Against the Stream

Richard Price reviews Communities of Resistance: Conscience and Dissent in Britain during the First World War by Cyril Pearce, Francis Boutle, 556pp, £30.

As the author explains, this superb book is the result of research that began in the late 1960s, and continued with his study of the anti-war movement in Huddersfield, Comrades in Conscience, published in 2001. Armed with an understanding of what made Huddersfield ‘special’ in terms of both political and religious dissent, Cyril Pearce was propelled to search for “other Huddersfields” – were there other comparable clusters of opposition to the industrial slaughter of the trenches?

Although conscientious objectors (COs) were only one strand of opposition, Pearce reasoned that this small minority must have been supported and sustained by a larger number of sympathisers, families, trade union, religious and pacifist groups, and that, by establishing the relative density of COs to local populations, could identify “hot spots” across Britain.

But to get to this point required an epic job of identifying who the COs were, since there was no national register, and identifying them could only be done by going through the records of the tribunals up and down the country at which those claiming the right of conscientious objection were obliged to appear. The result is the Pearce Register which collects the often fragmentary evidence of the reasons, political and/or religious, for their objection. It now contains nearly 20,000 names. This established that, far from being isolated, the size of Huddersfield’s anti-war community was exceeded by a significant number of towns and cities.

Standard histories of the Home Front in 1914-18 emphasise national unity and the strength of support for the war. Left wing authors, on the other hand, have tended to view events through the distorting lens of Willie Gallacher’s Revolt on the Clyde and the legend of Red Clydeside. As Pearce points out, Glasgow’s number of COs was barely half that of Birmingham and, without adjusting for population, less than that of Bristol.

Another strand of left wing thought has long had a rather sniffy attitude to COs as people who took the soft option and opted out of the war rather than following Lenin’s line of revolutionary defeatism, blissfully unaware that most Bolsheviks didn’t follow his lead either.

Tribunals staffed by local worthies, business and military people, were almost universally unsympathetic, and miserly when it came to granting CO status. Those who accepted work of national importance escaped the horrors of the trenches; those who served in ambulance units suffered the trauma of recovering the wounded and the blasted remains of the dead. But many of the “absolutists”, who refused any work that could in any way contribute to the war effort were treated extremely harshly – bread and water diet, hard labour, solitary confinement and multiple prison terms, with many not released until 1919. Thirty-four were court martialled and sent to France under sentence of death.

There were many more religious objectors than politicals, although there was a significant overlap between the two groups, particularly in the ranks of the ILP. A high proportion of religiously inspired pacifists came from non-conformist backgrounds – not only mainstream groups like Quakers and Methodists, but esoteric sects like Christadelphians and Plymouth Brethren who took the sixth commandment seriously. There were correspondingly few Anglican COs; not surprising when the Bishop of London said that it was a duty “to kill the good as well as the bad; kill the young as well as the old”.

War resisters of one type or another were more numerous that has previously been thought. A great strength of Professor Pearce’s narrative is that he locates COs in the social, political and religious environments of their home towns and uncovers hot spots of resistance in places as varied as Bristol, Croydon, Aberavon and Letchworth.

Far from being just a small harassed minority with little influence, COs laid the basis for the large-scale growth of pacifism in the inter-war years and had a significant influence on the Labour Party. At the 1929 General Election, 51 Labour candidates who had been COs or anti-war campaigners were successful. Large sections of Labour and Liberal opinion embraced a form of retrospective pacifism.

Professor Pearce should be congratulated for the depth of his research. This magnificent book not only greatly expands our knowledge of the various strands of opposition to the war. It is the outstanding book on the subject.

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