The conscientious objector of the First World War was once thought of, if at all, as a marginal figure standing apart from a generally popular conflict. When the BBC produced its landmark television documentary The Great War in the early 1960s, little mention was made of those who resisted, whether through conscience or political belief. The story of those who had said no was sustained instead by their descendants, particularly after the Second World War. Until, that is, the publication of the first edition of Cyril Pearce’s landmark history of conscientious objection during the First World War in 2001. Set in Huddersfield, a textile manufacturing town that did very well out of the conflict, not least because it was able to step into the gap in the market left by the loss of German chemical dye manufacture, Comrades in Conscience reorients our understanding of conscientious objection. Far from being marginal figures, the ‘conchies’ were significant political actors linked to the Independent Labour Party, radical Liberalism, working-class education circles, the New Theology, and the winds of political and social change sweeping across industrial Britain.
The book itself comprises three broad thematic sections which detail the months leading up to the outbreak of war, the period prior to the introduction of the Military Service Act in 1916, including the mobilisation of the labour movement against the war, the establishment of the Union of Democratic Control and the No-Conscription Fellowship, and finally the period from March 1916 which saw the British state turn its strength onto those who resisted war service. Tracing the personal stories of men such as Arthur Gardiner, Percy Ellis and William Shaw, Pearce’s sensitive narrative considers the very human cost of standing up for one’s beliefs. Huddersfield escaped, as Pearce points out (p. 177), the violence and intimidation that occurred elsewhere, such as the police raids that took place regularly in Glamorgan, suggesting that the town was more tolerant of its dissenters than was the case in other parts of the country. Nowhere was without its jingoistic elements but, as Pearce contends, in Huddersfield ‘they seldom had their own way for long’ (p. 176). This makes Huddersfield a particular fascinating case study and we eagerly await the sequel which sets the town in the wider context of objection around the country.
Comrades in Conscience is, in effect, two books for the price of one; for as well as being a discrete analysis of conscientious objection in the West Yorkshire textile district, it is an effective study of the rise of Labour in that region. Pearce reminds us that the rise of Labour was a consequence not merely of political and trade union activity, although the establishment of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford in 1893 certainly hints at the importance of the new politics to the area, but of a constellation of related activities. Socialist Sunday Schools, the Labour Church, socialist clubs, Clarion clubs, cycling groups, brass bands, co-operative societies, newspapers, working-class education circles, ethical societies, and the New Theology espoused by R. J. Campbell, all contributed to the emergence of radical alternatives to the political status quo. Conscientious objectors, particularly those from a political background, were steeped in this process of reasoning otherwise, as the military service tribunal testimony cited by Pearce serves to illustrate.
This does mean that certain facets of Huddersfield’s war service are neglected, and which do help to nuance our understanding of what was going on in this ‘hotbed of pacifism’. Not the least of which is the role played by the town’s technical college (the forerunner of today’s University). By the end of the 1914-15 academic year over two hundred students and half a dozen staff had volunteered for service in the army; by the following year that had risen to over three hundred students and nearly twenty staff. The college was also an active participant in the town’s chemical dye industry, expanding its chemistry department significantly to enable the town’s factories to dominate production in Britain during the war. The expansion even encouraged the college authorities to seek university status in the early 1920s, albeit unsuccessfully. There is no doubting that Huddersfield’s changing political environment did result in a significant number of conscientious objectors, and those who were ambivalent about the conflict itself, but there is surely more to be said of the town’s war record before we conclude, definitively, that this was ‘a community largely unenthusiastic about the war’.
Comrades in Conscience is, setting such caveats aside momentarily, a remarkable book that has contributed enormously to our understanding of the complexities of the First World War and the politics of the period. There can be no doubt, in Huddersfield and elsewhere, that conscientious objection during the First World War was a significant episode in the emergence of the Labour Party as a national force after 1918. Indeed, it is often said that Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marx, but – as this book implies – it also owed something to Military Service Tribunals and the anti-war voices they gave a platform to. This handsome new edition of Comrades in Conscience, which serves the photographic materials especially well, is therefore a welcome renewal and affords another opportunity to consider and debate the Pearce thesis. It remains a shining example of what history from below can achieve and there can be no finer compliment paid by the wider historical community than to replicate the model in other contexts, in other hotbeds of pacifism and dissent, and in those areas more disposed to the fighting, to fully appreciate the strength of faith and character and conviction required to say no to war.
[Note: This is a pre-publication version of my review which appears in Quaker Studies.]