I went to an excellent meeting in London yesterday afternoon, organised by the Society for the Study of Labour History, on the subject of New Thoughts on British War Resisters 1914-19. The meeting was in Freemason’s Hall, an imposing building in Great Queen Street, near Holborn. You’d probably recognise the main entrance if you saw it, because the building acts the part of MI5 headquarters in the TV series Spooks (Is there any programme on TV at the moment more gripping while you watch it, more nonsensical when you analyse it? Only Hole in the Wall, maybe.)
Inside the building there were no computers logged in to every CCTV camera in the kingdom, however, but a grand staircase leading up to the Masonic Library and Museum. The Museum was full of Masonic display pieces, and I thought of Kipling’s Masonic stories, which for me rank among the most resonant pieces of Great War prose.
Through the Museum, and into the Robing Room, where a select gathering had just finished their annual general meeting, and were embarking on the public session, a forum with four speakers on the subject of conchies and war resisters of various kinds.
The first was Cyril Pearce, whose excellent book on war resisters in Huddersfield I’ve mentioned before. He was speaking about the unrespectable resisters – not the ones who could be idealised as patient martyrs, but as he put it, the raggedy-arsed runaways who dodged the police. He told the stories of several disreputable characters, which gave some very striking insights into the left-wing subcultures of the time. I was very interested in the “safe houses” which gave refuge to runaways. One of them had before the war been a safe house for suffragettes evading the Cat and Mouse Act.
Next Lois Bibbings talked about gendered representations of conscientious objectors – how they were often portrayed as unmanly, while they themselves wanted to represent themselves as manly, but with a non-military sort of manliness. Afterwards it stuck me that I might have mentioned at question-time the issue of the Magnet comic that I wrote about here a while back, in which a pacifist schoolboy comes to Greyfriars. The author clearly does not agree with him, but shows him to be brave, principled, and loyal to his father, whose attitudes he is copying.
Nicholas Hiley spoke next – another scholar whose work I’ve admired, especially his analysis of wartime propaganda. Appropriately for the building (in its fictional guise) he was talking about the early years of MI5, a “hidden and suppressed history”. From tiny beginnings it grew massively during the war. Apparently they had two-thirds of a million cards in their index of people they were keeping an eye on, and by 1916 were creating 700 new personal files per month. After the war there was much consideration of what should be done with the files. After all, a Labour government might be elected. Basil Thompson (whose memoirs I have recommended before) sent a memo suggesting that under Labour, loyalty might have to be redefined…
Last was Julian Putkowski, as combative in the flesh as he is in print. He gave a spirited talk on “Engagement, Disengagement and Resistance”. The central idea was very suggestive – that we should stop thinking in terms of a man’s being in the Army or out of it, but should be aware of various gradations in the amount of engagement or commitment men felt to the military system in which they were involved.
He argued that the rush to the colours in 1914 was in large part a matter of economic necessity, especially for the unskilled who found themselves jobless in the recession at the start of the war. He painted a convincing picture of large numbers who relied on casual, seasonal work and what my social history colleagues at Brookes call “the economy of makeshifts”. I still don’t believe this was the whole picture, though, any more than “mindless patriotism”. But then I don’t think one can understand the WW1 citizen army without taking into account the sincere moral commitment that many men made to the cause. Julian managed to get in some kicks at revisionist historians, too. He really doesn’t like them. He’s a good speaker.
There was a lively question-time too. The audience was informed, though not numerous. I guess left-wing history is a bit out of fashion these days, but I’m sure that there are many other students of the period who would have enjoyed it as much as I did. Maybe the society needs a better publicity strategy.
The whole afternoon made me consider how much my research centres on the mainstream of British wartime opinion, the culture of consent that despite “war-weariness” stayed behind the project of the war for four long years. I deal with some intellectual or literary resisters, but a point raised at question-time made me realise that these are marginal in comparison with the larger groups of religious and left-wing protestors. John Rodker, the poet, was a deserter on the run, and the police apparently knew where he was, but they couldn’t be bothered to go after him. The ones they had their eyes on were the agitators who might start making trouble in the industrial areas.
Still, here’s two sections from Rodker’s post-war poem, A CO’s Biography:
9. Court Martial
Blank faces, Charlie Chaplin moustaches –
Gentlemen of course – barely interested:
Six months hard labour in two minutes:
Blue sky and a lark shrilling madly.
Bitterness of steam and people in light clothes.
She did not meet him at Waterloo.
There was a calm proud woman who did not look at him
And that made him choke.
Nothing mattered now, come quickly prison.