Monday, 12 December 2016

Scots Against War, 1914-18 style

Augmented BOOK REVIEW about -  

Robert Duncan, Objectors & Resisters: Opposition to Conscription and War in Scotland 1914-18 (Glasgow: Common Print/Common Weal, 2015)

Previous publications in the past few years have looked at manifestations in Britain of opposition to the First World War (refs. below) and on the impact of the war more generally in Scotland. While all these works necessarily pay some attention to aspects of the Scottish anti-war scene, Robert Duncan's informative book breaks new ground, drawing together evidence from official records and dissident, mostly left-wing press, sources. His half-dozen chapters cover not only such fairly well-known topics as the Glasgow rent strike, the imprisonment of prominent conscientious objectors (COs) - John MacLean, James Maxton - industrial unrest, and the launch of the Women’s Peace Crusade, but also many lesser-known people and events, deploying newly unearthed material. Some great group photographs and two portraits (of women, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan) enhance its attractive presentation.

The narrative runs from perspectives and protest in the prelude to war through the mass protest rallies and evolving of the anti-war position in the early months of the conflict to the growth of opposition to the threat of conscription. That threat was of course carried out in early 1916, and the longest chapters (4 and 5) deal with COs: what they said for themselves and what was said against them; their trials, testimonies, and punishment in prisons and labour camps; and their ways of surviving and coping. Finally there is an overview of repression and resistance, peace campaigns, and radical politics, 1916-1918 and the striving for a lasting peace – until the sowing of the "seeds of future conflict" at Versailles.

Without dwelling at undue length on cases of ill-treatment in barracks and prisons the book illustrates the sort of ordeals COs had to face, and the authorities' wilful incomprehension of their principled stand:

‘In my opinion Sangster is more than a little daft, and Maxton more insane than sane. Neither is accessible to reason. They are alike in their exaggerated egoism and in their want of a sense of proportion, and I should not be at all surprised if either or both of them become certifiably insane.’  - Scottish Prison Commissioner Dr James Devon on James Maxton and James Edny Sangster, two COs in Perth prison, 10 Feb.1917.
‘His mind has lost grip to a large extent. That such a man should have been a teacher is a marvel and a mystery. He may yet have to be certified. If he were liberated I do not say he would be quite sane, and he may be a cause of trouble in these times.’ – Dr Devon, report on Maxton as above, 16 June 1917. (Both quotations on p.84)

One of the individuals Duncan looks at who deserve to be more widely remembered is Dr John MacCallum, an Edinburgh graduate in Arts and Medicine who in his early 30s had become Medical Officer of Health for Ayrshire, specialising in tuberculosis (and was a Scottish rugby international). He chose to become a CO rather than seek occupational exemption, and was one of those sent to do noxious work in appalling conditions at an ‘artificial manure’ manufacturers in Broxburn, near Edinburgh, where he was victimised. He had spoken out against abusive treatment of the workers and was accused of exerting a bad influence. (p. 109) A letter of protest about his arrest and recall to the army was addressed to the Home Office in May 1917, but he was returned to Perth prison, where he served a third sentence in 1918.

There are interesting similarities between some of the book’s findings and those of researchers elsewhere, notably the harrowing experiences of COs and their capacity for resistance, the existence of support networks, the active part played by women, and the fact that jingoistic hostility, while troublesome, was less than universal. At the same time special features of the anti-war scene north of the border are brought out, such as the apparently higher incidence of ‘political’ (especially Independent Labour Party) rather than purely religious motivation for conscientious objection, and the greater disinclination for the martyrdom consequent upon maintaining ‘absolutism’ to the point of refusing all alternatives to repeated prison sentences. (p.99) 

The map of opposition is extended beyond Glasgow and ‘Red’ Clydeside to show the varying strength of the movement in other cities - considerable in industrial Dundee. It was more difficult to get the anti-war message across unmolested in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, although there were certainly supporters in each, with large rallies in the former, and Quakers from the latter providing much-needed food and encouragement to COs at Dyce camp. Names of smaller towns like Kilmarnock crop up too, but the map seems to stop short of the Highland line, not surprisingly perhaps since the sources used are mainly concerned with the more populous industrialised areas. Demographic and social factors would have made for a lower number of COs in the Highlands and Islands but there were some in even the most remote locations (see previous posts listed below). In this and other respects the research effort is already being extended as more records become generally available. Appeal tribunal records for Lothian and Peebles, used by Duncan, are now online as are those for the Isle of Lewis, and shortly after the book's publication the invaluable Pearce Register of COs with 17,426 records at time of writing was added to the Imperial War Museum website for Lives of the First World War.

