An Afternoon with War Resisters

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.



  1. Jim Cornelius
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    So what was done with the files?

  2. Posted December 1, 2008 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Most seem to have been destroyed. MI5 don’t like to let people know what they’ve done in the past. And such files as are left probably won’t even be released under the hundred year rule. Researchers like Nick Hiley have to piece together information from hints and clues elsewhere.

  3. Jim Cornelius
    Posted December 2, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the reply.

  4. Julian Putkowski
    Posted December 31, 2008 at 10:55 pm | Permalink


    With reference to military recruitment of British volunteers during 1914, I’m sorry you didn’t also recall my caveat, reminding assembled ‘comrades’ about the dangers of over-subscribing to ‘economic determinism’. The comment elicited an ironic smile from folks recalling dialectical reasoning, and vexed debates about Marxist views concerning class consciousness (‘false’ and otherwise); discourse about reflection and correspondence, and the essentially dialectical relationship between the Economic and Political.

    More immediately, I maintained that in their work on Kitchener’s Army, Peter Simkins and fellow WW1 revisionists have relegated the importance of economic factors. In supporting my contention, as you acknowledge, I referred to casual labour (e.g. unskilled teenagers) and seasonal unemployment (e.g. agriculture, construction & building industry. However, I also cited the impact of underconsumption(e.g. coal mining, shipbuilding); the negative impact on working class families’ budgets of the sharp rise in women’s unemployment (e.g. domestic servants). I added that working class people lacked savings and local welfare agencies’ parsimony combined with the Army’s provision of dependents’ allowances were also significant in explaining the (sic.) ‘rush to the colours’ in 1914.

    These preliminary comments were intended to be essentially remedial. I’ve never denied the lures: self aggrandisement,unrefined kick-ass patriotism – and, yep, widespread political embefuddlement.*.

    There was certainly nothing ‘mindless’ about Edwardian patriotism and the enticement of a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas ’14 – and just for the record I have no problem accepting the moral sincerity affirmed in letters, personal diaries and other contemporary records.

    That said, you’ll get a longer version of these and other points that got aired, for Cyril, Nick, Lois & m’self have been persuaded by the Labour History folks to write up what we had to say in a quartet of articles for the Society’s journal.

    Thanks for congratulating me on my oratorical flummery but I’d welcome a more nuanced acknowledgement of my attitude to WW1 revisionism and revisionists than” Julian managed to get in some kicks at revisionist historians, too. He really doesn’t like them.”

    You are wrong. In personal terms, I’ve enjoyed an amicable enough relationship with many revisionists. I’ve downed drammies with John Terraine and enjoyed a pint with Gary Sheffield, even when the ‘Shot at Dawn’ campaign was being lambasted at RUSI. Revisionist academics ain’t too precious when referring their postgraduate students to me for research advice and assistance – and Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson made use of my research about mutinies (albeit selectively) in their book ‘Blindfold and Alone.’

    I’ve lost count of the talks and lectures I’ve been invited to deliver by plenty of socially and politically conservative groups and institutions. Conversely,I doubt if I’ve addressed more than five or six gatherings of Lefties (Old or New) in the 40 or so years I’ve researched about the First World War.

    The latter may have been because in 1968 I was denounced by a Maoist as ‘A petty bourgeois individualist unsusceptible to political reform.’ More plausibly,it’s probably because Lefties are uninspired and view with distaste the crude nationalism that informs much British military history writing. All of which I reckon is a pity because there’s a wealth of opportunity for historical engagement and research(revisionism?) by the Left, as well as the Right.

    As for my “kicks”? They’re to do with -isms and not-ists. It ain’t personal. We do what historians are supposed to do – debate one another’s ideas,ideological constructs and varied interpretations of historical events. That’s all.

    Best Wishes for 2009,

    Julian Putkowski

    * A confused and confusing mental state arising from uncritically accepting imperialist, patriarchal fantasies that were systematically peddled by school teachers, priests and press barons.

