By Chris Fuller
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Fighting the war on the home front

This article is over 8 years, 5 months old
The claim of national unity during the First World War is a myth. The reality, argues Chris Fuller, was huge levels of repression by the British ruling class and a largely untold history of resistance.
Issue 388

The carnage of the First World War has been seen by many commentators as different from any conflict that went before. In fact there were hints as to how terrible a war between the rival imperial powers of the early 20th century might be. At the battle of Omdurman in 1898 the British had deployed the Maxim gun for the first time and slaughtered 10,800 Sudanese rebels. However, the war mindset was still that of the “cavalry charge”; few people envisaged the scale of the horror that was 1914-18.

Eight and a half million troops were killed on all fronts. The French and Germans each lost a million and a half people, the Russians many more. The British dead came to one million, with over 200,000 recruits from the empire – a fact racists should be reminded of. Troop movements and a weakened population made the world vulnerable to the influenza pandemic that began in the last months of the war and killed some 50 million people.

The war dominated everything. In Britain the government organised 90 percent of home production of food, coal and raw materials. Three and a half million munitions workers were directly or indirectly controlled by the Ministry of Munitions. The war eventually consumed 70 percent of everything produced in Britain. This enormous effort was replicated across Europe and meant that in four years over 700 million artillery and mortar rounds could be fired on the Western Front.

“Total war” abroad meant total ideological war at home. The jingoism in Britain was real. At the outbreak of the war German-owned butcher shops were ransacked. White feathers were handed out in the streets to men who had not joined up. Field Marshal Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers for the front saw 500,000 sign up in the first month, well beyond his expectations.

Yet such patriotism had to be enforced. The war government realised the importance of mass propaganda and appointed Charles Masterman to the cabinet to drive it. Masterman signed up popular writers, but it was John Buchan who more than matched his task producing novels such as The Thirty-Nine Steps to conjure up German spy scares. In 1917 he became the government’s Director of Information. The war lobby also produced propaganda films such as Battle of the Somme which was seen by 19 million people in six weeks.

Meanwhile the anti-war press was hounded. In 1916 the Vanguard newspaper run by the militant Scottish socialist John MacLean was suppressed. Socialist printing presses were smashed up, and by late 1917 the government was employing more than 4,000 censors.

Agents provocateur were employed and successfully fitted up a family of socialist anti-war activists, the Wheeldons. They were convicted of plotting to poison Lloyd George. Alice Wheeldon, the mother, was sentenced to ten years hard labour.

The working class had to be controlled as well as convinced. The use of force bore down most heavily in the army. Six thousand conscientious objectors were sent to prison and nearly 80 died in jail. Many others were subject to field punishment which included being trussed to gun carriage wheels for two hours. More than 300 British soldiers who refused military discipline (many out of panic) were executed, six times the number who met a similar fate in Germany.

Workers at home had to be disciplined too. The 1915 Munitions Act made strikes in war work illegal and arbitration compulsory. Strike leaders were imprisoned and banned from their home areas under the Defence of the Realm Act.

In 1916 conscription into the armed forces was introduced. John MacLean warned, “Conscription means the bringing of all young men under the control of military authorities, whether they be in the field of battle or in the factory or workshop”.

Conscription also had the potential to divide workers since some trades became exempt, and fights to maintain the exemption could become sectional rather than one to defend the whole class.

The British ruling class was assisted in its efforts by some Labour and trade union leaders – with the latter taking a leading role in promoting the war. At the outbreak of war Labour leader and pacifist Ramsay MacDonald was deposed by Arthur Henderson.

Henderson chaired the Peace Emergency Committee which included representatives of the TUC and Labour Party. On 5 August 1914 he renamed it the War Emergency Workers National Committee which then declared an embargo on all current and pending pay claims. He was later rewarded with a place in government. In 1916 the TUC ditched its opposition to conscription.

Women were not excluded from the repression. It became a crime for women with sexuality transmitted diseases to have intercourse with members of the armed forces. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) campaigned in support of the war.

Suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst organised a rally at the London Opera House on “The Great Need of Vigorous National Defence against the German Peril”. However, while Christabel toured the US to champion the war, Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her mother and sister to campaign against it.

