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Campaigning today in the footsteps of those who said no to war 100 years ago

We need to honour and emulate those who rejected the call to kill and be killed in the First World War, says David Rosenberg.

Conscientious Objectors


An important anniversary just passed, barely noticed by the media. March 2nd marked 100 years from the day in 1916 when all unmarried men aged 18-41 were deemed to have enlisted in a war most had not volunteered for, or been given any opportunity to express their opinion about.

Their task was simply to fight and kill workers of other nations, of similar ages, sharing similar hopes of a brighter future. While arms barons sold weapons to all sides, military officers acted as proxies for political leaders seeking to extend empires and markets. Within three months, forced conscription embraced married men too.

Politicians promised it “would be over by Christmas” but war dragged on for four years. In 1918, the age bar for enforced participation was raised to 51. Ministers of religion, teachers, certain categories of industrial workers, and the medically unfit were exempted – but most had no escape.

This anniversary offers an opportunity to recall people who braved opprobrium within families and communities, faced vicious media hostility and brutal state repression, to retain their humane and internationalist principles. We should recall too, the collective campaigns, created under extremely difficult conditions, to support them and to argue against militarism and war.  

Some 16,500 men registered as Conscientious Objectors (COs) on religious grounds – as pacifists, especially Quakers. Others registered their political objections– as anti-imperialists, or as opponents of a war fought for elite economic interests. Some refuseniks agreed to be drafted in non-combat roles, such as stretcher–bearers, but others, termed “absolutists”, refused all participation. They argued that those taking non-combatant roles were unintentionally legitimising war and providing a fig-leaf for the warmongers.

The spirit of opposition that the COs embodied, had briefly flickered on a mass level in the first few days of the war in 1914, after Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia, but before Britain entered the conflict. Tens of thousands flocked to a “United Labour and Socialist” anti-war rally in Trafalgar square, called by George Lansbury’s Daily Herald League. The Manchester Guardian described a crowd that “overflowed into Whitehall and some distance up the Strand.” Without modern PA systems, speakers erected several platforms around the square. Dockers leader Ben Tillett told his audience: “We don’t want to sing ‘God Save the king’ but ‘God save the people’” because they would do “the fighting and the starving.”

Two days later several women’s organisations held a mass peace rally at Kingsway Hall, Holborn, demanding the British government stays out of the conflict, and pleading with Europe’s workers not to kill each other. Soon afterwards, though, Germany declared war on Russia and France, and invaded Belgium; Britain and Serbia declared war on Germany and Austria –Hungary declared war on Russia.

Once Britain officially entered the war, many trade union leaders, including some who spoke at the Trafalgar Square, became pro-war, but Lansbury and the Daily Herald maintained their opposition. Many suffragettes who attended the Kingsway Hall peace rally later  followed Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s lead in supporting the war and supported the “White Feather” shaming of those who would not enlist. But the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom continued anti-war activities. As did the more marginalised but politically radical sections of the suffrage movement – the East London Federation of Suffragettes, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, and the Women’s Freedom League led by Charlotte Despard.

Politicians failed five times to bring in conscription through parliamentary bills before 1914. Just after war broke out, Churchill proposed compulsory military service to the cabinet, but his colleagues rejected it.

As war dragged on siren voices for conscription became louder. The move towards conscription looked unstoppable. The No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) of left wing liberals, pacifists and Independent Labour Party (ILP) activists, such as Fenner Brockway, Alfred Salter, Bertrand Russell, and suffragette activist Catherine Marshall, emerged in 1915 attempting to halt this juggernaut.  Ultimately they couldn’t, but when forced conscription was enacted, their lobbying ensured that the Act included a conscience clause, and the Fellowship had an infrastructure to offer legal and social support to COs and their families.

The Fellowship was never shut down but suffered state persecution – its offices raided and members imprisoned, especially for distributing leaflets encouraging rebellion against conscription.

Those who declared themselves “conscientious objectors” comprised only a small proportion of those trying to evade military service. Within the first 6 months of compulsory recruitment, 750,000 men appealed to tribunals against their conscription. Some won a temporary reprieve but most were compelled to serve,

Russian Jewish immigrants who found sanctuary in Britain from discrimination and persecution at home faced a particularly acute situation. Older  established community leaders, nervous about accusations that Jews were failing in their “patriotic duty”, made great propaganda efforts encouraging Jews to enlist, but Russian Jews were repelled by the prospect of allying with the repressive Tsarist regime they had fled from.

In 1916 the government presented these immigrant communities with an appalling choice: sign up (to ally with the Tsar) or face deportation back to Tsarist Russia. Despite the efforts of a “Foreign Jews Protection Committee” supported by Jewish and non-Jewish progressives – including Sylvia Pankhurst – more than 2,000 Russian Jews were deported in 1916. Though, in February 1917, when revolution broke out in Russia many were only too glad to return and participate in the revolution.

Despite the conscience clause in the legislation, many Conscientious Objectors failed at tribunals assessing the sincerity of their claims, and were forcibly drafted. Tribunals were often presided over by businessmen, landowners, civil servants, retired military officers and all included one army-selected member.

On refusing military orders once drafted they were court-martialled and imprisoned where they endured long periods of solitary confinement and bread and water diets. At least 73 COs died in prison. Many survivors suffered long-term physical or mental illness. There was no hurry to release them after the November 1918 armistice. COs who protested continued detention through hunger strikes endured brutal forced feeding as suffragettes had done. Many were not released until May 1919. The last CO left prison in August that year.

Several No Conscription Fellowship militants had been active in the early months of the war in the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), a body combining socialists and left wing liberals, with 100 branches nationwide. The UDC argued that small-scale international conflicts, amenable to peace negotiations, suddenly became much wider conflagrations because of secret deals hidden from public scrutiny, which meant other nations’ armies became embroiled. The UDC held public meetings and distributed anti-militarist literature. The Daily Express denounced them as pro-German, and incited attacks on their public meetings.  

The enduring message for 2016 of groups such as the UDC, No Conscription Fellowship, and other peace bodies that emerged then, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, is that it is possible for governments to pursue transparent and ethical foreign policies based on respect for international law and human rights, and that ordinary citizens have the right to campaign for such policies and against war. 

Britain has abandoned forced military conscription but we still suffer financial conscription. Our taxes pay for David Cameron’s wars as they did for Tony Blair’s. In 1916, the Tory MP for Brentford, Viscount William Joynson-Hicks, attacked the conscience clause in the Conscription Act as a "shirkers charter".

The Labour MP for Brentford in 2016, Ruth Cadbury, is promoting a Peace Tax Bill demanding that an increasing proportion of UK tax is spent on peacebuilding, and a corresponding decrease from that spent on war and preparation for war. It also demands that citizens with a conscientious objection to war can request that the entire military part of their taxes spent on peacebuilding. It needs our support.

David Rosenberg is the author of Rebel Footprints: a guide to uncovering London’s radical history, Pluto Press, 2015)

Source: No Glory in War


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