World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.
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