Pre-war campaigns against militarism and the great industrial unrest of 1910 to 1914 – which had seen union membership nearly double to more than four million – collapsed with the onset of war.

But this was a temporary respite. Military losses, price and rent increases, food and fuel shortages and attacks on terms and conditions in the factories fed a growth of resistance. Patriotism was shown to have only shallow roots as workers suffered while pay-outs to shareholders soared. Behind the front line generals were cosseted by 65,000 men who were employed as servants. At Christmas 1914 British military commander Field Marshal Haig dined on turtle soup.

Splits in the ruling class left them vulnerable. At the end of 1916 the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith resigned having presided over one military disaster after another, to be replaced by Lloyd George. At the same time the British ruling class sidelined Kitchener, the very man who fronted the “Britain needs you” campaign.

Workers became more wary of volunteering. When conscription started in January 1916 more than 57,000 failed to turn up. The reluctance was also evident on the front. The infamous 1914 Christmas Day football match was only one example on a day when two-thirds of the front fraternised with the “enemy”. Conscientious objectors had to be moved to stop them influencing the troops.

At the French town of Etaples in September 1917 several thousand troops mutinied, including New Zealanders who had been refused extended leave to visit home. The mutineers locked the officers in a guard room which they surrounded with brushwood while police huts were set alight.

The mutineers joined others in Paris where there was talk of setting up soviets. The revolt was only put down after ten of its leaders were executed. Meanwhile the mutinies inspired Chinese and Egyptian dockers drafted in by the British at the French port of Boulogne to go on strike. Haig ordered a reprisal, in which 27 of the strikers were shot dead.


Unions continued to grow during the war and strikes increased. London transport workers struck in 1915, 1917 and 1918, the last occasion being a strike for equal pay by women. The 1917 strike lasted five days, involved 10,000 workers and won a five shilling pay rise and union recognition. In July 1915 some 200,000 South Wales miners won a pay rise after a five-day strike.

However, it was in the engineering industry that the key confrontations took place. For years this had been a battleground as employers sought to undermine the control of skilled workers in the industry and bring in less skilled workers on lower pay, a process called “dilution”.

This battle intensified as the war wore on, with the added twist of constant threats to the exemption of skilled workers from military service. The local nature of much of the negotiation and the appalling right wing leadership of the engineers’ union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), networks of stewards in areas such as the Clyde and Sheffield. These became capable of going it alone without the officials and so winning strikes.

The Sheffield Workers’ Committee began unofficial action in November 1916 over Leonard Hargreaves, a worker who had been called up in spite of the exemption to which he was entitled. Twelve thousand workers walked out and secured a victory in three days.

A new scheme for exempting skilled workers was established as a result. In May 1917 over 200,000 engineering workers went on strike for four days in a dispute that spread to 48 towns and cities. The strike was sparked by a threat to extend dilution to the private sector and to end the scheme exempting skilled munitions workers from military service.

The government responded with arrests of strike leaders who then buckled and put control of negotiations back in the hands of the ASE leadership. This happened just as new areas joined the strike and resulted in an unnecessary defeat. The engineers’ disputes were often to defend a craft tradition, and seldom generalised into an anti-war movement capable of defending all workers. Yet there were other straws in the wind which might have allowed this next step to be taken.

In Birmingham, for example, the Workers’ Union issued leaflets in Chinese to recruit a group of workers frequently at the end of racist backlashes. Workers in Glasgow marched in their tens of thousands to demand the release of John MacLean from prison after he was charged with sedition.

In Govan and Fairfields, Glasgow landlords took advantage of the war to raise rents by up to 23 percent. The result was a rent strike and landlords’ agents, known as factors, being beaten. In November 1915, 18 tenants were summoned to the Small Debt Court but a demonstration of women outside was joined by striking shipyard and ordnance workers. In total 15,000 people demonstrated, forcing the government to introduce rent controls and give tenants rights that were to last until 1988.

Revolts abroad also fed the resistance. Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper in the East End of London had to be reprinted several times when it celebrated the Easter 1916 rising in Dublin. Yet it was the 1917 Russian Revolution which acted as the lightening rod.

In March that year over 12,000 people packed the Albert Hall, with a further 5,000 outside, to applaud the revolution. On May Day that year 70,000 joined a peace march in Glasgow, and a convention in Leeds in June demanded “peace without annexations”.

