COMMUNITIES OF RESISTANCE – Conscience and Dissent in Britain during the First World War

The term magnum opus is often used by writers to denote a work that has taken an immense amount of time and effort – irrespective of the finished product. However, this book has not only involved great labour, but it can also truly be called ‘great’ both in terms of the scope of the research and as a piece of historical writing.  It is based on Cyril Pearce’s 2001 Comrades in Conscience, an in-depth study of Conscientious Objectors (COs) in his home town of Huddersfield, which was revised in 2014, just in time for the beginning of the commemorations of the Centenary of the beginning of the Great War.  [1]This book is taken as the starting point for an analysis of the massive amount of data collected by Cyril identifying COs from the rest of the UK and collated and published online by the Imperial War Museum as The Pearce Register of British COs. [2]

Making sense of information relating to almost 20,000 COs and breaking it down so that some coherent pattern of CO activity and its’ relationship to the communities that helped sustain it, is in itself a monumental task. In the hands of a less skilled writer this could easily turned into a turgid morass of statistics and faceless names. Instead, Cyril artfully interweaves his interpretation of the statistics with vivid biographical information about the COs and their supporters, so that the impetus of the narrative doesn’t flag. We are taken instead on an Odyssey through both the radical opposition to the war, its’ late 19th/early 20th century origins and the 20th century sequel. And like the Odyssey, along the way we meet both heroes and monsters.

Cyril takes Huddersfield as his datum for CO activity and addresses the question raised in his earlier book – just how special was Huddersfield as a centre for opposition to the war? The methodology once worked out appears quite simple, but must have demanded some meticulous number crunching. He creates an index based on the ratio of known COs per thousand men of a conscriptable age in each a local government county area.  These are then compared to the Huddersfield datum calculated on the same which appears as 6.41, a number which the reader should bear in mind.  Thus a quantitative measure of CO activity, ‘the CO Index’, is established. However, as the book makes amply clear this is not the main criterion for describing the quality of CO activity, which varies greatly from one community to another. One qualitative distinction gleaned from the statistics is the comparison of the numbers of ‘Absolutist’ COs, who refused to cooperate in any way with the government and those who compromised by taking up non-combatant duties, or who participated in Home Office work schemes. The distribution maps of CO activity and statistical tables of CO war service are clearly set out in Appendices and do not interrupt the flow of the text for the innumerate reader like myself!

The opening chapter is a general overview of the CO experience regarding the Tribunal process, the organisation of support (such as the No Conscription Fellowship) and government efforts to deal with the problem, which varied from military coercion, to gaol, to work schemes of varying severity . Some COs suffered several of these measures with different degrees of compliance and fortitude. In May 1919 there were still 350 Absolutists in prison. For those who survived the process there was often no returning to their old lives as they found themselves blacklisted and seeking work along with thousands of demobbed servicemen.

The case analysis of the various locations scoring different levels on the CO Index begins with examples where there seems to have been limited opposition to the war. As well as county towns with large rural hinterlands, such as Norwich, this surprisingly includes the coal fields which only a few years before had been locked in conflict with the state.  This cannot be entirely accounted for by the fact many men were in reserved occupations, since there was sometimes a high rate of voluntary recruitment, (my own maternal grandfather being an example of this who as a miner joined the Barnsley Pals). The following chapter examines two cities where the CO Index was low, Birmingham and the London Boroughs.  Areas of high levels of activity, that is equivalent, or greater than, that of Huddersfield, are covered in chapters describing ‘Hotspots’ and ‘Heartlands’, which vary from solid industrial areas like Nelson to the county city of York and rural villages, each with their own peculiar characteristics.  The Quaker foundations of the peace movement in York are described in some detail, as are the contrasting solidly working class movements of Nelson and other Pennine industrial towns, with vibrant cultures expressed in Clarion groups and socialist clubs.  Letchworth, the modern garden city then still under construction, also comes under scrutiny with its avant-guard and sometimes bohemian image already being rapidly transformed by new manufacturing companies

Scotland has its own chapter with an attempt to move from the usual focus on ‘Red Clydeside’, which tends to obscure a wider enthusiasm for the war, plus the fact that the large engineering and mining sectors meant many men were in ‘badged’ (reserved) occupations. This complicated picture is further hampered by gaps in the data. Nevertheless the story of war resisters in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen still emerges. The Welsh story is a bit more limited with the focus on Bridgend, Aberavon and Briton Ferry, which all have a high CO Index. [3]The situation in the rest of industrial Wales is not described, despite it being where Keir Hardie had his seat and where there was a miners’ strike in 1915 partly political in nature, since one grievance was the threat to union activity posed by the Munitions Act.

Unlike some historians Cyril does not feign false academic ‘objectivity’, in order to conceal his sympathies, which clearly lie with the COs. The story is told from the perspective of the war resisters (COs and supporters) and their motivations, which are sometimes not transparent, are carefully explored. These are the people and movements equivalent to those which A L Rowse derided in an attack on Christopher Hill’s research into 17th century radical sects, ‘when the lid was lifted off society all sorts of lunatics boiled up from below…just like taking up a stone to see the insects pullulating beneath.’ [4] This attitude is still often not far from the surface in some popular perceptions of war resisters and was fuelled in 2014 by Jeremy Paxman’s dismissive reference, in a documentary commemorating the outbreak of the war, to COs as ‘cranks’.   