  5. Posted January 3, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Julian –
    Thanks for setting the record straight.
    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that there was anything personal in your pointing out the flaws in revisionist accounts of the war – it’s a very needful exercise. In my blog entry I was trying to get across your obvious enjoyment of controversy, which is very stimulating.
    Where I have problems with your account of recruitment is in your stress on the “widespread political embefuddlement” of those “uncritically accepting imperialist, patriarchal fantasies that were systematically peddled by school teachers, priests and press barons.” I always think it’s dangerous to assume that people in the past were more stupid – or more fuddled or uncritical – than they are today.
    The vast majority of men enlisting in 1914-16 knew that they were volunteering for something very dangerous and terrible. Some doubtless joined up because of economic need, some for self-aggrandising reasons, and some because they were pressured, but (as is shown in Adrian Gregory’s excellent new book) the big surge in recruitment came after the Mons Despatch in The Times on 25th August, when it became very clear that the war would not be an easy matter. It seems to have been the prospect of possible defeat, not a fantasy of easy victory that drove men to the colours. At about the same time, the first reports of German atrocities in Belgium were appearing, which increased the moral impetus to enlistment.
    I look forward to reading the expanded versions of the papers in the Society’s magazine – it was a rich and thought-provoking afternoon. I was up in Huddersfield for the New Year, and couldn’t help wondering which of those dark grey back-to-backs offered might have offered shelter to Cyril Pearce’s deserters. Maybe the ones that today have windows festooned with slogans about Iraq and the environment.

  6. Julian Putkowski
    Posted January 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t stress the ‘befuddlement’, it was simply one of a trio of contributory elements to which I referred. Since it’s the only motivating factor to which you draw attention, please dismiss any inference that I entertain the simplistic notion that “people in the past were more stupid – or more fuddled or uncritical – than they are today.”

    What I drew attention to was a recognisable correspondence between the values promoted by key educational agencies, religious and non-statutory institutions, and support for contemporary imperialist, patriarchal fantasies. There’s nothing particularly new or original about my contention (pace Gramscian notions about hegemony and the work of J. Burnett, ‘Destiny Obscure’ (1984); V.E. Chancellor ‘History for their Masters’ (1970); W.J Reader ‘At Duty’s call’ (1988); R. Samuel [ed.], ‘Patriotism – the making and unmaking of British national identity’, vols. 1-3 (1989)).

    I also did not say, neither should it have been inferred that I there was a wholesale acceptance of the confection of opinions and ideas that masqueraded as history and geography in contemporary school syllabi. This is because for the process of indoctrination to be judged successful, in terms of outcomes all there that has to be achieved is a sufficiency of deference by a section of the working class – that’s all. Assessing the scale, nature and influence of the aforementioned ’sufficiency’ is complex for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves assessing students’ the acceptance or rejection of received ideas – then or nowadays.

    It’s also very difficult to refine the key terms of reference and provide clear and unambiguous answers to seminal questions, e.g. Who or what was ‘working class’? By what means is it possible to quantify or define the scope of working class deference? Answering these questions figured in protracted discourse about the (sic) aristocracy of labour, and the emergence of an identifiable lower middle class (see: G. Crossick [ed.] ‘The Lower Middle Class in Britain 1870-1914 ‘(1977) – esp. essay by R.N. Price; B. Waites ‘A Class Society at War: England 1914-1918’(1992)). However, I’d argue that deference does not have to be exercised consistently, and neither did it prove to be the case with reference to controversies that fractured late Victorian and Edwardian politics, including labour unrest, women’s suffrage, Irish Home Rule and anti-war sentiment.

    I’m unsure of what you mean by ‘Adrian Gregory’s excellent new book’ but there’s nothing novel about noting the big surge in recruitment occurring after the Mons Despatch in The Times on 25th August but I’d have thought you’d have made a better case by citing Moore’s ‘broken army’ alarmism, the ‘Amiens Despatch’ (Times, 30 August). Even so, your contention in no way invalidates my contention that unemployment, the prospect of poverty and an empty belly have been comparatively neglected by revisionists in accounting for the timing of the rush to the colours.

