A different view of WWI

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.

Not Our War, writings against 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.

Dr Davy’s car

Dr Thomas George Davy is one of the minor characters in the book I recently finished. As the Police Medical Officer in Perth, he visited Alice Mitchell’s home with a police constable in February 1907, shortly before Alice was arrested for murder. He later appeared at her trial as a witness.

Cartoon of Dr Davy in a pith helmet driving his motor car.

A cartoon of Dr Davy from Truth, 19October 1907. It is one of a many caricatures drawn for that newspaper by ‘Pas’ (Donald McDonald).

Dr Davy was born in Jamaica in 1856. He arrived in Western Australia in 1895 after spending time in medical practice in China, India, the Solomon Islands and New Zealand. Oxford-trained, a polymath and a skilled musician, he spoke nine languages.

But he was best known in Perth for his inability to get along with other members of the medical profession, and for his motor car, which he bought in 1904.

The first petrol-driven vehicle in Perth was a tricycle imported by Armand Bargigli in 1898. But the first recognisable ‘motor car’ arrived in December 1900, having been bought at the Paris Fair by John Banfield, an engineer.

Two-seater 6.5 HP Gladiator motor car from 1901.

Restored two-seater, 6.5 HP Gladiator from 1901
Photo by Krzysztof Marek Wlodarczyk, used under a CC license

Although Dr Davy was proud of his motor car, he was not very adept at driving it. In December 1904 an unfortunate man of Chinese background sued Dr Davy for £100 for injuries sustained when Dr Davy ran over him. The court dismissed the claim.

In November 1905 Dr Davy appeared in court charged with obstructing the traffic. He had parked the car in front of the town hall in order to go inside to vote, and had ignored a request by a traffic inspector to move it. He argued in court that, having stopped the car, he couldn’t restart it.

The fact of the matter is that the inspector does not understand the vagaries of motor cars, and I can assure you I had the very best of intentions,” Dr Davy is reported to have said.

‘Motor cars’ were still a rarity in Perth in 1907. When Dr Davy parked his car outside the Mitchell’s house in Edward Street, it brought a crowd of curious neighbours, eager to see what was going on.

After Dr Davy’s death in 1908 the Sunday Times recounted another tale about his car:

The Doctor ran a motor, which was reckoned to be absolutely the most erratic machine on the face of the globe. 
After a while the public became aware that it was the doctor’s playful mechanical eccentricities that  accounted for the break-downs.
One day, a week after purchasing the stormy petrol, it whirred suspiciously, gave a few spasmodic coughs, and stopped dead, but with the underneath machinery going around at a terrible rate. 
The Doctor jerked and tugged at every available lever and tap, and finally descended, and rushing into the Palace Hotel rang up the agents for the motor-man to come and take the blanketty dash away, and throw it on the scrap heap.
When the Doctor came out he saw a terrific convulsion, the motor, luckily a weak horse power one, was snorting and grinding furiously along the street with half-a-dozen cabmen and as many casuals hanging on to it to keep it back.
Someone had accidentally touched the right button, and set her going. The ensuing grateful ‘shout’ cost the Doctor fifteen shillings.

(A ‘shout’, for those reading this outside Australia, refers to buying a round of drinks for everyone in the party. Some of the information in this post originally appeared in my newsletter but I’ve updated and extended it )