Monday, September 22, 2014

RaHN “Resistance to World War One” meeting 10th Sept 2014

Notes from the meeting
Once again there was a good turnout with good contributions from all.

Nick Heath: Resistance to World War One
Nick has been studying this history in detail, which is far from easy as almost all the records of hearings of Conscientious Objectors (COs) were burned. His sources have been newspapers (socialist, anarchist, local, national) and books including:

Ken Weller - “'Don't be a soldier!' The radical anti-war movement in north London 1914-1918”
John Quail’s - “The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists” –
(both of which are due to be republished soon.)
and “Comrades in Conscience: The Story of an English Community's Opposition to the Great War” by Cyril Pearce (recently republished).

Nick mentioned that resistance to the war in the UK was not confined to the 16,000 registered conscientious objectors but also included many people who applied for this status but were rejected. CO’s were from different backgrounds – working class, intellectuals and merchants. They included various beliefs such as socialists, anarchists, Quakers and other religious groups.
Nick feels that the official commemorations of the 1914-1918 war have become a celebration of sacrifice and justification for wars happening now. “In some ways World War One never ended”. We now face wars across the world and the tempo of warfare is hotting up.
Prior to 1914 anarchists and socialists had said that they would call for a general strike if war broke out, but this did not happen in most cases – a capitulation. Only a minority of these groups actually opposed the war on internationalist principles.
Indeed, suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst became patriotic from 1914 onwards and were involved with starting the “white feather” campaign to shame men into enlisting. (Sylvia Pankhurst and other suffragettes remained opposed to the war).
Aspiring conscientious objectors were not treated well and faced very biased tribunals. The court in Newcastle was seen as being particularly biased - tribunals there were met with protests, including an occupation.
Other networks of resistance operated alongside support for COs. Draft dodgers and war resisters went on the run (some hid in the Scottish highlands, others escaped to America.)
Branches of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Scotland, London and especially Liverpool helped to smuggle out resisters.
There was also resistance on Clydeside through industrial activity.
Mass opposition soared in 1916 after a great deal of slaughter and the introduction of conscription. The circulation of anarchist newspapers shot up, their popularity bringing police raids and other forms of state repression. The “Voice of Labour” newspaper was shut down, only to be replaced with a new publication titled “Satire”.
George Davison (who had become wealthy through setting up Kodak) established 8 or 9 anarchist “Workers Forum” groups in Wales which sheltered people opposed to the war.
The Communist Club in Stockport distributed anti-war literature and also harboured deserters. It was also raided, its members imprisoned and badly beaten in some cases. (See article by Nick here.
There were some ironies in the UK state pursuing anarchists and socialists from overseas who had settled here. For example German anarchists who had been targeted by the secret service for protesting against the Kaiser when he visited London were then also rounded up with other German nationals and put in internment camps such as those in Alexandra Palace and the Isle of Man (where some of them died).
Towards the end of the war there were mutinies in the British Army, for example the West Indian Regiment (see article in the “Against War” issue of The Anarchist Federation’s “Resistance” free-sheet). Additionally there were revolutions in Russia, Germany Hungary and some parts of Ireland.
Nick finished up by saying that he felt it was our duty as people interested in radical history to dig deep into these hidden stories of resistance. If we don’t, who will?

Jennifer Bell: "We will not fight! - Conscientious objectors in North London"
Jennifer has done a great deal of research into COs in Hornsey, mainly via archive copies of The Hornsey Journal. Many of the CO tribunals are reported in detail, but unfortunately no names are given.
There is a register of 16,000 COs but Jennifer thinks there may have been up to 20,000 people who actually objected.
She gave the example of 3 brothers, all of whom applied to be COs but only one had that status granted. The other two were harassed, sent to the front and killed.
Jennifer has found 150 names of objectors from Hornsey alone. The tribunal there was particularly biased against COs. It was chaired by Alderman Edwin Sloper, and featured some subservient councillors, lay members from a middle class area of the borough and a representative of “labour” (i.e. the working class, not the Labour Party) who is not quoted as having said anything. Oh and a representative from the Army.
The “conscience clause” in the law referred simply to one’s conscience generally, but the Hornsey tribunal only accepted religious conscience, rejecting any political or non-religious objectors.
A letter from a trade unionist to the Hornsey Journal stated that he was “astounded by the treatment of the objectors” and felt that the proceedings were “unfair and unjust”.
A Mr Simper, a Christadelphian (lots of whom seemed to be COs – further research needed?) stated that the Hornsey tribunal was the only one he had attended “where I have received coarse abuse”.
The geographical area of the modern borough of Haringey was home to almost 300 COs, which is higher than you would expect – the area was not particularly industrial (so not many trade unionists). Indeed most of the Hornsey COs were lower middle class / white collar workers.
One reason for this may have been the North London Herald League, based in Green Lanes. They held mass meetings in Finsbury Park against the war and also had rallies outside the Salisbury pub (re-enacted in August 2014 with links made to current anti-war movements).
The No Conscription Fellowship was also active in the area – assisted COs.
Hornsey also had strong non-conformist churches including the Presbyterians and Congregationists.
Hornsey objectors included quite a few “absolutists” who refused to take up even non-combatant roles in the war. The Walker brothers were five siblings from Stroud Green who applied for CO status. Charles Walker described the brutal conditions they faced at Chatham barracks where they were held before being moved to prison. Their violent abuse came from officers and NCOs rather than the ordinary soldiers who treated them with respect.
The Walkers were unaligned socialists but are listed as Quakers on the database of COs. Possibly this is because bureaucrats processing COs used “Quaker” as any easy (but inaccurate) shortcut term, or because COs themselves felt that they would be more successful if they claimed to be Quakers rather than political [which would have been correct - see comments above about the bias of the Hornsey tribunal].
Albert Samuel Inkpin, secretary of the British Socialist Party was another interesting objector. He had received a bloody nose for his strident anti-war views at a BSP meeting. Albert was exempted from serving in the war on medical grounds but appealed this as he wanted to be registered as a CO. He was refused, and appealed again!
Isaac and Jason Goss were also absolutists, who lived in the same road as the Walkers (suggesting that social networks played a part in building resistance to the war). The Goss brothers were Jewish converts to Quakerism. Isaac was exempted from war duty on the grounds of doing work of national importance, but also appealed. His case ended up being forgotten about by the powers that be, so he spent the remainder of the war at home. Joseph wasn’t as fortunate – he was arrested for desertion and sent to a work camp. He eventually served more than 2 years in prison (the supposed maximum).
Jennifer raised the issue of “sacrifice” as it is mentioned in the current commemorations. She feels there is a key distinction between self-sacrifice (for one’s own beliefs – as we have seen above) and being sacrificed.
Jennifer has many case studies of conscientious objectors from Hornsey and is currently considering what to do with them. One option would be a hard copy publication, but a blog is also being considered.

