Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero