Members in the Great War
When conscription came into operation during the 1914-1918 war, members knew that they stood no chance of being exempted from military service on conscientious grounds. Nevertheless, some went before the tribunals whilst others went on their travels.
Adolph Kohn went to America and landed into trouble there when America came into the war. He took part in the formation of our companion party over there and continued to send articles to the Socialist Standard. One of his articles was opened by the American authorities and they tried to trace him. As soon as he discovered they were looking for him; though he did not know why, he adopted various expedients to keep under cover. One of these was taking a job as a civilian auditor in a military camp. However, he succeeded in remaining free until the end of the war. At the behest of the American authorities the police over here made enquiries. In the course of their enquiries they interviewed Fitzgerald, whom they kept in prison for a night. On him they found an address book containing the name of Kohn’s sister, Hilda. They also interviewed her without success. They did not even find out that she was a member of the Party, although she was the General Secretary at that time, and also at the time when Head Office was raided by the police.
Harry Russ had decided to sleep out in the open and keep away from towns. He moved about the country, wet and dry, and after some months reached the neighbourhood of Sheffield. He saw some placards advertising a meeting to be addressed by Ramsay MacDonald. Craving for company he resolved to risk attending just this one meeting. He did so. The meeting was raided and he was arrested, along with others, as an absentee from military service. He refused to be conscripted on the ground that, as a Socialist, he was opposed to the war. He was stripped of his clothes and presented with a uniform but refused to put it on. Various manoeuvres were tried to get him to sign his name, but he refused to sign anything. He was then transferred to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. Whilst he was there, one of the buildings was occupied by soldiers who were going back to the front after their leave. One evening a warder who was taking him across the compound pushed him in with the remark, “here you are boys, here’s a bloody conchie.” He was knocked about and was so furious when he got out that he determined to complain to the warden. He crossed to the gate, which was open, went into the road and, finding it deserted, suddenly decided to walk off. He had the name of a sympathiser on the island who hid him and then provided him with money to get across to Portsmouth and then to London. On the platform at Portsmouth late that night he heard someone calling him. He turned around and found it was an army officer. He thought “this is it,” but all the officer wanted to know was if the train in the station was bound for London! When Russ arrived in London he lodged with some members, also “on the run,” who pretended to be employed on jobs essential to the war. He succeeded in remaining free until the war ended.
E. Hardy (“H” of the Socialist Standard) was working as a farm pupil when he was called up. He was offered exemption on the ground that he was engaged in the essential service of farming. He refused to accept this on the ground that it would have meant some other worker being called up. He went before the tribunal and was turned down, as he expected. After some months in an army guardroom and a court martial he was put in Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he remained for six months. Whilst in there he learnt from the “old lags: the mystery of dealing with the burden of the bugs that came out and attacked him when he lay down on his plank bed. The method was to use his soap to fill in as many cracks in the planks as he could find. Incidentally he was glad that he had learnt poetry as he was able to while away solitary hours by repeating poetry to himself. In the Scrubs there were other S.P.G.B.’ers. and lively discussion went on under the tolerant eye of a sympathetic warder.
At one time in an army guardroom there were two other S.P.G.B.’ers., and one of them named Brooks, organised a class on Marxian economics among the military prisoners, more than a dozen who listened attentively. It went on for many nights until it came to the notice of the authorities and they separated Brooks, Hardy and the other member from the rest of the prisoners. Eventually Hardy was transferred to a Conscientious Objectors party working on construction in Wales. The first night in camp he climbed into the top hammock. There was an argument going on between two of the inmates. He intervened. Immediately a head popped out below him and a voice exploded “Well, gorblimey, we got rid of old Banks this morning and now we have another S.P.G.B.’er.” It appeared that Jimmy Banks had also been transferred there before Hardy and used to hold forth on the Party’s position.
One morning, while Hardy was there, the foreman on the job complained about the appearance of one of the C.O.’s who used to turn up for work in a pair of dirty old trousers, supported by a string, a pair of old boots, a ragged shirt with no collar, and a dilapidated coat. The foreman appealed to the chap to dress a bit better. The next morning this man turned up in a clean shirt, collar and tie, a nice coat, hat and walking stick, but he still wore the trousers tied up with string and the dilapidated boots.
Mick Cullen was a member of Birmingham Branch. When he was turned down by the tribunal he got half a column write-up in the Daily Mail headed “A class fighter, not a conscientious objector.” Cullen was handed over to the military who put him in a house with other prisoners for the night. He climbed through the window, caught a train to Holyhead and then the night boat to Dublin. At that time Irishmen who were prepared to work in England during the war, to make up for the shortage of manpower, were provided with a green ticket exempting them from military service. The morning Cullen arrived in Dublin he applied for a green ticket, received it and took the boat back to England the same night. As he did not care to risk going back near Birmingham he took a train up the North East Coast. After he had travelled some way up the coast a man who was sitting opposite him in the compartment suddenly leaned forward and demanded to see his exemption papers. Cullen asked him what the hell he was talking about and who the hell he was, anyway. Then the man produced his warrant card showing that he was a police inspector. Cullen then went into action. “Oho,” said he, exploding with wrath, “You’re just the man I want to meet. I was told in Dublin that there were plenty of jobs over here but I have been traipsing around unable to get one.” And so he went on, going for the inspector in a fury. At last the exasperated inspector assured Cullen that he had been just unlucky: that there were plenty of jobs. He gave Cullen his card with the address of a factory in Newcastle and told him to present the card and he would be assured of a job. At the next station the inspector hurriedly got out, obviously glad to escape the ravings of Cullen. However, finally the authorities caught up with Cullen again and he had to make his way back to Ireland and remain there for the rest of the war.
There was a group of members imprisoned in Dartmoor and others in Scotland in C.O. camps where they distributed Party literature.
The present writer also went to Ireland. I packed a kit-bag with so many books that I had no room for my clothes. On that account I had to cycle from Cork around the South and East coast to Belfast wearing two suits, a heavy overcoat, and a heavy kit-bag fastened to my back. I crossed over with a member who was a music hall juggler and was appearing for a week in Cork. I was supposed to be his assistant and he got me through.
In Belfast, being somewhat unsophisticated, I tried to sell art postcards in the streets. I had to give up deciding, by results, that the Irish were not an art-loving nation. I then got a job with a dentist as a canvasser but later the dentist took me in to teach me dentistry. Finally he arranged for me to “walk the hospitals” so that I could qualify. Fearing this would reveal the fact that I was technically a deserter from the army, I told him I was not fitted for the profession and gave up the job. This was not much of a financial loss because, in order to get the job, I had pretended I had private means and the doctor had ordered me to take an open air job on account of my health. In fact I was half starved.
I then followed a number of occupations, including selling cattle, horse and sheep medicine, dock labouring, working in a saw mill and driving a Foden steam wagon. Part of the time a friendly tailor let me sleep in his shop on the sewing board. Finally I got a job cutting timber in the mountains for a lumber company. This lasted me until the war ended, when I returned to London.
These are just a few rambling notes about what happened to a few members of the Party during the 1914-1918 war. Many other members could tell similar stories. Some went to different parts of the world and either remained there or only returned after the passage of a long time. As a result it was a sadly battered and reduced Party that gathered together after the war to continue the struggle.