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Lest we forget

Thousands of Britons opposed and struggled against the first world war. Adam Hochschild celebrates their memory

June 1, 2014
7 min read

As we mark the centenary of 1914, many a government representative will be asking us to remember the first world war. And they will continue to do so for the next four and a half years. But what, exactly, are we being asked to remember?

Usually, it’s the same things that are evoked by the Imperial War Museum in London and its counterparts such as the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, by the hundreds of immaculately-kept military cemeteries in northern France and Belgium, and by the honour rolls of the war’s dead on plaques and monuments in thousands of towns across North America and Europe: honour, sacrifice, patriotism, glory. And, of course, the museums and the stray tanks and guns ensconced in a park or town square speak to our enduring fascination with military technology. The unspoken assumption is that all those fearsome weapons were used for some noble purpose.

But were they? Few people today would argue that fighting the war of 1914–1918 made the world a better place. Rather, at a century’s distance, we can see all too clearly the ways in which it reshaped the world for the worse. It left more than nine million soldiers dead and some 21 million wounded, killed and injured further millions of civilians, and left behind a reservoir of bitterness that made possible the swift rise of Hitler – who, of course, led us into a second and even more destructive war, and the Holocaust to boot.

Heroes and heroines

In our commemorations over the next few years, the men and women we should be celebrating are those who understood the madness of that war as it was happening, and did all they could to stop it. They failed – but so do most people who are ahead of their time.

There is a particularly rich array of heroes and heroines to remember in Britain because, although almost all the belligerent countries had anti-war movements, the British one was more developed than the others. Britain, after all, was not attacked in 1914, and many people questioned whether the country should go to war.

One of the most passionate voices against the slaughter belonged to Keir Hardie, the Scottish labour leader who never went to school and worked in coal mines for a decade starting at the age of 11. A founder of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and leader of the Labour caucus in parliament, he spoke throughout the first half of 1914 against the war he saw coming, rushed to Brussels a week before it started for an emergency meeting of Europe’s left-wing parties, and returned to tell a large crowd in Trafalgar Square, ‘You have no quarrel with Germany!’

He was devastated when Britain entered the war two days later. In the months to come, he would find himself jeered on the streets of London and in parliament. But still, his party issued a proclamation: ‘Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German Socialists . . . They are no enemies of ours, but faithful friends.’ At the end of 1914, aged 58, he suffered a stroke that left his writing arm paralysed. Several times in parliament he fainted, and physician MPs had to come to his aid. He wrote now by dictation, but his newspaper columns and speeches still denounced the carnage. ‘Hardie’s bushy white hair and his white beard shone out of the darkness with almost phosphorescent radiance,’ a friend wrote of one of Hardie’s last public appearances, in Norfolk. ‘His head was held high, defiantly; his voice was strong and deep.’

In 1915, police raided the ILP offices and filed charges against the organisation for publishing seditious material. Later that year, Hardie died – of pneumonia, but friends said it was of a broken heart.

Another strong anti-war voice was the comrade of Hardie’s who had heard him speak at Norfolk, Fenner Brockway. The editor of the ILP newspaper, Brockway was sent to prison as a war resister in 1917. Behind bars he continued to edit a newspaper – a secret one, published for his fellow resisters on toilet paper. It flourished for a year before the authorities discovered it and put Brockway in solitary confinement for eight months.

Sylvia Pankhurst, who was Hardie’s lover, was also a bold war opponent, something which took personal as well as political courage because it meant a public rupture with her formidable mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, both of whom became superpatriots the moment the war began. For years, the three had worked closely together in the fight for women’s suffrage. The newspaper Sylvia published, Woman’s Dreadnought, later Workers’ Dreadnought, was the most widely read anti-war publication in Britain, and several of its issues were suppressed by the government.

Refusing conscription

After conscription began in early 1916, more than 20,000 British men of military age refused to go into the army. Many of them, as a matter of principle, also refused the alternative service offered for conscientious objectors, which often meant driving an ambulance at the front or working in industries deemed crucial to the war effort. As a result, more than 6,000 young men went to prison.

Prison conditions were harsh: meagre food, the ‘rule of silence’, which forbade conversations between inmates, and icy cold cells – in a country with a wartime coal shortage, keeping prisoners warm was the lowest priority.

Men and women who were not themselves conscription resisters found themselves locked up as well. When the government closed down the newspaper of the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Tribunal, it continued to publish underground. Joan Beauchamp served a month in jail for an article she published as its editor and Violet Tillard two months for refusing to reveal where the paper was being printed.

The two most famous Britons to go to prison for their opposition to the war were the country’s leading investigative journalist, E D Morel, the man who had brought the atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo to the world’s attention, and its leading philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Each served six months. Morel’s sentence was at hard labour, and it broke his health; he died of a heart attack six years later, at the age of 51. Russell, jailed under better conditions, survived more than half a century, living long enough to become a major voice against the US war in Vietnam.

Hobhouse’s peace mission

There are many other heroic Britons from this era who deserve mention, but perhaps one most of all. Human rights campaigner Emily Hobhouse is best known for exposing the network of deadly concentration camps for civilians set up during the Boer War. Too few people know what she tried to do a decade and a half later.

In June 1916, telling no one, she travelled through France to neutral Switzerland. From there she crossed into Germany and went to Berlin, where she went to call on the German foreign minister, whom she had known before the war. She discussed possible peace terms with him and other officials, coming away with what she thought were some concessions the Germans might be willing to grant. Then she went back, through Switzerland and France, to England, where she tried to see British cabinet ministers to discuss these terms. They turned her away, dismissing her as a crackpot, and then hastily issued regulations making such travel to enemy territory illegal.

Hobhouse’s lone-wolf mission may have failed, but in this vast conflict that killed so many millions of people, she was the sole human being who, in the midst of the terrible slaughter, travelled from one side to the other and back again in search of peace. In this year of commemoration, it’s people like her whom we should remember.

Adam Hochschild’s seven books include, most recently, To End All Wars: a story of protest and patriotism in the first world war (Pan Macmillan, 2012)

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