[A version of this review may be published in Medicine, Conflict and Survival in due course: now online: 
free eprint available for the first 50 to click here]


Objection Overruled: conscription and conscience in the First World War, by David Boulton, Dent, Cumbria, Dales Historical Monographs in Association with Friends Historical Society, 2014.
Comrades in Conscience: the story of an English Community’s opposition to the Great War, by Cyril Pearce, London, Francis Boutle, 2014.
A Small Vital Flame: anti-war women in NW England 1914-1918, by Alison Ronan, Manchester, Scholars’ Press, 2014.
(Combined review of the 3 above in Medicine, Conflict and Survival - online 6 Nov 2014)
The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War, by Trevor Royle, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2013.

Chapter titles and selected additional notes

1. Prelude to war: perspectives and protest
            Labour Leader claimed 100 protest marches in Scotland, from the Borders to Fraserburgh

2. Wartime objection and protest in Scotland: August-December 1914
            “No war fever” in Glasgow, except in the Jingoistic press...
                    few cases of confrontation or obstruction

3. Opposing the conscription threat: 1915-early 1916
              Munitions Act: Militarisation of labour, "industrial slavery"
                   Glasgow rent strike: 40,000 households. May-Nov. 1915

4. Conscription and conscientious objection 1916-1918: testimonies and trials of objectors
               200 Local Tribunals in Scotland + 50 Appeal Tribunals - 
                    Glasgow busiest, most troubled. Supporters in gallery singing Red Flag, often. 
                    Dundee: <50 applications on opening, many moral/political, nearly all refused
                       – furious reaction in town   
                Central Tribunal test case, Cameron Roberts: setback – political objection ruled out 
                      but Exemption from Combatant Service if sincere objection to taking life.
                Case studies [more on some of these to follow] e.g. Hugh Gemell - 
                        class-war socialist, ILP: "willing to fight to defend a workers’ state."

5. Objection and punishment: prisons and labour camps
                Detention in army camps inc. Cromarty, Fort George;
                                          soldiers “kind & considerate” to CO, mutual help
                 Prison: Barlinnie, Calton, Perth. Health effects: cold, food, hard labour 
                          - almost continual solitary confinement, strict silence;
                          mental & cultural deprivation.
                          “COs developed persistent melancholia & committed suicide” - 
                       Charles Yachnies, Feb.1918, certified insane, “criminal lunatic”
                           – committed to Colney Hatch; died 27-7-18.
                  Not to waste lives as martyrs; opting to disappear; 
                            on the run, anti-war propaganda for board & lodging,
                  Work centres usually in country; compulsion, penal conditions.                                                                           Ballachulish. Cancellation of Xmas leave, 1916:
                              6 AWOL; confrontation, arrests 
                              - hunger strike in prison, threat of forced feeding. Letters, pleas in support.
                                (Primitive, reactionary diagnosis of state of mind - see Maxton above). 
                      Dundee COs refused to act as beaters on Cruachan estate 
                               - shooting birds wrong, inappropriate, against principles                                       
                      Willie McDougall, Glasgow anarchist, tried to organise strike at Dartmoor 
                       - successful escape bid, on bike - with help made it back to Glasgow,  
                        "resumed his political activities." 

6. Repression and resistance, peace campaigns, and radical politics: 1916-1918
             Range of repressive measures, disruption; police raids.
             Early 1917 Aberdeen South by-election - F Pethick-Lawrence; jingo mob.
             Women activists' aim of mobilising anti-militarist campaign 
                         with strong base among working-class women
                         Networks: tenements, streets.
              Glasgow May Day, 1918: the 1st of May was a Wednesday  - 
                   thousands took a day off  (strike, unpaid): 
                   70,000 at  Glasgow Green, 20 platforms.for speakers; "mass civil disobedience".

Plus: Introduction, End Notes, and Names Index.

Previously on this blog:-

To follow on this blog: More about some of the personalities featured in the book.

At the People's Palace, Glasgow:


  1. A related story with comments from Robert Duncan (author of "Objectors and Resisters") can be seen at
    "The letter from the Ayrshire dad who refused to fight"
    "The plight of the conscientious objectors - those who refused to go to war - is highlighted in a poignant letter gifted to Glasgow Caledonian University. Thousands of letters were written home from the front line, but the one now on display was penned by a Scot in a Labour camp in Argyll, to his baby daughter."

  2. For a list of selected COs from Aberdeen and the north east, see 28-3-2019