The collections at the Modern Records Centre contain many documents relating to the British labour movement and left-wing activism, including sources which illustrate the active opposition by some on the political left towards the growth of militarism, perceived inequality of sacrifice and increasing restrictions on civil liberties during the First World War. Some of the highlights from the hundred documents digitised to commemorate the First World War centenary are described below.
Three of the UPPER TEN want MORE; Unable to control their greed; They suddenly declare for war; And YOU, you fools, with eager speed; Prepare - YOURSELVES to batter, bleed...
This handwritten, illustrated satirical verse attacks the army recruitment drives of the first half of the war and blames the international conflict on the "upper ten" who have sent the masses to "struggle, hack and hew" to "fill their common pan".
[From the archives of Tom Mann; document reference: MSS.334/7/9/4]
Oh ! you silly man to think we want Conscription for the defeat of Germany. We want it for the defeat of England !
In protest against the campaign to replace a system of voluntary recruitment into the army with compulsory conscription, the left-wing newspaper the Daily Herald published a collection of cartoons on the subject by Will Dyson. Conscription is attacked as an introduction of 'Prussian' methods into Britain as a means to reinforce the power of the ruling classes. The newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times and The Daily Mail, is particularly targeted.
A collection of Will Dyson cartoons on the khaki election of 1918 ('Old King Coalition') is also available online.
[From the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/238/1/1]
In any case accused is almost certain to be found "Guilty"
Pamphlet published by the No-Conscription Fellowship, "being a detailed statement, with full references to military and civil law, of what a conscientious objector needs to know from the time of his arrest onwards" - it provides a step-by-step guide to the conscientious objectors' journey through Central Tribunal, court-martials and imprisonment. Compulsory conscription, under the Military Service Act, first came into force on 2 March 1916. After this date single men aged between 18 to 41 were required to serve in the army unless they could prove that they were in an exempted category (for example physically unfit, in a reserved occupation, or if exceptional hardship to their business or family would ensue). Subsequent versions of the Act extended conscription to married men and widened the age of eligibility. If men could prove to a military tribunal that they had a 'genuine' conscientious objection to military service (for example a religious objection to killing), they could be assigned to non-combatant sections of the army such as the Non-Combatant Corps or Royal Army Medical Corps. Complete refusal to submit to army discipline could result in repeated court-martials and ever-longer periods of imprisonment.
[From the papers of Reg Groves; document reference: MSS.172/W/3]
A plain unvarnished account of certain persons who have been banished from their people and their homes for having the supreme effrontery to maintain that which they believe is right; and that, in their opinion, the great majority of the inhabitants of the earth are wrong
'The Granite Echo' was a four page newspaper written by inmates of the conscientious objectors' work camp at Dyce, near Aberdeen, and published in London by associates of the anarchist writer and activist Guy A. Aldred. Dyce was the first work camp to be established under the Home Office Scheme to release conscientious objectors from prison in order to do work deemed to be of national importance (in the case of Dyce, breaking stones in a quarry). The camp was closed in October 1916, two months after it had opened, after poor living conditions resulted in the death of one of the inmates, Walter Roberts (the first C.O. to die as a result of his treatment by the authorities). This issue of the newspaper includes a written protest by inmates at the death of Roberts in the camp (with anonymous "official" reply), descriptions of camp conditions, and an article by Frank Shackleton about his forced transportation to France and subsequent court martial.
[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; bound with issues of 'The Spur', document reference: MSS.15X/1/296/1]
'112 days' hard labour: Being some reflections on the first of my sentences as a conscientious objector', 1917
I am a Quaker and a Socialist, and I believe that the teaching of Jesus means that I must confront violence with gentleness, anger with reason, hatred with goodwill. Though I may be technically a soldier I cannot be one actually and morally, and therefore I cannot recognise any military order
In 1917 the conscientious objector Hubert W. Peet wrote an account of his first experience of imprisonment, including descriptions of the prison environment and routine, and the psychological effects of incarceration. By the time it had been published he was back behind bars, this time sentenced to 2 years hard labour for his continued refusal to serve in the army.
