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Book Review: 'Objections Overruled'

Objectors 1914-18

'Objections Overruled', by David Boulton (McGibbon & Kee, 45s.)

In his introduction the author of this book describes it as the story of the 16,000 men in this country who refused to fight in the First World War, told wherever possible in their own words from their letters and diaries. In fact, Mr. Boulton has gone far beyond this. In his first chapter, "International Socialism and War" he gives an account of the discussions carried on and resolutions passed in half a century of conferences such as those of the Second International ― and of the total collapse of that supposedly anti-war movement when war broke out in 1914. He also retells the story of the trickery by which the politicians Lloyd George, Asquith and others engineered conscription while professing to be opposed to it.

In other chapters he deals with the founding of the No-Conscription Fellowship and its harrying by the authorities; the strikes on Clydeside; the Leeds Conference called to hail the Russian Revolution; the controversies among organisations to which conscientious objectors belonged; and the subsequent careers of leading figures.

Although the historical section, like the book as a whole, is well documented, the author quite fails to understand why when the time came the working class organisations of the various countries for the most part lined up with their governments in support of the war. Repeatedly he comes back to the theme that the verbal protests about the war were not accompanied by working-class action, "there was no call for revolution, general strike or insurrection." He does half-glimpse the truth that any such call would have fallen on deaf ears but the basic reason escapes him. The fact was that the other so-called Socialist parties in the International were no more Socialist than the British Labour Party. They were not built up of convinced Socialists, accepting the class struggle and its necessary principle of undeviating hostility to capitalism and loyalty to international solidarity. Their horizon was limited to policies of reforming capitalism, of collaborating with avowedly capitalist parties, all within the framework of patriotic loyalty to their own national groups.

It is customary to treat the collapse of the International in 1914 as an unforeseeable catastrophe. But to the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain it was precisely foreseen long before the event, which is why, years before the war, the Socialist Party repudiated and refused to belong to that body.

What did exist in this country was a long tradition of seemingly powerful opposition to the idea of a conscript army on the continental model. But that tradition owed its existence primarily to the fact that British capitalism had operated with a powerful navy and small regular army. In the first two years of the war the authorities depended on volunteers, but as soon as the time came when they needed more fighting men and particularly when the supply of munitions caught up and surpassed the supply of volunteer soldiers, they went over to conscription, and the politicians with few exceptions abandoned their alleged principle of opposition. This included the Labour Party but it took considerable time for them to forget their traditional attitudes. So much so that at one point they were accused by their opposite numbers in France of dragging their feet: "Continued Labour opposition to conscription was causing impatience among French socialists, who feared that the 'pacifism' of British Labour was weakening the Allied cause". (P.80).

An interesting field of study would be the extent to which eventual acceptance of conscription by the trade unions and Labour Party was influenced by the Government's decision to include trade union officials among the occupations exempt from military service.

A device to make conscription less offensive was to include a clause providing exemption for conscientious objectors, but some of the politicians including Lloyd George (himself a long standing declared opponent of conscription) made it clear that they never intended this exemption to be more than a form of words, especially as regards political objectors.

Thus it came about that many of the first wave of objectors in 1916 were subjected to appalling persecution. A number were sentenced to death and only after public outcry were the sentences commuted to 10 years imprisonment. Others were brutally ill treated. At least 73 d as a result and 31 were driven insane. As Woodrow Wyatt wrote in the Evening Standard (27.6.67) "Maybe we should not be too self-righteous when we turn in horror from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps or German concentration camps." As the war dragged on the brutalities lessened but not the suffering inseparable from long imprisonment. Many objectors accepted the alternative of work in Home Office Camps, including the 1000 strong camp at Dartmoor. A major factor was the changed attitude of many soldiers, themselves weary and disillusioned by the horrors of war. The writer recalls the scene in an army guardroom when he was visited by a brother on convalescent leave after being wounded in France. The sergeant in charge was rash enough to express the hope, in front of the soldier prisoners, that the writer might be persuaded by his brother to join up. The brother's blistering reply about the evident insanity of the sergeant was greeted with uproarious approval by the soldier prisoners.

In the same guardroom Brooks, a conscientious objector member of the Socialist Party who had served two sentences and was awaiting a further court martial before going back to jail, held a successful class on Socialism, on the guardroom floor using Hyndman's Economies of Socialism as a text book― until the authorities got wind of it and separated the C.O.'s from the rest.

Boulton makes only a passing reference to the SPGB and that is based on a misconception. Describing the composition of the 10,000 members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, two-thirds of them members of the ILP with Quakers as the second largest group, he writes: "Then followed small groups of political objectors from such fringe organisations of the Left as the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, International Workers of the World and other Anarchist and Syndicalist bodies. On the religious side were small groups of non-Quaker pacifists drawn from most of the established churches and from fundamentalist sects such as Plymouth Brethren and Christadelphians". (P.109).

(The proper name of the IWW is of course Industrial Workers of the World).

There were Socialist Party sympathisers in the NCF but Party members did not join it.

Among the book's minor errors and omissions may be mentioned that while Boulton describes the support for recruiting to the Armed Forces by Ramsay MacDonald he does not refer to the similar activities by Keir Hardie and does not tell of the case of Siegfried Sassoon, who as an officer in France refused further participation in the war, though under pressure he later returned to the trenches.

Nor does he mention the characteristic intervention of Bernard Shaw who, congratulating C.O.'s on their stand urged them, having made their protest, to join up and show what splendid soldiers they could be.

The writer's last reminiscence is of a prison warder who loathed all conscientious objectors - except SPGBers, who, he explained, were almost alone in saying that, as well as not wanting to kill, they objected to being killed, in a capitalist war that did not concern them.           

H.