Every time I see the establishment line up to commemorate the “glorious” dead of the First World War I can’t help but think of Siegfried Sassoon’s words: “The Great Ones of the Earth approve with smiles and bland salutes, the rage and monstrous tyranny that they have brought to birth.”
The official celebrations of the Great War treat the conflict like a great patriotic tragedy. However even at the time hundreds of thousands refused to go along with the war. Risking their lives, liberty and the hatred of others they raised their voices against the killing, and those voices only grew louder as the war went on.
In Britain conscription was introduced in 1916 and more than 20,000 men refused the call, declaring themselves Conscientious Objectors (or COs). Many organisations helped to oppose the war including those on the left and Quakers. This being Britain each CO had to fill in a form and tick a box as to whether they were objecting on religious or political grounds. Around half ticked religion and the other half politics — although in truth for many it was a bit of both.
Those who applied for CO status weren’t always granted it, first they had to convince the magistrate at a specially convened court and they were rarely sympathetic. Anarchists began organising what we’d call “solidarity actions” today, filling the court with supporters and then creating mayhem when proceedings began. Socialists would sing red or anti-war songs.
It’s sometimes argued that Britain was particularly lenient in not shooting those who refused to fight, however this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. One of my relatives on my father’s side, Arthur Sowter, was a conscientious objector and sentenced to hard labour, and was then sent to France to work as a grave digger at the front. Physically broken and suffering from shell shock he died in his twenties, for the crime of refusing to pick up a gun for his country. We were only lenient if it is kinder to break someone on a wheel than execute them out right. These men were far from cowards for refusing to take up arms.
It was far from an easy course of action, COs faced jail, social exclusion, violence and vile treatment. They had no idea what might happen to them and the threat of execution (and even fake firing squads) were used to intimidate COs in an attempt to crack their resolve — which must have broken some. My grandmother remembered having bricks thrown through her windows as a child during the war and COs suffered violence and scorn from prison guards and other soldiers alike, aside from the gruelling duties of hard labour, stretching bearing or the degrading conditions of prison.
Some COs, nick named Absolutists, refused all orders, up to and including wearing the uniform. George Dutch recalled his experience; “They stripped me of my own clothing and put the uniform down beside me and said ‘Now you’ve got to put it on’. I said ‘Well, I will not put it on’. ‘Alright, you’ve got to sit there’. I sat there for a day or two and the whole camp was interested. Everybody knew what was going on. Soldiers used to come and say ‘Go on, stick it boy, stick it if it kills you’. The major was very much disliked and I can understand that. I can see what type of person he was. He must have noticed it, because after a day or two suddenly my tent was taken up and taken right up on top of the cliff overlooking the sea. This was in November and it was pretty cold, misty weather. And I was taken up there and my uniform put beside me again by the tent pole, and just to make things worse than ever they rolled the tent walls up so that the wind came right into the tent, all round, and I could sit there and freeze. Which I did. And the orders were that no one was to come near me until I dressed and came down. Well I didn’t dress and I didn’t go down and I stayed there and I’m not quite sure how long it was, but I think it must have been at least ten days — and nights — in just my singlet and pants and socks. Just sitting like that in the tent and before I’d been there many hours I was frozen right through with exposure. Then suddenly a whole group of them turned up. The medical officer, the doctor, and the NCOs that had put me up there and rolled the tent walls up. The doctor was very angry. So he said to his men, ‘Get him down to the tent, down to the medical tent.’”
One leading anti-war organiser, Fenner Brockway, while imprisoned in Walton Prison, Liverpool, began the first illicit anti-war newspaper in prison, The Walton Leader. Carefully written on toilet paper it was distributed cell to cell, man to man. When it was eventually discovered and he was punished the jail erupted in a ten day prison strike until he was transferred to Lincoln jail (and solitary confined for around the next two years). Brockway later became a recruiter for volunteers to fight in Spain through the ILP and wrote a recommendation letter for George Orwell when he set off to Barcelona.