The test for the left was whether they could generalise the struggles against the effects of the war into a struggle against the war. The largest left wing group at the time was the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Formed in 1893, its main aim was to secure representation in parliament for working people independent of the Liberals.

Many of its activists ended up in prison as conscientious objectors. Keir Hardie, its leader, endured Labour MPs singing the national anthem as he made an anti-war speech in parliament. But the ILP was not consistent in its attitude to the war.

Ramsay MacDonald, another leading member, said, “The young men of the country must for the moment settle the issue.” Hardie stated that no ILP publication should demand an immediate end to the war and the party heavily rejected a motion in 1917 that its MPs should, in future, vote against war credits.

Many pacifists grouped themselves into the Union for Democratic Control, but its manifesto emphasised that it was anti war. The No Conscription Fellowship concentrated on helping conscientious objectors at tribunals to exempt them from military service. However, its president, Clifford Allen, acknowledged the limits when he said, “I am confident war will never be made impossible by mere ‘objecting’ on the part of pacifists”.

The British Socialist Party (BSP), with about 6,000 members, radicalised under the impact of war. But its leader, Henry Hyndman, joined Henderson’s war emergency committee and supported the recruitment campaign and left the party

This outraged BSP members who voted in 1915 to support the manifesto against war issued by international socialist groups at Zimmerwald in Switzerland.

Before the war syndicalism had taken some significant roots in Britain. Individuals such as JT Murphy had come to reject the parliamentary methods of Labour and believe that revolutionary unions would become the vehicle for social change.

However, syndicalists’ rejection of politics left them critically exposed. Murphy wrote a pamphlet in 1917 in which there was no discussion of the war. This left them with the problem of how to generalise sectional struggles, such as those against dilution, into battles supported by all workers.

The task of transforming struggles against the effects of the war into a fight against the war remained largely unaddressed. Whilst many industrial militants were politically active against the war, they left their politics at the factory gate.

Critical moment

The anti-war stance, for example by the ILP, made demands that the war should end via “a negotiated peace” or “peace without annexations”. This left open the problem of how to achieve such an outcome and what to do if the “other side” did not agree.

This position was shared by the Zimmerwald conference, which Russian revolution leader Lenin criticised for failing to contain a clear characterisation “of the means of combating the war”.

Lenin argued that socialists must join neither one nor the other imperialist bourgeoisie. Instead they must wish for the defeat of the imperialists in every country. The enemy was “at home” and the task was to turn an imperial war into a civil uprising against the ruling class.

He wrote, “Not ‘peace without annexations’ but peace to the cottages, war on the palaces, peace to the proletariat…war on the bourgeoisie”. Critically he combined economic with political demands in the slogan “Bread, peace and land”.

At the turn of 1918 the opportunity emerged to turn the class struggle into struggle against war. In the October 1917 the Sheffield Workers’ Committee had made significant advances in uniting skilled and unskilled workers in a successful 12.5 percent pay claim.

In early January 1918 shipyard workers went on strike in Glasgow, and over 100,000 workers in Manchester marched against food shortages. Sympathy for the October 1917 Russian Revolution was huge and the cabinet was warned of “a rather sudden growth of pacifism”. The government then threatened in the Military Service Bill to take more young men from munitions work into the army.

On 5 and 6 January 1918 the shop stewards movement met in Manchester to discuss the food shortages and the Military Service Bill. The conference resolved to “demand that the government shall at once accept the invitation of the Russian government to consider peace terms.”

The delegates met again on 25 January. In Sheffield and Manchester workshop meetings of engineers had voted to oppose strike action against the war. Swayed by this setback, and a fear that they could only act if German workers would follow suit, the stewards surrendered the decision on strike action to union executives who took no action.

This was the culmination of the failure to unite economic demands with political ones on a consistent basis. For such a task it would have been essential to have built a party with a clear determination to turn imperial war into a fight against the British ruling class.

Although British workers missed the opportunity to follow Russian workers in making a revolution, the rising resistance to the war at home and revulsion at the carnage it unleashed remain hidden from the official history. The experience of war would shape a new generation of revolutionaries, and set the tone for decades of struggle to follow.

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