 but it remained at 3,000 or more during the period from March 1917 to February 1919 inclusive.

Deaths of men of the NCC

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission include 34 men of the Corps who lost their lives during the Great War. Seven of them are buried in France.

The earliest death recorded death is that of Pte 1471 Duncan McDonald of 1st Scottish Company who died on 4 June 1916. He had been enlisted at Rothesay on 23 May and arrived in France with the company just a week afterwards. Within days he was found lying dead, having been severed into two, on the Nord railway line 1.5km north of Marquise station and in a 6m deep cutting. A court of enquiry was held at Vallée Heureuse on 23 June 1916 but it appears that there were no direct witnesses to the death. The last man to see him alive, believed to be Lance Corporal 13313  J. Bonner of the 1st Scottish Rifles, said that McDonald’s conversation and demeanour had been normal when he left him at 7.40pm on 3 June. A question was raised in Parliament by Thomas Richardson MP. The Earl of Derby, then Secretary of State for War, gave a written reply dated 16 July 1916, “With reference to Private D. McDonald, who was the first casualty in the Non-Combatant Corps. This soldier was not tried by court-martial or brought before his Commanding Officer for disobedience of orders. The Officer Commanding No 1 Scottish Company Non-Combatant Corps, to which unit Private McDonald belonged, was in the opinion that McDonald was not on duty at the time of the accident and was himself to blame. The Base Commandant concurred.” The circumstances of McDonald’s death remain uncertain. A 28 year-old tailor, McDonald came from Lochgilphead in Argyll, Scotland. He is buried in Calais Southern Cemetery.

The next death is that of Pte 65 John Oliver Thomas of 1st Western Company NCC who died, aged 32, on 18 September 1917. He had been exempted by the local tribunal at Llanelli on 9 March 1916 and married shortly before he went to France with his unit. His death was the result of an accident: when working as a shunter on a railway moving earth at Inchville with 313 Road Construction Company of the Royal Engineers, he fell and was crushed beneath the locomotive, suffering most serious injuries. Thomas was taken to Number 2 Canadian General Hospital when he underwent emergency surgery, but sadly succumbed six days after his accident. He lies in Mont Huon Military Cemetery.

The headstone at John Oliver Thomas’s grave at Mont Huon. My thanks to Genevra Charsley for the use of this photograph.

The last of the deaths, on 11 November 1919 exactly a year after the Armistice in France and Flanders, was also accidental. Pte 882 Lawrence Jessop had been enlisted, aged 23, in his home town of Sheffield. He went to France with 2nd Northern Company on 30 May 1916 and served with it throughout the rest of the war. Jessop was finally on his way home when he died. He was on the troopship “Maid of Orleans” which had just arrived at the port of Dover when Private Hood, a cook of the of the Highland Light Infantry who was on a lower deck, unaware that he had a live round in his rifle, pressed the trigger while picking it up to carry it. The bullet went up through the deck roof, through Jessop’s toe and into his heart, killing him instantly. He was taken home for burial and now lies in the churchyard at Wadsley near Sheffield. His is surely one of the most tragic and needless of deaths of the war.

Sneers

Jingoism and bravado often led to abuse of the men who had the moral strength of their convictions and who insisted on non-combatant service. NCC was often said to be the “No courage corps”. This clipping from “The Globe” of 11 March 1916 is typical. “… a kind of ‘we don’t want to fight’ branch of the army … a manifestation of War Office humour … what are to be the duties of the peaceful brigade we cannot say … [it is] to meet the scruples of those curious creatures who, at the last moment, discovered consciences which forbade them to take up arms. After a short time in the NCCs, we feel sure they will become glad to become soldiers,for they can expect little sympathy or appreciation from either their combatant comrades or the sensible public”.

Links

The Military Service Act 1916

The quarries at Rinxent

Other Regiments and Corps