The massive amount of biographical material about resisters beliefs and motivations gathered by Cyril should be enough to exorcise this myth for ever.  Of course, there were some who were clearly ‘cranks’ and fanatics and Cyril does not balk at telling their stories. The worst case is that of Henry Bellamore of Bath, who, at his Tribunal hearing ingenuously admitted that he would not help a child injured by a Zeppelin attack, since this would be helping the devil’s work. The reaction against this comment worthy of a 17th century sectarian led to an outbreak of 17th century communal censure, forcing him to enlist – with fatal consequences.  The book allows millenarians and sectarians, as well as more broad-based, ‘mainstream’ movements, both religious and political, to have their story told without any moralising or condescension.

Among the religious are the Christadelphians, Plymouth Bretheren and International Bible Students (later’ Jehovas’ Witnesses’) who were not pacifists, in that they were against wars of worldly powers, but who, if so guided, would fight to establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth. Similarly there were socialists and some anarchists/syndicalists, including members of the British Socialist party (BSP), Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) who opposed imperialist wars, but who would take up arms in the class war.

The unequivocal pacifists, opposed to all war under any circumstances, included the Friends (Quakers), individual adherents of some dissenting denominations, the Tolstoyans (religious and political anarchists) and members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and other free-lance socialists who may, or may not, also belong to a religious, usually non-conformist body and whose socialism was ethically, rather than theoretically, based.  All these receive a fair hearing from the author who, unlike the usually culturally blinkered and socially conservative officials of the Tribunals, has a deep understanding of the organisations and ideologies involved, as well as of human values and motivations.

The amount of fascinating detail should provide something for the reader, whatever moral and/or political standpoint (or none) they may approach from, or whatever locality they may be interested in.  Some characters and communities are less well documented and only a thumb nail sketch may be possible. For others there are vivid and colourful portraits. One of the latter is the story of Arthur Gardiner, the Huddersfield BSP CO (who helped launch the author on his epic task) and the wider milieu of local opposition to the war. One character which falls more into the thumb nail category, but which has inspired me to follow up his story, was Arthur Raistrick, CO Absolutist from Saltaire. Part of the Nelson ILP scene he was imprisoned and joined the Friends.  Originally a geologist, he went on to become a pioneer landscape/industrial archaeologist. He was also a CO in WW2 and stuck to his socialist and Quaker principles, refusing an OBE from Harold Wilson in 1974 and missing the official opening of Coalbrookdale industrial heritage centre, which he helped set up, because he refused to bow to royalty.

Perhaps the saddest chapter of the book, filled as it is with many tragic stories, is the penultimate one, dealing with the men who objected to war but who, for whatever reason, nevertheless donned khaki. Subject to societal pressure, military coercion, or worn down by penal harassment they took part in both non-combatant and frontline roles, some surviving the war, others succumbing to wounds or disease.

Fortunately, the book closes on a more inspiring note with an account of those COs who went on the run.  This reminds me of the first time I saw COs depicted on TV, in the controversial 1975 Ken Loach BBC drama Days of Hope which has such a character in the opening episode. [5]The underground network of supporters, as well as the individual escapades in the hills of Scotland and the fells of NE England, are vividly depicted in this chapter. One of the most interesting is the link with the network smuggling Irish rebels to North America through Liverpool as well as the stories of COs who fled to Ireland, at least one of them, Arthur Horner, to take a direct part in the struggle there against British militarism.  Since by its very nature such ‘outlaw’ activity was clandestine the record for it is very patchy, though one crude monument to it survives in the form of a boulder carved with CO’s initials and the name of Halifax CO A Boosey, on a hillside above a SLP safe house near Broughton in Furness.

The conclusion briefly reviews how far the book has answered the questions it posed itself. How special was Huddersfield as a centre opposition to the war? How far can the prevailing view that opposition to the war was insignificant in the face of popular support be challenged? And’ just what the anti-war movement looked like at the local level’?   The author is candid about the need for further research to answer these questions and others that have been raised, if the story of COs and communities of resistance is to be taken forward. What they actually achieved and how this fed into post war politics is one vital issue that needs to be addressed.

The initial questions, particularly the last of the three, have been greatly clarified by this work, if some loose ends and blind spots still do need attention. The supplemental question however still needs resolution.  Cyril gives the impression that the main legacy of the COs and war resisters was in the field of the Labour Party and parliamentary/electoral politics.  He sets the tone by opening his account with the 1924 ‘Fetters and Roses’ celebration of Labour Party and Liberal MPs who had been COs and other guests from the former anti-war community. His biographical accounts of other COs also often refer to their post war success as council or parliamentary candidates.