[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; document reference: MSS.15X/2/400/1]
The Court Martial wounded my pride, sir; And with taunts they endeavoured to sting it. They actually asked, - "Where's your conscience"? And, ye gods! I'd forgotten to bring it!
Handwritten text of a comic song or verse "recited by Lindsay at an entertainment given by "The Shirkers" in Oct. 1917 at the Wakefield Work Centre", a disused prison converted into accommodation for conscientious objectors employed on the Home Office work scheme. A petition to the 'cook-house controllers' at Wakefield, signed by 200 conscientious objectors, has also been digitised.
[From the papers of Rowland Barrett; document references: MSS.83/3/PR/16 and MSS.83/3/PR/20]
When the best blood of the young manhood of the nation is being drained away on the fields of Flanders... this is no time for the Government to be providing "dreams" for investors
This attack on the government's use of war loans (at rates described by The Economist as "an impossibly beautiful dream" for investors) to fund the war was published by the War Emergency Workers' National Committee (a pressure group connected with the Labour Party and trade union movement). The committee instead advocated "accompany[ing] the Conscription of Men by the Conscription of Wealth" through the nationalisation of essential industries and increased taxation on the wealthy.
[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/541]
The abuse to which I have been subjected has not been confined to the ordinary sort of thing which any man who takes an unpopular view of a great war must anticipate. We all expect to be called fools and fanatics, cranks and intriguers, sufferers from diseased vanity, and friends of every country but our own. ... But in this particular case abuse has been characterised by a persistency and malignancy beyond the common experience
Text of speech by E.D. Morel, Secretary of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control, following his release from prison. Morel had received the severe sentence of six months imprisonment for a breach of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) - sending one of his own pamphlets (via the Foreign Secretary's niece by marriage) to the French writer Romain Rolland whilst Rolland was living in Switzerland.
[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; document reference: MSS.15X/2/420/3]
A copy of 'The Union of Democratic Control: its motives, object, and policy', 1916, has also been digitised.
An I.W.W. paper from Chicago announces the first probable American casualties — free press and free speech
'Satire' was an anarchist, anti-war magazine (representing "the rebel movement") - it was raided by the police and suppressed during the latter part of the First World War. This issue includes cartoons attacking the war as a product of international capitalism and calling for social revolt, satirical attacks on press reporting of war atrocities and officialdom (including the Prime Minister "Loud George"), and a dystopian comic vision of British society in 1920 - "By an Order in Council the word "Peace" is to be expunged from all dictionaries, and a Ministry of Lexicons is being set up for the purpose. ... The male children spend happy and healthy days in learning how to kill and maim wicked foreigners, and the little girls thoroughly enjoy their lessons in bandaging and stretcher-carrying".
[From the papers of William Wess; document reference: MSS.240W/4/1/10]
Another delegate was attacked at once. His face streamed with blood and, badly knocked about, he took refuge in a furniture van. Soldiers clambered in and dragged him out
This front page article from the 'Sunday Pictorial' describes the riotous attack on a peace conference organised by a Workers' and Soldiers' Council at the Brotherhood Church in North London. The church was besieged and then stormed by an angry, armed crowd, "singing patriotic songs and waving flags", whilst delegates were violently beaten. The article includes comments on the "exceptionally savage" behaviour of women in the mob.
[From the papers of Henry Sara and Frank Maitland; document reference: MSS.15/3/10/1]
An article on the riot by Rose Witcop, one of the delegates to the conference, was published in 'The Spur' in September 1917. It includes quotes from a speech by the Chancellor in the House of Commons on the pre-meditated nature of the violence, including incitement of the crowd by leaflets in local pubs ("a meeting of pro-Germans ... Remember the last air raid and roll up") and speakers at open air gatherings, the active role of soldiers in uniform (who were "in charge of the arrangements"), the arrival of four press photographers outside the church in anticipation of the attack, and the disinclination of the police to stop the rioters.