Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sorting Out Some WW1 COs: A Bunch of Anarchists

As has been pointed out, the limited way in which the Pearce Register of First World War Conscientious Objectors (COs) has been made available to researchers via the Imperial War Museum’s website is far from ideal from the viewpoint of a radical historian. Locating the records within ‘Lives of the First World War’ tends to emphasise the individual and particular at the expense of any attempt to see a broader picture or assess either the numbers (other than the overall total, currently running at 17,426 records) or characteristics of those who refused the call-up. Without the spreadsheet format enabling sorting and counting by (for example) occupation, location, prison, work centre etc., it becomes extremely laborious and time-consuming to discern patterns of resistance. For that, each transcript has to be looked at and the requisite data extracted and used to reconstruct the relevant section of the database one way or another. 
It has its uses, however, and the results of Cyril Pearce’s massive research work can be deployed in various interesting ways by those who care to dig, and have some idea what they’re looking for.
Keyword ‘Anarchist’
Historians have generally had a blind spot when it comes to anarchists, even when these were not written out of the narrative on purpose – there may be some excuse for this, in some cases, insofar as anarchists are probably less likely than most other people to leave traces among bureaucratic records and archives (fortunately there are other sources, now being increasingly discovered and mined) – and the story of opposition to the First World War has not been much of an exception to the trend. Thus in considering political as against religious motivation for conscientious objection, ‘socialist’ seems to have been the default assumption and label of choice. Searching for ‘socialist’ on the database results in 20 times as many hits as for ‘anarchist’. But to be able to get at transcripts for 25 of the latter is at least a start, and potentially a helpful addition to other work on this topic, most relevantly here that of Nick Heath. In just one article looking at ‘Two little known events’ he supplies a dozen more names for the list (which can almost all be found on the database, although most not with ‘anarchist’), confirming that ‘much more investigation needs to be done’.
As a small contribution, this blogpost looks at some of what can be found out about anarchist war-resisters by merging the two sets of records (keyword-anarchist and names-from-Heath-article) and sorting the information that turns up, variable in quantity and quality though it inevitably is, to draw out a few threads that may suggest more bits of the pattern of resistance.
Guy Aldred
·         Not all formally COs – some ignored the whole system and went on the run, some were not eligible (conscription was initially for single males aged 18-40, married men becoming liable a few months later), 
·         Some Famous names whose stories are available more fully elsewhere, e.g. Guy Aldred, Lilian Wolfe/Woolf (not the only woman who shows up on the database, obviously as an opponent of the war* rather than a CO as such).    
·         Some overlap with the work of Ken Weller as well as Nick Heath’s.
 *... front page article in April 1916 for the Voice of Labour entitled Defying the Act. 10,000 leaflets reproducing the article were run off by [Tom] Keell and distributed by Lilian Wolfe. Some were intercepted by the police. This resulted in a raid on the Freedom Press offices on 5th May, with the arrests of Keell and Wolfe. –  NH  
Not all were necessarily professedly anarchist at the time or consistently anarchist later;and many have a combination of motives attributed to them. Examples:
·         Agnostic (2); Anarchist (5);Anarchist (?);Anarchist/Socialist (?) (2); Communist Anarchist (2)
·         Atheist/ Anarchist; 'Anarchist, Communist, Socialist' etc.; "Communal Anarchist", NCF; 
·         Anarchist/Communist; Atheist, Trade union; Non-Sect[arian], Tolstoyan/Anarchist (3);
·         Anarchist, 'Non-Sect', No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), Workers' Freedom Group; 
·         Moral and International, North London Herald League;
·         NCF, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Socialist;
·         ILP, 'tending towards Anarchist'; NCF, 'New Church', Anarchist; NCF, Socialist;
·         Non-Sect, NCF, Anarchist-Communist, Esperanto, Vegetarian;
·         Revolutionary Socialist lecturer and labour organiser, NCF;
·         Socialist (?),Assistant Editor of Guy Aldred's "The Spur", North London Herald League, Atheist;
·         Socialist, British Socialist Party (BSP), Atheist, NCF;
·         Theosophist, Anarchist-Communist, SSS [?] - Young Socialist magazine organiser;
            Tribunal convinced he was an Anarchist. 
Tribunals denied anarchists (and most non-religious claimants) any right to a conscience
·             Where 
Work is being done on the geographical spread of COs, mapping clusters and so on, as Cyril Pearce told last year’s Peace History conference. The ‘anarchists’ were quite widely spread, from or associated with: Abertillery; Nottingham (2); Colchester; London – Edmonton, Forest Gate/ West Ham, Harringay, Highgate/ Hornsey, Shepherd's Bush (2), St Pancras, Tooting, Watford; Liverpool; Glasgow (2); Liversedge, Yorks.; Manchester (3); Burnley, St Helens (2); Stockport* (10); Whiteway Colony, Stroud (4).
*... Anarchist Congress held in Hazel Grove, Stockport in April 1915, where the British anarchist movement took a “strongly anti-militaristic attitude… with “only two voices …raised to support those who favored war”. – Nick Heath, - See also article by NH as above, for Stockport and Abertillery.
A few ‘professsional revolutionaries’ – e.g. Journalist - Anarchist journal Freedom, Editor 'The Spur', Editor and contributor ''Freedom' and 'Voice of Labour'. Others include:
·         Lithographer; Cinematograph operator;
·         Cotton operative; Weaver, cotton; Spinner; Doffer - cotton spinning,
·         Dyer's Labourer; Hat leather cutter; Furniture trade;
·         Goods porter; GPO Sorter; Labourer; Market gardener; Mechanic; Miner;
·         Elocutionist, concert artist, Musician, Violinist, and composer, Theatrical and musical professional;
·         Shipping clerk, former railway clerk; Street sweeper;
·         Shop assistant; Tobacconist/Cigar manufacturer.
     ‘War Service’ [sic – their main service was of course to oppose the war and resist its enforcers]