With most of its male activists arrested the No Conscription Fellowship continued its activities run almost entirely by courageous women. Those women who resisted the war are often written out of history. Of course, because they were not subject to conscription they had less opportunities to get arrested but they were part of and led the movement none-the-less.
During the war Sylvia Pankhurst was sent to jail for five months (not for the first time), on this occasion for sedition. Editions of her paper were suppressed for calling on soldiers not to fight. She compared Labour politicians, who had opposed the war before it started and then voted for war credits once it had begun like this; “Some Socialists tell us that the floor of the House of Commons is a splendid platform for propaganda; but the trouble is that when they get into the House, their courage seems to evaporate like a child’s soap bubble. We have heard of Labour Members of Parliament being ready to do and say all sorts of heroic things, and to get themselves put out of the House, to arrest the world’s attention on some appropriate occasion. That is not much of course, as compared with running the risk of death in the horrible trenches or with being incarcerated for years in prison.”
It wasn’t just small groups of activists that opposed the war. While we shouldn’t pretend there was any shortage of patriotic pro-war fervour we know that a large minority were down-right opposed. This has some reflection in the music hall, despite the fact that it was difficult to legally voice outright opposition. One popular song, first written for the US music hall became an international anti-war anthem and it’s not difficult to see why when we look at the lyrics of ‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier’;
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier/ I brought him up to be my pride and joy/ Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy? / Let nations arbitrate their future problems/ It’s time to lay the sword and gun away/ There’d be no war today/ If mothers all would say/ “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”.”
The song ‘A Conscientious Objector’ is, on the face of it, a wry attack on those who refused to fight as effeminate cowards, but scratch the surface and it’s far more complex. Audiences would enthusiastically sing the chorus “send out the bakers and blooming profit makers but for Gawd’s sake don’t send me.” In an era where bakers (and some other professions) were seen as explicitly exploiting the war to fill their pockets there is a definite popular anti-war angle here.
Australia is probably a helpful example because, unlike in Britain, they held a referendum to introduce conscription and so many arguments that were illegal here were part of the legitimate debate. Posters showing the Labour Party making coffins declared those in the party advocating conscription were both betraying workers who would be sent to die and would kill the party. Others showed the figure of death canvassing for a yes vote or men voting yes to put their head in a noose. The Blood Vote poster (pictured) described the ballot box as a “box of blood”.
Those campaigning against conscription narrowly won the vote, which outraged the authorities who promptly arrested the leaders of the movement and held the referendum again — which returned a no vote with a wider margin.
Many of those who refused to fight did not label themselves conscientious objectors. By the end of the war around a third of French army had deserted and there were many forest camps populated by deserters from armies from both sides who were simply sick of the war.
The famous football match is a wonderful image, but it’s also the officially sanctioned ceasefire where soldiers still, literally, played by the rules. Far less famous are the unofficial ceasefires where whole stretches of the trenches refused to fight, or would simply agree to fire to miss, or only throw bombs at allocated times of the day.
The General Staff were firing off frustrated orders and memos to each other trying to solve the problem of an army that refused to fight, or seemed to be on positively friendly terms with those in the opposite trenches. In the end whole aspects of military strategy was designed in order to ensure soldiers would have no option but to kill the enemy.
In Mark Thompson’s brilliant The White War which details the Italian-Austrian front he describes how even officers more than once ordered a ceasefire simply to stop the killing. “On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian Captain shouted to his gunners, “What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.” The Austrians stopped firing and called out; “Stop, go back! We won’t shoot anymore. Do you want everyone to die?”
Other more individualist solutions included shooting the officer who was responsible for ordering a charge, deserting or simply wandering across no man’s land and giving yourself up to the enemy, knowing that there was no war in the prison camps.
The Conscientious Objectors of the First World War were courageous and principled. Whether motivated by religion, political principle or a simple sense of common humanity they were prepared to suffer the most terrible consequences in refusing to take part in a bloodbath that left millions dead across Europe.
They were also the tip of the iceberg of many tens of thousands of others who refused to fight in other, subtler ways. We’ll never know the truth about the mutinies that did take place in the British Army and Navy, but it’s clear that those who wanted no part of someone else’s war were far from alone.