Friday, 15 May 2015

For COs’ Day, May 15

A review of a book previously cited on this blog, with two others relevant to the same theme

David Boulton, Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War. Dent, Cumbria, Dales Historical Monographs in Association with Friends Historical Society, 2014.
See also previous posts on COs in Ealing
CO on left in photo above: Frederick Bromberger (of Ealing)
David Boulton’s pioneering study of conscientious objectors (COs) in Britain in the First World War was published in 1967, “to ensure that war resisters would ‘not go unsung’”. Just over fifty years since the introduction of conscription in the UK, historians rarely paid serious attention to those who refused it, or to opponents of the war generally. A further half-century on, it is becoming more likely that writers on the period will at least refer to the fact that COs and other war resisters existed, albeit, according to the dominant narrative, as a tiny, eccentric and reviled minority. That dismissive view is open to challenge on all counts.
Boulton’s account is still probably the most comprehensive available, ranging from the pre-war prospects for internationalism, through initial reactions to the war, to the way conscription was introduced and how it was resisted. What happened to COs is described along with the dilemmas they faced (whether or not to accept various forms of “service”); there are harrowing details of what their decisions entailed, including accounts in their own words and those of their supporters, notably but not only in the No-Conscription Fellowship (N-CF). They were far from isolated in their stance: tribunal hearings and appeals were monitored, individual cases taken up, instances of particularly harsh treatment publicised, questions asked in Parliament, and dependants helped. As “pacifism became militant” resistance was organised on an impressive scale. When 35 men were sent to France and threatened with the death penalty, the resulting outcry ensured the sentences were commuted. A new Appendix discusses that episode, concluding that it was both “Conspiracy” and “Cock-up”, confusion and ineptitude combined with some elements conspiring to kill the peace movement by using the perceived ultimate deterrent. (p. xxxvi) 
Some COs did pay with their lives. An estimated 73 named as having died in direct consequence of their resistance and its punishment; prison doctors, some of whose subservience to military or prison authorities prevented them from mitigating patients’ hardships or even saving lives, were implicated in several fatal outcomes, through callousness or incompetence. A growing body of evidence of the worsening health of COs is cited as a major factor in contributing to agitation on their behalf, and a change in public attitudes towards them.
For many who survived, the ordeal did not end with the Armistice. COs remained in prison or might even be called up and (re-)arrested even while demobilisation was being got into gear. Punishment often stretched into post-war life, following “dishonourable discharge” (without pension rights), entailing social ostracism and barriers to employment.

Cyril Pearce, Comrades in Conscience: the Story of an English Community’s Opposition to the Great War. London, Francis Boutle, 2014.

Just what prevailing public attitudes to the war were is no longer a matter of such complacent certainty, thanks to recent work, notably that of Cyril Pearce, whose Register of British COs has been promised for more than a year “soon” to be made interactively available on-line via the Imperial War Museum [where is it?]*).
Pearce’s study of an English community’s opposition to the Great War, published in 2002 and now re-issued with new material and revisions, is focused on Huddersfield, a town which by 1917 had become “a virtual citadel for the anti-war cause”. (p.15) Unlike what is taken to have been the sequence of events in most places, the anti-war stance of the labour and socialist movement in Huddersfield survived the outbreak of war, and the local public mood, tinged with scepticism, was wary of jingoistic excess. The one recorded serious attempt to disrupt an anti-war meeting was spectacularly unsuccessful.
While outright anti-war activism remained a minority movement it benefited from being widely tolerated, Those who opposed the war often did so in no uncertain terms: Paddock Socialist Club denounced the “murderous gang of war-mongers responsible for the present European crisis” and the “efforts that are being made to involve this country in the bloody outrage on humanity.” (p.53) Although they are not all he considers, Pearce has thoroughly researched the identities, choices, and fates of COs in the area, making extensive use of press reports and organisational archives to show what can be done in the absence of Tribunal records. Almost all of the latter have been destroyed, the exceptions being those of the Middlesex Appeals Tribunal, and (in Scotland) of Lothian and Peebles, and the Isle of Lewis.
When conscription began in early 1916 it drew divergent local labour and leftwing elements back together, in the face of what was seen as “Prussianism”, i.e. the sort of militaristic society the war was supposed to be fighting against. Practical preparations were made and support systems put in place, including networks to help fugitives evade arrest. COs could become local heroes to crowds of demonstrators; a “collective/group consciousness” arose, embodied in an extensive and vigorous local organisation for Our Boys – in the sense of resisters not troops. (p.162) For many the question was not whether, but how far to resist, and what compromises, if any, to accept.
“Work of national importance” here could mean workers staying in the jobs they already had or being directed to similarly “essential” work (textiles, dye-works, chemicals) in the area, to which COs from elsewhere were also sent, contributing to its balance of dissident opinion. By November 1918 the anti-war movement in the town is said to have been more united than ever. At the same time the threat of industrial conscription was a further focus of resistance, and labour struggles continued unabated. “As the war progressed it became seen as part of an inevitable process of depriving workers of their already limited freedoms and of harnessing them more thoroughly and repressively to the needs of capital.” (p.194) Others, however, were motivated rather by revulsion at violence, especially killing, and at the denial of individual freedom that was a concomitant of war and militarism. In Huddersfield, Pearce contends, the matter was not only a private and personal one but a public issue bound up with multiple issues of ordinary life. The question remains, as posed at the end, “not why there was so much opposition here, but why there was so little elsewhere.”

Conscription was presented as un-British until the government decided it was necessary

Or was there..?