General Discussion
·         There was a scandal when it emerged that some absolutist objectors were being transported to France to be shot. (One of them threw a note from the train which was found by a railwayman and trade unionist – the subsequent furore ensured that they were not shot)

·         Some suggestion that aspiring COs in the north of England were forcibly conscripted and “disappeared”? Possibly, but the government was very wary of creating martyrs.

·         How do we commemorate people who objected to the war? An example was given of memorials at a train station to those who had fought. Can we make “counter plaques” for COs and other resisters?

·         Women's Peace Crusade – largely forgotten about now. By 1917/18 many men were dead or in prison so protest was led by women. 130 demonstrations held in 1917 alone, many of which were enormous but unrecorded.

·         It was suggested that the World War One commemorations are essentially an implicit celebration of the British Empire.

·         Provocations in the anti-war movement. The Ministry of Munitions (precursor to Special Branch) infiltrated the anti-war and peace movement. Alice Wheeldon a working class socialist and vegetarian was imprisoned for conspiracy to murder Prime Minister Lloyd George, but only because of the evidence and provocation of an infiltrator. She was eventually released early but became sick and died. It was noted that these tactics are still being used by spycops and provocateurs like Mark Kennedy (see previous meeting). Sheila Rowbotham has written a play about Alice Wheeldon (see “Further WW1 Happenings” entry on this blog)

·         Manchester No Conscription Fellowship networks – looked after the families of COs, including donations of money. Also published a journal, and provided prison support (visits, cakes, songs outside!).
·         In Hackney a CO's daughter was victimised by the Head-teacher at her school, who prevented her from going to her intended grammar school. The Quaker Head-teacher of Clapton School (now Clapton Girls) invited her to study there instead.
·        It was pointed that that if “World War One never ended” that resistance to it never ended either. Much of the peace movement and war resistance we have today has its roots in protests against WW1.

·         Had much research been done into Tottenham/Edmonton? Not much but Tottenham Quakers are doing some. Possibly just into Quakers though.

·         What can we learn from all this? COs did not stop the war. It was suggested that WW1 shows us that only the working class acting together to defend its own interests can. The 1917 revolution in Russia was given as an example of this. “As long as there is capitalism there will be war”. [Possibly the working class role in ending the war is a topic to explore at a future meeting?]

·         General discussion of the strong labour movement prior to 1914 not managing to prevent the war. Clear reasons why individuals with anti-war positions may end up supporting war, but harder to understand why anti-war movements (socialists etc) do.

·         There was a discussion about the ideological evolution of the German Social Democrats [which went a bit over my head, to be honest]. Should they have split instead of opting to stay together as a party?

·         Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg’s 1915 slogan “The main enemy is at home” was cited as an example of German Socialists maintaining principled anti-war positions.

·         John Maclean and James Connolly were given as other examples of people whose class based opposition of the war was worth looking into.

[For more information on COs, see also:
  and  David Boulton, Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War. Dent,           Cumbria, Dales Historical Monographs in Association with Friends Historical Society, 2014.]

Next meeting: Wednesday 10th December. Topic to be confirmed.


  1. From Bristol Radical History Group:

    Do You Have A Conchie In The Family?

  2. UODATE:
    Haringey First World War Peace Forum has a lot of experience in researching COs in our area and we have a blog