British popular responses to the First World War – a different perspective

By Cyril Pearce

The usual view of how the British people reacted to the First World War – one might even call it the ‘established’ or, more accurately, the ‘establishment’ view – is of a wildly patriotic people determined to do their duty to King and Country and to beat the ‘unspeakable Hun’. As the war dragged on that image becomes one of dogged self-sacrifice and the determination to see it through. In these images the role of the mass of the ordinary population is that of the ‘plucky Britishers’, the ‘good chaps’ and loyal women, whether at home or at the front, cheerfully doing as they were asked in the war to end all wars.

Until recently, and even during the War’s centenary commemoration period between 2014 and 2019, at least according to some self-important Television pontificators, that view has remained intact. This, despite the fact that different thoughts had been appearing long before 2014, if not in the mainstream media, then in the scholarly discourse. In his seminal The Last Great War (2008) Adrian Gregory had the temerity to suggest that those established views ‘had been remarkably blind to major divisions in Edwardian society particularly along regional (national), class and gender lines’. He might also have added ‘political’ and ‘religious’. Nevertheless, in doing this he opened up the possibility for a very different view and one not so much based on the doings of Westminster and Whitehall but on what was happening and how people were reacting beyond the privileged London matrix and out in those parts of Britain where the vast majority of its people lived and where there may even have been those who had views which contradicted what the establishment refused to accept.

Since Middlemas’ Red Clydeside (1965) and Hinton’s The First Shop Stewards’ Movement (1973) we have come to accept that workers in war essential industry were not prepared to behave as their patriot critics thought they should. Putkowski’s Mutiny: Disaffection and Unrest in the Armed Forces (2002) has suggested that even the image of the long-suffering but loyal and obedient British Tommy could do with an overhaul along with most of the other cherished assumptions. But such a re-appraisal exposes the very bones and sinews of the historical process and the real question, given the nature of the usual source material, has been how to go about it.

My own work to this end began more modestly in something which might best be called ‘local history’. Recorded conversations – too loosely constructed to be called interviews – with a number of people from my home town, Huddersfield, who had lived through the First World War, suggested that there was a considerable body of people in the town, men and women, who had opposed the war. Whether as conscientious objectors (COs) who refused military service and served time in prison or as peace campaigners, they had maintained their struggle, with significant support, throughout the war. Indeed, my very small and unrepresentative ‘sample’ maintained that because of this Huddersfield should be considered ‘special’. Work to discover if they were right produced Comrades in Conscience (2001 and 2014) and, by and large, it confirmed their story.

Much of the work of the last twenty years has been an attempt to discover whether there were other ‘special’ places which compared with Huddersfield . The research tool to help with this has been a database of almost 20,000 CO stories. This has helped identify places where there were concentrations of COs and, using existing publications, newspapers, interviews and personal papers, made it possible to create more than forty different ‘local histories’ of war resister communities across Britain. In doing that what becomes inescapable is that these communities were more than just their COs. Adding to their numbers those of their supporters and other anti-war activists, their families, older and younger men, workers in war-exempt occupations and especially women, they become rather more important than the marginal minorities on which the established views prefer to sneer. In many such places war resisters exercised real influence in local wartime politics and continued to do so far beyond 1918. The only regret for this writer is that so many of these communities turned out to be more ‘special’ than Huddersfield.

These local and regional studies are now drawn together in my Communities of Resistance: Conscience and Dissent in Britain during the First World War (Francis Boutle, 2020). There we have evidence of substantial opposition to the war in major cities – Bristol and Manchester and the Middlesex towns and Metropolitan Boroughs of North London, being particularly important. Not all were the same. In some, York and Birmingham in particular, the anti-war community was led by Quakers. In others, especially the working class industrial towns of South Wales – Aberavon and Briton Ferry – Dundee and some Lancashire cotton towns, the initiative rested with the socialist internationalists of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Different war resister communities had different dynamics and their COs took different lines. Some resisted and served time in prison, others were prepared to make concessions to the war by taking on essential work of some kind. In some, local pre-war suffragettes opposed the Pankhursts’ patriotic line and supported COs, largely taking over the local anti-war networks when their erstwhile leaders were sent to prison or into internal exile.

Confronted by evidence which does not show overwhelming patriotic loyalty – but rather the opposite – from the men and women of Britain’s many and diverse social, ethnic, religious and political communities – any assertion of the received wisdom’s uniform ‘national mood’ crumbles – except  as a comfort blanket for the deluded. It also has to be accepted that  the idea of a hegemonic London and metropolitan view has to be modified by the evidence that it was within these ‘provincial’ war resister communities that an alternative and antithetical view of the war was successfully articulated and mobilised and which had their own war ‘heroes’ of a very different kind.  

The book is a 550 page limited edition hardback with more than 70 illustrations and eight coloured maps. Retail price £30

Copies can be ordered from all good book shops or on line at https://francisboutle.co.uk/products/communities-of-resistance

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