During the centenary of the 1914-1918 war just concluded, we’ve heard a lot about the millions of men in Britain (and Australia and Canada) who rushed to enlist when the war broke out. We’ve heard much less of those who argued against enlisting, both before and during the war.
At the moment I’m reading Not Our War, edited by A. W. Zurbrugg, which brings together a selection of writings by people who were opposed to the First World War.
Pacifists obviously refused any involvement in the war, but they were certainly not the only ones appalled by what was happening. While many Britons and Australians felt a strong duty to defend the Empire, those with an Irish Catholic background were resistant to the whole endeavour. In other parts of the Empire such as India and Africa, conscription caused resentment and fostered nationalist feelings and uprisings.
Socialists, whose writings make up the bulk of the book, saw the conflict as a war being waged between the imperialist and capitalist rulers of Europe, in which the brotherhood of workers should play no part. Unionists organised strikes in many countries, and anti-war conferences were held across Europe throughout the war.
As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been struck by the fact that we know far more now, about what was going on, than people did at the time. I hadn’t realised how extensively and effectively the media were restricted in what they could publish, even where there was no official censorship. Knowing and gauging how much resistance there was to the war was impossible while it was happening. When conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916, it was illegal to speak against it in public.
But in reading the book I’ve also been surprised by the level of opposition, much of which I’d not heard of before. During the war, mutinies by war-weary soldiers and strikes by workers struggling to make a living occurred on both sides of the conflict, often involving thousands of people.
The end of the war didn’t bring peace. I was aware, from my own grandfather’s records, that soldiers in the British army were not immediately demobilised after the armistice was signed in November 1918, and some regiments, including that of his brother-in-law, were sent to fight in Afghanistan, India and northern Persia in 1919, while others became part of the forces occupying Germany.
I didn’t know that the British government had plans to send troops to Russia to support the counter-revolutionaries once the war ended. Nor did I realise that thousands of disgruntled service men garrisoned across England and in France went on strike, closing the ports and demanding that they be demobilised and allowed to go home. Only boats carrying overseas servicemen home to Australia and elsewhere were allowed to sail. Troops arriving at the ports to be transported to new postings joined the strike.
The British government abandoned the plan to send troops to support the White armies in Russia, agreed to improve conditions for the servicemen still in uniform and hastened the process of demobilisation. Those who were willing to re-enlist were offered various new inducements, which many agreed to accept. Some would say Britain narrowly avoided an all-out revolution in 1919, while others dismiss the idea as a socialist dream. Whatever the case, enthusiasm for the war was at a much lower ebb then than it had been in 1914.