1980s >> 1989 >> no-1021-september-1989

What Made Me Oppose the War

I was born on 22 February, 1914, a few months before the start of the Great War (as it came to be called), the youngest of an Anglo-German family of five children, two girls and three boys. My eldest brother, Edward, was killed on the Western Front in the last month of that war, after having survived its whole course on active service.

He volunteered for the army at the onset, being then aged sixteen. After about two years’ service he was discharged from the armed forces because of war wounds, but immediately rejoined another regiment. Over the years I have often wondered about this conscientious heroism of his. When asked why he had re-enlisted although medically unfit, he would always say that he would have been letting his comrades down who were still fighting in France had he not done so.

Some considerable time before I became a socialist I had come to the realisation that warfare was completely inimical to the human condition. As I became older my reaction to the reality of capitalism was to become a rebel without a cause. A combination of particular experiences, and a process of learning by those experiences and coming to conclusions about them, without (as yet) having an all-embracing philosophy.

For example, my mother had to convince the War Office that my brother Edward would have become a major bread-winner for the family, had he not been killed fighting for King and Country, before they would “award” a compensatory pension. After about a year of legal wrangling, the War Office awarded a sum of seven shillings and sixpence a week (in terms of present coinage this would be 37. pence). Such was the reward of a grateful king and country. With hindsight it came to be considered fortunate by the family that this war pension of 7/6d was allocated to my mother and not my father who died relatively young, aged 56; in which case the pension would have died with him, whereas my mother lived to the age of 75.

Another circumstance which profoundly affected my thinking, something that I learned years later, was that in the section of the Western Front where my brother was killed two of his uncles were serving with the opposing German army in that same section at that time. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that my brother could have been killed by them. These were the kinds of experiences, together with my concern for all of the victims of war, which determined my developing an emotional opposition to war and everything connected with it, rather than an opposition based upon a rational understanding of the material causes of social antagonism and war (this came later in my development).

In the late 1920s when the subject of war came up in conversation, I was often asked by relations and others what I would do in the event of war. My reply was that I would oppose its prosecution, to the best of my ability, and refuse to take part in it as an individual. Their reaction to this was usually to say that it is easy to oppose war in peace-time, but that I would probably change my attitude if war should come.

Another factor in my development from childhood was my experience at school. At the age of five I started my “education” at a church school in London which in those days was a school attached to a parish church with an independent board of school governors, but which was funded by the then LCC (London County Council). The lessons at this school were (with overtones of religion) directed towards teaching the children to read, write and count, so that they would be able to appreciate the benefits of patriotism and blind loyalty to their King and Country, and a willingness to die for them and the market economy they represented if necessary. This included the presentation of history as the past battles and wars in which “their” country had been involved. As a pupil I was very unpromising. I was so slow to learn that I was more or less ignored by the teachers and only had any real contact with them when it was a case of receiving punishment for some misdemeanour I had committed.

There were two days of the year in the school curriculum which were regarded as special events in which the whole school took part. These were Empire Day and Prize-giving day. On Empire Day the whole school was assembled in the playground to sing patriotic songs like “Land of Hope and Glory” and to listen to the reciting of the hackneyed sentiments of a Henry Newbolt poem in which an imperialist bloodbath somewhere in the empire was equated with a game of cricket played by “public” school boys on the playing fields of Eton or Harrow. The proceedings were then brought to an end, until the next year, with a homily on God, religion and the Empire given by the vicar.

In the early thirties I became convinced that the Socialist Party’s analysis of capitalist society in general and the causes of war in particular was the only valid explanation of the world’s social problems and demanded a world-wide solution. I therefore became a socialist ideologically, but I did not join the party until 1946. The reason for this was that I had decided  to object to military service, and my joining the only anti-war political party in Britain might have been seen as merely a personal anti-war tactic and not a complete opposition to the continuation of capitalism, in peace or war. My refusal to perform military service lasted over a period of about two years of close arrest, court martials and prison sentences, terminating in my discharge from military service.

Harry Walters

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