    In addition to the workers to whom reference was made in my earlier contribution it’s also worth drawing attention to the commercial impact wrought by the dislocation of shipping on Britain’s seaports and docks. By the end of July 1914 shipping was already seriously affected, leading to the sacking of tens of thousands of casually-employed dockers, warehouse workers, barge and lighterman, (horse & motor), transport drivers and employees in companies reliant on processing, packaging and retailing imported raw materials and commodities. The impact on London generally, let alone the East End, must have been massive – for the Port of London handled a third (by value) of the UK’s imports and 18.9% of home exports.

    When faced with a downturn in trade, commercial enterprises trim down their workforce and turn to banks for assistance – but the financial crisis had caused the Bank of England to raise interest rates from 3% (30 July) to 10% (1 August). The Government intervened to defend the commanding heights of finance capital, in much the same fashion as nowadays but HM Government’s emergency economic support for the City of London, Bank of England and clearing banks during August had the effect of redistributing ‘The pressure generated by the international crisis away from the City to the manufacturers and small traders of Britain.’ (Hew Strachan ‘Financing the First World War’ (2004), p. 128)) – sounds familiar, huh?

    To exemplify my key contention, that no single factor accounted for the August and September 1914 enlistments, herewith find material culled from the ‘Times’:

    5 August p.5 [‘Boom’ in Recruiting] ‘A feature of the recruiting work was the large number of motor-omnibus drivers and other motor-drivers seeking admission to the Army Motor Transport Service. The fact that many of the London motor omnibuses have been requisitioned for the Government Service and the anticipation that the dearth of motor spirit would throw many drivers in private employment out of work were partly responsible for the large number of these applications. The applicants were also attracted by the favourable terms offered for this special service…’

    On 5 August the ‘Times’ [Civilian Service – Doctors and Motor-cyclists wanted] announced that the War Office was seeking to engage ‘civilian doctors, motor cyclists and men of various trades. General practitioners (preferably aged under 35) ‘for 12 months or until their services are no longer required’ were to be paid 24/- per day (incl. expenses), travelling allowances and a £60 gratuity on termination of service. Motor cyclists (aged 20-40) were advised to bring overalls, gauntlets and goggles (for which they will be paid an allowance of 15/-), and their machines, which will be bought by the WO at a valuation or be replaced by a new one. Pay for motor cyclists, it was announced, would be 35/- per week all found + bounty of £10 paid for each man approved and a further £5 on discharge for any reason other than misconduct (to enlist for 1 year or as long as the war continues). The War Office also sought to secure the services of tradesmen: Foremen artificers (70/- p.w.); coppersmiths, electricians, pattern makers (52/6d p.w.); blacksmiths, dispensers, drivers of motor lorries, farriers, fitters, moulders, painters, saddlers, turners, wheelers, 42/- p.w.; bakers, butchers, clerks, cooks, hospital subordinates, tailors (28/- p.w.); labourers and loaders (packers) (21/- p.w.).


    Julian Putkowski

  7. Posted January 7, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    If your point is that different men enlisted for different reasons, and that most were motivated by a mixture of them, then we are in complete agreement.
    I’m never very convinced, though, by those who stress imperialist/patriotic indoctrination by teachers and clergy as a prime motivator for enlistment. The same teachers and clergy were at the same time preaching temperance and sexual continence, with much less success. Schoolchildren are by and large persuaded by the messages they want to be persuaded by. School textbooks are likely to be as much symptoms as causes of social attitudes.
    Adrian Gregory’s book is “The Last Great War”. I shall be writing a review of it here within the next couple of days.

  8. Posted January 9, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    If you are a military soldier that is need of some extra assistance , then come and check out “The David H Brooks Foundation for American Wounded Soldiers”

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