I read Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience soon after its publication back in 2001. This was one of the first books to make me understand that there were interesting and complex stories to be told about the Home Front during the War.
Did I lend my copy to someone? Well, it disappeared anyway. I thought vaguely of obtaining a replacement, because this is a useful book. I didn’t get round to it, though, until recently, when I saw that a second edition was about to be published.
For those who don’t know it, the book is about the conscientious objectors in Huddersfield during the First World War, and their roots in the radical traditions of the town. Cyril Pearce interviewed some of the pacifists of 1914-18 back in the sixties, developed his research into an M.A. thesis in the eighties, turned it into a book at the start of this century, and has now produced a revised version. His wider research on war resisters nationally is due to be published in book form next year, I think.
Cyril Pearce’s book suggests that the usual perception of objectors as lone opinionated martyrs (Jeremy Paxman in his recent TV series decided that absolutists must be ‘cranks’) is not accurate. Rather, they came from political and religious communities that gave them moral support for their stand. He traces the Huddersfield objectors back to their political upbringing in the left-wing parties and the Socialist Sunday Schools, and points out that far from being isolated, they could on occasion bring a large enough crowd of supporters to the Tribunal to worry the authorities.
This second edition updates and fills out the first. The introduction makes use of recent research, by Adrian Gregory, Catriona Pennell and others, and addresses some recent controversies. Essentially, however, the book remains the same, a study of a town where politics did not stop for the duration, and where a tolerant Liberal tradition allowed room for the expression of divergent views.
This Liberal tradition was embodied in the main local newspaper, the Huddersfield Examiner (still going fairly strong as a daily a century later). Committed to the values of peace, retrenchment and reform, the Examiner, like much of Liberal England, had only reluctantly supported the Boer War, and were far from enthusiastic in 1914. Cyril Pearce reprints an editorial from 27th July 1914 warning against becoming embroiled in a European war:
Germany is the natural friend of England, and events, during the last few years have been tending to establish the right relations between the two countries. To have been compelled to fight her in the interests of France and – much worse still – in those of obscurantist and reactionary Russia, would be not only a present misfortune, but a permanent source of weakness…
By August 5th, the paper (like the Manchester Guardian) had accepted that peace was not an option:
Whoever may claim the praise or blame of the war in its making, the war is now Britain’s war, and every Briton, without distinction of party, creed or class, must bend all his or her powers to win in the great and strenuous struggle which we have entered.
This turnaround probably reflected majority opinion in the town, especially after the invasion of Belgium provided clear justification of the War as a moral crusade the War as a moral crusade, but there were groups in Huddersfield who remained firmly opposed to war on any basis.
Pre-war socialists had been fragmented into a variety of small argumentative parties. Some were firmly committed to opposing any war that set the working men of one country against those of another, and some less definitely so. There had been widespread opposition to the National Service League, a pre-war campaign for conscription, however, and when War was declared the No Conscription League brought together Liberals, socialists and members of religious groups opposed to fighting.
This broad alliance meant that there was a community ready to support conscientious objectors like Arthur Gardiner when they were brought before the Tribunal. Cyril Pearce gives a full and lively account of the way that Gardiner, with the crowd behind him, conducted his defence with a spirit and clarity that impressed members of the Tribunal:
We believe that the applicant, Mr Gardiner, has proved he is entitled to call himself a conscientious objector… in view of the fact that we believe in the sincerity of his convictions, we are disposed to grant temporary exemption for two months, which will carry for four months.
After the two months, Gardiner was offered non-combatant service. He refused that, but did later end up working in the Home Office Scheme in Wakefield.
Some other books on conscientious objectors concentrate on the relatively few that accepted no compromise and were sent to prison, where many suffered considerably. It is a virtue of this book that it reminds us that opposition to the war went beyond those who were imprisoned. It was found in those who accepted compromises such as non-combatant service in the Army, work of national importance, or the Home Office Scheme. Pearce reminds us too, not only of those who, when their applications were refused, reluctantly enlisted, but also of those who opposed the idea of fighting, but went before the Tribunal offering reasons for exemption that were more likely to be accepted, such as poor health Equally important are the support networks for these men, the families and friends who shared their values.
The cliché picture of the conscientious objector is of the lone man whose values are quite different from those of the people around him (You may remember the deeply virtuous teacher in that dreary TV series The Village, scorned and abused by all around him). Cyril Pearce’s research questions this. Most objectors came from communities of dissent, whether political or religious. Each man made his decision according to his own conscience, but he gained strength to make that decision by the fact that there were others around him who endorsed his values. Anyone who has thought about military morale knows that a brave soldier will usually be even braver if surrounded by other brave men. The same is as true for those who refuse to fight.
The subtitle of this book is ‘The story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War’, and Cyril Pearce certainly shows the existence of at least a sub-community united in the pacifist cause. This minority was sympathetically viewed by many in the town, which had strong radical traditions, and they were a minority large enough to support a socialist newspaper, The Worker, but they were a minority. As a town, Huddersfield made a huge contribution to the war effort, through the munitions and other factories that produced essential war supplies. (Some of the objectors that Cyril Pearce describes worked in these industries, and could claim exemption from call-up because their work was of national importance.) There were also plenty of Huddersfield citizens who fought, and others who willingly did their bit for the war effort in various ways. Here’s an article I found in the Times:
I wonder whether it would be possible to draw a political map of the town in wartime: which areas did the war resisters come from, and which areas showed support for the war effort?
I’ve one quibble. Discussing those who accepted the options such as doing Work of National Importance, rather than going to prison, Cyril Pearce writes:
Those prepared to make accommodation with wartime circumstances whether humanitarian service, non-combatant service or WNI were mostly men of religious faith. What this might say about the nature of religious faith when confronted by war is beyond the scope of this study.
Cyril Pearce came to this study by interviewing socialist objectors whose opposition to the war was whole-hearted and political; passages like this show that his sympathies are very much with them, rather than with those whose scruples about war were religious. He is effectively accusing the religious of not being true to their principles, which maybe misses some of the complexities of their situation.
For some (though not all) of the socialists, the choice may have been clear-cut. For some of the religious there was a moral quandary. Their moral principles told them to be against war, yet this war was itself perceived as a moral issue, the defence of Belgium against aggression. Many must have been in a state of cognitive dissonance, unable to easily reconcile two conflicting moral imperatives. Accepting a medical role, non-combatant service or Work of National Importance was a compromise, but not necessarily a sign of weakness or betrayal.
Cyril Pearce ended the first edition with a plea for research elsewhere to discover whether there were other ‘Huddersfields’ where dissent remained strong during the war years. He now firmly says that there were other similar communities – mentioning among others Nelson, Bingley and Shipley in the north, and Letchworth (where Richard Hannay went among pacifists in Mr Standfast) in the south. Those wanting to research the topic will soon be able to make use of his database, the Pearce Register of Conscientious Objectors, which will be available online from the Imperial Wear Museum later this year.
Accounts of other communities of war resisters will doubtless be forthcoming, but I doubt that many will be as rich as this, rooted as it is in the author’s 1960s interviews with objectors and their supporters, who were able to give a first-hand account of their experiences, and of the community they lived in.