Friday, 3 October 2014

1914: Opposing the war from the start

From LSHG Newsletter # 53 (Autumn 2014)

The First World War started a century ago on 4th August 1914. August this year saw a range of events designed to mark the centenary, and with them continued debate about the reasons for the war and whether it is possible in any way to see it as a ‘victory’, rather than an imperial conflict which was largely meaningless for the millions whose lives were lost.

Some issues that arose a hundred years ago have not received much official or media attention. One of those is what it was like in those very early days of the war for socialists who had not only taken opposition to war as a principle but continued to oppose the war after it had started.

We may query how far there was popular enthusiasm for war in August 1914, though it is clear that there was some. What is equally true is that those who stood out against the war were at this stage in a minority even amongst what had been, until 3rd August, the left. This was true not just in Britain but across Europe.

The issues of the Daily Herald for the first few weeks of the war provide some insight. The Herald was edited by George Lansbury, a left-winger who went on to became Labour leader. He was opposed to war but that wasn’t necessarily the view of sections of the paper’s labour movement readers. Sales dropped and the Herald went to weekly publication until 1919 when it resumed as a daily. The Herald covered the early days of the war with an emphasis on the horror and loss of life. It could not report national opposition to it, because there was none of note at this stage. Indeed, it noted that all but a small section of German socialists had supported the war as well.

However the Herald also reported the activities of local supporters groups, the Herald Leagues. In some cases these remained staunchly anti-war. North London, and Finsbury Park in particular, as Ken Weller documents in his book Don’t Be A Soldier, were centres of anti-war agitation throughout the 1914-1918 period. Regular protests and demonstrations were held in Finsbury Park against the war, very much to the disapproval of the park authorities. They faced large pro-war gatherings which often disrupted the meetings, particularly in the early years of the war before conscription was introduced in 1916.

The range of people in North London opposed to the war was wide objecting for reasons of conscience, religion and a broad sweep of political beliefs from anarchists to socialists. When war was declared it is very unlikely that any had it in their minds that they would still be protesting in 1918.

On 5th August 1914, the day after war had been declared, the North London Herald League called a street meeting at Salisbury Corner in Harringay with speaker Walter Ponder. Salisbury Corner is near to Finsbury Park and at the time was a noted meeting spot. The Daily Herald noted in its edition of Thursday 6th August that an anti-war meeting was to take place with speakers ‘Comrades Knight and Grainger’. The Secretary, P.W. Howard of 15 Effingham Road, Hornsey, noted ‘we want if possible to hold nightly protest meetings in the district for a week or ten days’. This they did for a period. The Herald noted a meeting on Monday 10 August at Salisbury Corner 8.15pm with speakers Councillor F.W. Carter and R.M. Fox. The secretary called for ‘Rebels rally around red rostrum’.

Those anti-war socialists at Salisbury Corner, along with those in Highbury, Hackney and some places in Scotland were amongst the few to stand out against the war when it was called a century ago. They faced opposition not just from jingoistic supporters of the war but also from the ranks of the labour movement itself. There were moves for example in the Herald League not to have anti-war street meetings and to hold all events indoors.

As the start of the war is recalled we should also remember those socialists who stuck to their principles and publicly opposed the war in the most difficult of circumstances.

Keith Flett

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