Socialist Worker

The First World War: Those who refused

The First World War was a imperialist bloodbath—yet the establishment wants to rehabilitate it as a struggle for freedom. Adam Hochschild has written a book on the brutal reality of the conflict. In a recent talk he discussed people who rejected the call to war from the outset

Issue No. 2388

Those who refused to go into military service were often imprisoned or sent to work camps, such as this one in Dyce, near Aberdeen

Those who refused to go into military service were often imprisoned or sent to work camps, such as this one in Dyce, near Aberdeen


The war left some 20 million people dead and large parts of Europe in ruins. As the armies retreated they left scorched earth behind them. Soldiers found themselves living below ground in trenches, sharing space with rats, fighting knee-deep in mud and facing terrifying new weapons like poison gas or the flame-thrower.

The vast majority of soldiers who were wounded were hit by bullets and shrapnel—21 million of them. More than 700 million artillery shells were fired on the Western Front alone. 

In most wars it is the poor who do the dying. The First World War was different. Casualties among the officers—meaning the aristocracy and the upper classes—were proportionately higher than among enlisted men. 

In 1916 more than 30 Etonians were killed in a single day—the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Of men who went down from Oxford University in 1913, 31 percent were killed. These deadly battles continued for four and a half years. 

Contrast the generals and the prime ministers who ordered them with a group of people whom I greatly admire—the resisters. 

There were war resisters in all of the major countries. In the US the great labour leader Eugene V Debbs spoke out strongly against the war when the US entered it 1917, and was sent to prison. He was still in imprisoned in 1920 when he received a million votes standing for president on a socialist ticket.

In Germany the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was a staunch opponent of the war. She was also sent to prison. 

Britain’s greatest investigative journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, spent six months in prison. He had put the great human rights atrocity in the Congo on the world’s front pages. In 1917 he was sentenced to hard labour. It broke his health and he died aged 51, six years after the war.

There were more war resisters in Britain than anywhere else—a heritage to be very proud of. Over the course of the war more than 20,000 men of military age refused to be conscripted. 

Some accepted the status of conscientious objector but many of them refused that as a matter of principle. They would not take any role that could be seen as aiding the war effort, even if it didn’t mean bearing arms. 

More than 6,000 went to prison. This was, up to this point in time, the largest number of people that had ever been sent to prison in a Western democracy for political reasons. They are people that we need to honour. 

The First World War was the first big propaganda war. 

Some of the propaganda had a real edge to it. It said if you didn’t want to fight you were cowardly. You were letting your country down. And most of all you were effeminate. 

All the warring countries barraged their citizens with propaganda in a very intense and carefully thought out way because they had to keep people roused up to fight.

And the division of political opinion was not just in society but within the family.

Take the pacifist and socialist Charlotte Despard. A very outspoken radical at the turn of the century, she backed independence for India and Ireland, and she went to jail four times in the battle for women’s suffrage. 

Her opposition to the war was deeply upsetting to her brother, Sir John French, British commander in chief on the Western Front. In 1918 when French was sent to Ireland by the British government as viceroy, she went to Ireland to work for the IRA. 

Perhaps the most famous split family was the Pankhursts. 

Emmeline was in many ways at the heart of the movement to get votes for women. She went to jail many times. On the eve of the war in 1913 she was arrested and jailed for throwing a rock through the window of 10 Downing Street. But the moment war began she ceased all her suffrage activities and put herself at the service of the British government, travelling to whip up enthusiasm for the war.

Meanwhile her daughter Sylvia became one of Britain’s most outspoken opponents of the war. She published the most widely read anti-war newspaper, and she and her mother stopped speaking to each other and essentially never resumed.

One of the leading war resisters was Fenner Brockway who had been editor of Labour Leader, a newspaper of the Independent Labour Party. 

After he was sent to prison he continued to be a newspaper editor. He produced a clandestine newspaper on toilet paper for his fellow prisoners. It lasted for a year before the authorities discovered it and put him in solitary confinement.

Another war resister was Alice Wheeldon from Derby. She was sent to prison with members of her family on a totally trumped up charge of allegedly trying to poison the prime minister—a complete nonsense. They were really after her because her family had been sheltering men on the run from conscription in their house. They wanted to send a message to the anti-war movement.

And still the carnage went on and on and on. By the time it was over it left more than nine million military dead and probably around 10-12 million civilian dead.

My hope is that we don’t just remember the politicians and the generals but the people who tried to stop the bloodshed.

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild is available from Bookmarks Bookshop for £9.99. bookmarksbookshop.co.uk He was speaking at a Peace News event in London on 17 January 2014

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