Resistance to war is nothing new in the Midlands, as demonstrated by the inspiring book Uncovering Resistance: Leicester and Leicestershire in World War One (2015). Leicester, as elsewhere, “displayed considerable early resistance to the War”: “But it seems that the anti-war movements were overridden, if not silenced, by pro-war propaganda and the wider feeling of the need to support the troops and the national-imperialist cause.”
For instance just prior to Britain joining the bloodbath, the Independent Labour Party helped arrange a meeting at Leicester Market Place (on 2nd August 1914), at which workers made plain their opposition to imperialist aggression. This event was part of a national weekend of action which was organised under the slogan of “War Against War”, with the largest demonstration attracting 20,000 in central London.
At the Leicester event, Mrs Edna Penny from Sheffield ILP observed, “War means poverty and chaos. It also means today, thousands of meetings like this have been given over to protesting about the war instead of discussing working class affairs.”
Leicester Councillor JS Salt also explained to the Market Place crowd:
“This [War] was not the outcome of the Serbian assassination. It was the outcome of the intrigues and machinations covering 20 years. Who are the people who are sealing the destinies of the European peoples? They are not workers, but the people who pull the money strings.” (p.39)
Salt later went to support the War: but tragically he was not alone in his desertion of the working class — as despite have engaged in years of revolutionary organising, most European socialist leaders quickly threw their weight behind the War instead of calling for the launch of general strikes as many workers had expected. The only exceptions to this turn against workers took place in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. So although war had been brewing for years, in many ways “the biggest shock for socialists was that the majority of the leaderships of socialist and workers’ organisations supported their ‘own’ ruling classes in this bloody conflict.” (“The capitulation of the Second International,” Socialism Today, July 2014)
Caught up in the patriotic fervour that gripped Britain at this time were the famous suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, but not so for Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes, whose group continued to campaign for peace and agitate on votes for women during the war. Other notable exceptions included the valiant women from Clydeside, who in 1915 organised a defiant rent strike alongside a strike of 15,000 Clyde shipyard workers, and went on in 1917 to help form the famous National Shop Stewards Movement. (“Women in World War One,” The Socialist, August 2014) In his 1977 book, The Origins of British Bolshevism, Raymond Challinor provides a detailed outline of these outstanding examples of wartime resistance, which by early 1917 also gained more momentum as a result of the Russian Revolution, noting:
“The introduction of conscription in 1916 provided the state with a further club with which to beat its opponents. Some socialists, like pacifists and religious objectors, refused to fight. There was initially no provision for conscientious objection, and therefore such people could find themselves forcibly taken into army barracks, ordered to don military uniform, and charged with mutiny for disobeying a command. Scenes of terrible brutality would often ensue. Henry Sara, later to become one of the founders of British Trotskyism, was dragged into the barracks at Harrow Road, London, had his clothes ripped off him, and was then beaten by soldiers. Afterwards he was taken to Hurdcott camp, where he was told to form fours. Again he refused, and was sent to Parkhurst prison. JP Kay received even worse treatment: at Winchester camp, when he refused to obey orders, an officer bayoneted him three times. In his book on war resisters, David Boulton gives the names of 73 men who died as a direct result of the treatment they suffered at the hands of the military or in prison.”
During this period many leaders of this militant socialist fightback were imprisoned for their bold efforts at organising anti-war sentiment within factories and in the military itself. And on top of the many socialists who were locked away as conscientious objectors, many successfully evaded incarceration and became members of the so-called ‘flying corps.’ Permanently on the run from both the police and the military, these activists…
“…would visit a town, sell socialist literature, perhaps hold a public meeting, and rush off to evade capture. A network of places throughout Britain grew up which would harbour socialists on the run… In Leicester, a small room near the Clock Tower provided a haven. When this became common knowledge, the Leicester Mail fulminated about this ‘veritable hotbed of sedition… a disgrace to the town’.”
It is perhaps fitting then that local activist group, Leicester Against War, have been holding weekly protests by the Clock Tower ever since the Parliamentary vote last year that gave sanction to Britain’s bombing of Syria.
Now, on Sunday — which is International Conscientious Objectors Day – members of Leicester Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), will be proudly unveiling a memorial stone on Peace Walk (near the city’s Lutyens arch) in memory of the 250 conscientious objectors from Leicester and the county who heroically held out in opposition to World War One. The event is open for all to attend, as are the weekly protests against our government’s wars of aggression which take place every Friday from 5.30-6.30pm by the Clock Tower.