Alison Ronan, A Small Vital Flame: Anti-war Women in NW England 1914-1918, Manchester, Scholars’ Press, 2014.
Alison Ronan’s book is a good example of further research already under way, indicating that in at least one other part of the country there was more widespread and varied opposition to the war than conventional historical narratives have tended to acknowledge. She focuses on the even more neglected subject of women’s contribution in this area. While Boulton and Pearce each make some mention of women’s roles, in the context of the No-Conscription Fellowship and of informal, family support networks respectively, these account for only a few pages in their works; David Boulton points out this “glaring omission” himself, and supplies some sources to atone for it, in his new Introduction (pp.xviii-xix).
Using research methods avowedly influenced by a feminist historical analysis, Alison Ronan aims to examine “women’s motivation and decision to become visible opponents of war, both at an individual and organisational level”. (p.10) The organisations explored in detail are: Manchester and Salford Women’s War Interests Committee, 1915-1917; the Women’s International League (for Peace and Freedom) 1915-1918; branches of the Union of Democratic Control, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the No-Conscription Fellowship, and the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, 1916-1918; and (a particularly rewarding subject) the Women’s Peace Crusade, Manchester, 1917. Perhaps it is inevitable that the focus should be on organisations, since they kept records which survive, but the approach is far from bureaucratic, always attending to personalities and informal interactions. Anyway they are overdue for and repay attention, as illustrated in the case of the Women’s Peace Crusade:
p.259  The Women’s Peace Crusade was extraordinary. It spread like wildfire across industrial cities in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland during 1917 and 1918. It was unambiguously anti-militarist, feminist, internationalist and socialist, explicitly recruiting support from women in working-class communities across the country.-261 [Yet generally unremembered] perhaps because the series of demonstrations were co-ordinated by local, ordinary working-class women or perhaps because its spontaneous energy was not organised through formal committees nor generally recorded in minutes of meetings and so little documentation has survived. (note 4)  # [The leaflets] were handed out in the door-to-door campaign or at the public meetings and were carefully drafted to appeal to the working-class woman... full of housekeeping metaphors and easily recognised wartime tropes of grieving wives and mothers. They also offered a ‘commonsense’ approach to the political issue of international peace and the negotiation of a just settlement.  -262 The Crusade was against the war, its principal demands focusing on an immediate, negotiated peace settlement. Originating in Glasgow, it used the organisational strategies of local women who had led the women-led rent strikes in 1915. (note 8)  -265 The Crusade lulled during the winter of 1916 and re-emerged throughout 1917 particularly after the Russian revolution in March and during 1918 when peace was on the horizon after the entry of the USA into the war. [Highlighting added]
In addition, there are chapters on women in progressive organisations in the two years preceding the war, and on wartime friendships and alliances between suffragist, pacifist and socialist women. Throughout, the conditions and hardships of everyday life are emphasised: shortages of food and fuel, restrictions and surveillance, threats to women’s personal liberty. The sense of reality and immediacy is enhanced by a few effective illustrations, posters or leaflets from campaigns and photographs of groups with a shared purpose. While women were clearly not subject to the same dilemmas and penalties as men liable to call-up, to be identified as an anti-war campaigner required considerable courage, which was not lacking, sustained by networks across generations and overlapping affiliations.
“Belonging to any anti-war group politicised women, because of the simultaneous explorations of the economic, political and the gendered aspects of war.” (p.219) “This was the pivotal issue for the anti-war women across the country and in Manchester: to determine how ordinary women, without apolitical voice, could affect the outcome of a war and thereby ensure a permanent, just and international peace.” (p.10)
There is a certain amount of repetition – and a tendency throughout to follow the traditional lecturers’ advice, to “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said”, but given that few readers will have any familiarity with the material, this is probably all to the good. Certainly the key points are worth emphasising.
p.136  The disturbance to everyday life was immediate and the critical issues for local working-class women were the threat to their family life, their employment and the supply of food and fuel.            p.138  Very quickly, the surveillance of working women asking for relief and the relation of surveillance to the stoppage of the new sailors’ and soldiers’ allowances, began to raise questions about the potential wartime threats to women’s personal liberty.
p.230  By the first winter of the war, there was a local network of people in Manchester who were prepared to come together to protest against the threat of conscription.  -233 Many local meetings held by different organisations which were critical of the war were not even being reported in the ‘liberal’ Manchester Guardian. -235 Pamphlets and leaflets began to circulate more widely throughout the city because of the local risks of holding anti-war meetings. -236 The irony of surveillance and censorship was that it strengthened local resistance. 
Ronan concludes, like Pearce, with the idea that other places may have similar hidden histories to be discovered and the implicit hope that other studies may follow, modestly describing her work – which is further enhanced by an extensive bibliography – as revealing only “a small part of a much larger, still largely undiscovered, jigsaw of resistance to war and the demand for a just and negotiated peace made by women anti-war activists in the First World War.” (p.332)
Together or separately, these three books present a formidable challenge to the dominant warmongering ideology and mainstream historical view of an overwhelmingly pro-war consensus.

[A non-identical version of this combined review in Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol. 30, no. 4, 2014, should be available at]

* The question about the Pearce Register has been partially answered, insofar as
"The records of COs compiled by Cyril Pearce are now online via the Imperial War Museum: "

 But disappointingly 
The website is not all that was hoped, in particular: 
"One is obliged to register to see the individuals' records. Downloading the data appears to be impossible. Searching the data is clumsy at best; search by location doesn't work if you are not searching on a name as well. Best results are got by using the 'keywords' search at the bottom left side..."

If you have a name you can view and copy a transcription of the record, after signing up (free). 

1 comment:

  1. Update on the Pearce Register transcripts online via the IWM at:
    Total of individual records accessible here in August 2015 = 17,426