‘We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War,’ declared David Cameron announcing centenary commemorations of the war’s outbreak in 1914. We have a duty to remember the whole story, argues OWEN ADAMS, including those who opposed the conflict.
One late night at the Angel pub in Coleford, Gloucestershire, I found myself chatting with a soldier based at Beachley, about the war in Afghanistan. He agreed that there was no good reason for the British army to be there, but when it came to the idea of bringing the troops home, he said: “If we give up now, the deaths of all those killed in action in Helmand, including my mates, will be in vain.” In other words, to retreat would be to dishonour the fallen, despite the lack of justification for the war in the first place.
The same kind of rationale seems to be the main theme every Remembrance Day. If you’re not wearing a red poppy, or if you argue against wearing a poppy because it’s glorifying war, it’s considered a betrayal of the memory of the dead and injured.
Many poppy pushers don’t want to hear about the futility of war, or that arms traders use Remembrance Day functions as networking events, or that remembering the fallen isn’t enough. We need to strive for an end to all war.
Last year, the government announced a £50 million fund to pay for commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, “the war to end all wars” (which instead paved the way for more wars). Every school will receive funding to visit French and Belgian battlefields.
Prime minister David Cameron said: “Let’s get out there and make the centenary a truly national moment in every community in our land… to ensure the sacrifice made across the Commonwealth during the First World War is something that will unite the whole country next year… We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War to ensure that the role that our armed forces played, and continue to play, in defending our liberties we take for granted today are remembered.”
Never mind that even the best historians are unable to explain precisely why or how all the major world powers of 1914 mutually massacred more than 15 million of their young, or that people’s liberties were curtailed (they were slaves ordered to murder), or that we are now obliged to remember the sacrifices people made for ‘their country’ as part of stage-managed propaganda from the military-industrial complex.
The sacrifices people were forced to make – under pain of court-martial, imprisonment, or firing squad, or at best accusations of cowardice – were in the name of capitalism and empire. Is it any coincidence that war was declared at a time of immense social upheaval across Europe, when trade unions, labour movements, calls for universal suffrage and socialist causes were beginning to make headway, threatening to topple the establishment and capitalist fat cats?
While we are urged to remember the war, will we also be told about the widespread industrial unrest (including two police strikes), the mutinies and peace truces, the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland, the Russian revolution of 1917, and the German revolution of 1918? Will we remember the anti-war sentiment among the shipyard workers on ‘Red Clydeside’ and many other socialists in Britain, and elsewhere? Will we be told about the devastating influenza outbreak of 1918/19 which killed far more people, many already exhausted by years of unnecessary brutality? And will we remember one of the enduring slogans of the war: ‘a worker at both ends of a bayonet’?
Perhaps not even Labour Party historians will want to see the First World War as intrinsically a war to stem the tide of international socialism and a burgeoning working-class uprising. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was published just a few months before war was declared.
Workers for peace
Just two days before war was declared, Keir Hardie (below) and Arthur Henderson signed a manifesto at an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square which stated: “Workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all… Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the war. Up with the peaceful rule of the people.”
Yet within several weeks, the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and the TUC swung firmly behind the war, leaving only the national council of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) unstinting in its anti-war stance.
The Bristol Radical History Group, which includes input from Forest of Dean historians such as Ian Wright, is researching and appealing for hidden and buried war-time stories to be unearthed and collated as a counter to the government’s propaganda machine about 1914-18.
Among the revelations they have revealed are these:
the so-called “Christmas Day Truce” of 1914 involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, in some places lasted for months, rather than a day or two, and was repeated several times;
Churchill and other leaders hatched a plan to engage 500,000 British and other troops in nipping the Bolshevik revolution in the bud, but underestimated the lack of enthusiasm for such a campaign;
Soviets were declared in places outside Russia, one even in Southampton;
and there was a roaring trade in VD gononoccal pus, which soldiers rubbed on their groins as a way of getting out of the trenches, while others shot themselves in the foot.
The Gloucestershire poet FW Harvey, who lived in Yorkley from 1921 until his death in 1957, is remembered as a ‘war poet’, mainly thanks to his poem Ducks, penned while a prisoner of war. But he’s scarcely known for the peace meetings he organised at Devil’s Chapel after the war. Harvey enthusiasts will doubtless dismiss any suggestion that he deliberately went over the top to hand himself over to the Germans to escape the trenches. The stigma of such actions remains, promoted by those who claim that someone trying to save their own life, or sanity, by leaving the battlefield, was a coward.
‘Don’t be a soldier – be a man’
The narrative that Cameron and co no doubt want us to follow is that everyone in Britain was eager to play their part in the war, and that it was only after experiencing the horror of the trenches that many were moved to pen poignant poetry.
But research by Ian Wright suggests that in the Forest of Dean, at least, only a small number of miners were willing to leave the pits for the trenches. In January 1915, only 600 out of 7,000 miners had signed up to fight the Hun. Only about a quarter of the 800-strong Forest battalion of the Gloucestershire regiment were recruited from the Dean, while the officers came from ruling class families and mine-owners. The battalion lost 292 men, 38 from the Forest. And there was opposition to conscription too, as more than 200 Forest miners were dragged into the war after 1916, by order of the government.
He writes: “In the summer of 1916, at the annual miners’ demonstration at Speech House, the national president of the Miners’ Federation urged the miners across the country to stand together against their natural enemy, the coal owners. He emphasised the need for union solidarity with other industries, in particular the dockers and railway workers…
“At a meeting in Drybrook in August 1917 syndicalist miners from South Wales met with the Forest men. They decided to oppose any further scheme and declared in favour of negotiation for an immediate and honourable peace with Germany.”
The Industrial Workers of the World’s syndicalist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” seemed to apply at Norchard Colliery where 6,000 Forest miners threatened an all-out strike in 1918, calling for the reinstatement of one sacked worker.
AE Ashworth’s The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 remains one of the best alternative narratives which reveals the lengths ordinary soldiers on both sides went to while the generals and officers weren’t looking. A British soldier remembered: “Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realised that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all.”
Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier! also offers valuable insights. The title is taken from a leaflet produced in 1914, which stated: “a good soldier is a blind, heartless machine. At the word of command he will put a bullet in the brain of the bravest and noblest man who has ever lived. He respects neither the grey hair of age nor the weakness of childhood. He is unmoved by prayers, by tears, or by argument. He is indifferent to human thought or feelings. Don’t be a soldier – be a man!”
The official account always tells us that the war ended with the armistice of 11 November 1918. But demobilisation didn’t get underway until the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, and only after numerous mutinies, mass walkouts, an influenza epidemic and civil unrest. “For a while the power of the armed forces had slipped out of the control of the ruling classes,” wrote David Lamb in his study of mutinies from 1919/20, of which there were many.
We all know what happened after Versailles. The toxic brew of nationalism and fascism fermented across Europe over the next two decades – tolerated, and often supported, by the British establishment right up until 1939. Industrialists, capitalists, the church and other forces of ruling class authority were bolstered, while workers were repressed by fascism. Only when their empire, land, resources and private interests were threatened did the Allies swing into action and push the cannon fodder into service again.
This article was first published in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion towards the end of last year.
Throughout 2014, we will be publishing more articles about World War One, the anti-war movement, and the ILP’s role in war resistence.