Some got away in time or absconded – 'Evaded the draft' and went to the USA (2); Allegedly made his way to the USA and worked in the Ferrer School in New York; AWOL (See Police Gazette 19.12.16)
Others were caught up in the military machine: Fovant Camp, Blackdown; Court Martial (CM) Chester Castle; Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force; Non-combatant Corps; R.[Welch] Fusiliers; taken to France from Kinmel Park (NCC); Birkenhead (2); NCC Pontefract; Chatham; Hurdcott Camp; Sherwood Foresters (2). It is no surprise that they were among those most harshly treated, the notorious brutality at Birkenhead barracks being one of the worst examples.    
Refusing to obey orders meant court martial and prison, with the prevalent practice of imposing repeated two-year sentences with hard labour. Many saw the insides of several prisons over a number of years, Wormwood Scrubs most frequently, plus or minus one or more of: Winchester; Wandsworth; Brixton ; Gloucester; Walton, Liverpool; Shrewsbury; Rouen Military Prison; Leeds; Manchester, Strangeways; Birmingham; Durham; Maidstone;  Preston; Parkhurst; Exeter; Chester; Newcastle.

In spite of everything many rejected the alternative of government-directed ‘work of national importance’, the Home Office Scheme (‘refused to accept HOS’), although some did proceed to camps and work centres eventually; Dyce Camp; Ballachulish; Wakefield Experiment; Platt Field, Manchester; Denton Road Board Camp; Knutsford; and Dartmoor.

No surprise either that their names are linked with episodes of resistance such as:
·         Hunger strike - released by order of GOC;
·         Wakefield Work Camp - rejected work,
·         Wakefield Experiment 7.10.18 work strike;
·         AWOL from Dartmoor;
·         Liverpool mass Hunger strike 22.7.18 as protest with other COs (2);
·         hunger strike 20.8.18 to 23.8.18;
·         hunger strike, 1.9.17 to 30.10.17;
·         force fed 50 times 'to finish or release him'
·         absentee and forged documents;
·         absconded on a bike and rode back to Glasgow.

Finally (for now), another useful feature of the database is the ‘Sources’ heading which allows the checking and following up of individual stories, and includes documentation from the peace movement and publications by a few radical historians as well as official archives and press reports.

(More names and case studies to follow in future posts.)
Remembering the Real: Refusal, Resistance, Revolt!


  1. Another very relevant article from Nick Heath is now on libcom:
    "A short account of the severe sentence handed out to anarchists in Folkestone just for flyposting anti-war posters"

  2. Latest piece by Nick Heath, on WW1 Scottish anarchist John Kerr, war resister:
    "This case illustrates the treatment dealt out to conscientious objectors and war resisters, particularly if they had political convictions."