A quote from another historian I chanced across, relating to Syndicalism in the pre-war Durham coalfield, sums up for me some of the problems with this approach :

Indeed, the immediate popular response to the war effort from Chopwell families,500 men left the village to fight, including two of Lawther’s own brothers, suggested that the revolutionary nucleus had had a distinctly limited impact on the political consciousness of the village’s inhabitants. Only a hardcore that included Lawther and two other of his brothers, took a stand against the war and became Conscientious Objectors.[6]

This raises directly and by implication, several vital questions, not only in relation to the peace struggle in the Great War, but about political and ‘class’ consciousness and activity in general, which are still highly relevant.  Chopwell before the war had a thriving Anarchist club of which Will Lawther was the leading light.  Writing to the Anarchist Journal Freedom after Christmas 1914 he claims that the recruiting was under pressure:

Like many other colliery districts in the bleak North East coast we suffer from the war, the pits being laid off whenever recruiting is slack. Of course that is not compulsion, only it is forcing by starvation those who would not otherwise enlist.  Glorious Freedom ! Merrie England ! But not for he who is a wage slave.

This obviously raises the problem of how far economic coercion was used to boost recruitment before conscription was introduced and how many men who were opposed to the war were raked in by it. But it also is an admission that the work by anarchists and other militants had limited results in its ability to stem the drive to war.  Despite this, during the bitter resistance by miners to wage cuts in the 1920s, Chopwell became (later along with Maerdy in South Wales) one of the ‘Little Moscows’ renowned for its militancy. However by the 1940s, former Anarchist and CO,  Will Lawther ( his CO brother Eddie had spent two years in Wormwood Scrubs), now former Labour MP for Barnard Castle and quondam supporter of the Spanish Republic, as president of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, was one of those enthusiastically supporting the war effort and admonishing miners who struck to protect their work conditions and living standards. He later accepted a knighthood.  Clearly electoral success in either parliamentary or trade union terms is not a sound indicator of political principle and more often than not can signal a waning of idealism and a descent into bureaucratic complacency.   

Some other way then needs to be examined to gauge the impact of the CO legacy. I don’t have the answer to this and Communities of Resistance offers no easy explanation of why the actions of individuals took such disparate forms both in the war and after it.  Part of the problem lies in the tendency to believe that there is such a thing as ‘false consciousness’ without exploring just what constitutes that consciousness.  On one extreme, why does nationalism and militarism have such a grip on many people, so that the press incited jingoistic mobs of 1916 were little different from the ‘Church and King’ mobs of 1796, a phenomenon still apparent, if in less violent form, anytime Britain is engaged in one of its post-colonialist wars?   On the other hand why, whatever the adversity, are there still people dedicated to peace and humanitarian actions, even at the risk of their own life and liberty?  

Such Communities of Resistance still exist and reassert themselves at times of war and class division. But they seem no nearer to fundamentally changing dominant attitudes than in 1914-1918.  Communities of Resistance reminds us of the need to keep this tradition alive and the importance, ultimately, of individual will, as well as collective solidarity. For that alone I believe the book is both a magnum opus and a work of Homeric stature in the sense that, paradoxically, it was in the violence depicted in the Iliad that peace activist Simone Weil saw a clear depiction of the essential meaning of power, something that the COs and their supporters also well understood. [7]

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Communities of Resistance – Conscience and Dissent in Britain during the First World War by Cyril Pearce has 482 pages of text, 8 maps, 20 pages of appendices and a comprehensive, if slightly confusing index.  It is abundantly illustrated and attractively laid out with many original photos from personal collections. (Francis Boutle Publishers 2020)


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NOTES

[1] For my review of Comrades in Conscience see:

https://undergroundhistories.wordpress.com/the-white-feather-the-first-great-imperialist-war/

https://undergroundhistories.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/comrades-in-conscience-by-cyril-pearce/

[2]  The Register can be accessed by copying into your web browser : https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/searchlives/filter/contribution%3DConscientious%2BObjector   . It incorporates the Pearce Register but you have to look hard to find any mention of it. sadly, and for the forseeable future, the only way you can get at the full searchable Register is by visiting either Friends House Library in London or the Working Class movement Library in Salford. Both have regularly up-dated copies of the Register in its original Microsoft Access format. Alternatively, for those who have Access on their computers, the author is prepared to let them have a copy of the Register free of charge if they contact him at c.pearce@btinternet.com

[3] Wales has been covered by the thesis and subsequent book  by Aled Eirug The Opposition to the Great War in Wales 1918. He acknowledges his debt to the Pearce Register.

[4] A L Rowse Historians I have known  (London 1995) p.113.

[5] This film, starring a young Paul Copley, is available on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0u019DvYjY4

[6] Lewis H. Mates  The Syndicalist challenge in the Durham coalfield before 1914.  Paper delivered to “Is Black and Red Dead?” conference organised by the PSA Anarchist Studies Network and Marxism Specialist Group, at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, the University of Nottingham, 7 September 2009.

[7] Lawrence A Blum and Victor J Seidler A Truer Liberty – Simone Weil and Marxism. (London 1989)