100 years ago: Pacifists prepare to resist conscription

100 years ago today (30th December 1915) a 31-year-old Quaker bank clerk called Howard Marten wrote a poem about the development of the Great War over the proceeding year.

Howard was preparing to face a crucial test. The cabinet had just agreed to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce military conscription for unmarried men aged 18 to 40. Howard knew he was likely to be conscripted. As a pacifist, he was determined to resist, whatever the cost.

I came across this poem when exploring Howard Marten’s letters and cuttings in Leeds University Library. The poem was handwritten in one of his notebooks, dated 30th December 1915.

I had the privilege of editing some of Howard’s writings as part of my work for the White Feather Diaries, a online storytelling project run by Quakers in Britain, which explores the lives of five Quakers in the first world war.

It may well be said that the poem has little artistic merit. On the face of it, there is nothing particularly remarkable or outstanding about it.

To me, however, it reads differently when I remember that the man writing it was struggling to know what he might face as a result of his faith. At this stage, it was unclear whether the conscription bill would include any provision for the right of conscientious objection, let alone whether any such provision would be honoured in practice. The No-Conscription Fellowship, of which Howard was part, had resolved to refuse to fight even if faced with the death penalty.

Here is the poem.

“The year of strife has nearly run its course,
And still is heard the clash of armed force
On and o’er the ocean’s wide expanse
Gone is the glamour and the false romance
Of battle. Yonder the desolated lands
Bear witness to the devastating hands
Which make God’s garden a bleak wilderness
And rob the earth of all its comeliness
Still the all-patient Love looks ever down
In deep compassion, which men strive to drown
The tender voice of pleading from above
Telling in accents clear that God is Love.”

Six months later, Howard Marten became the first British pacifist to be sentenced to death in World War One. The sentence was commuted to ten years in prison.

You can follow Howard’s story through the White Feather Diaries, which already include extracts from his writings relating to his experiences in 1914 and 1915. The site will soon be updated daily with accounts from 1916, written by Howard and four other Quakers.

I will also be blogging here on dates that mark significant centenaries in the development of conscription, and resistance to conscription, in 1916.

100 years ago: Home Secretary resigns in protest against conscription

100 years ago yesterday (28th December 1915), the British cabinet agreed to introduce military conscription. The Home Secretary, John Simon, resigned in protest.

It is sometimes said that the government was “forced to introduce conscription” because of the way the first world war was going. However, John Simon was one of many who ardently supported the war but opposed conscription.

The issue had been one of the biggest controversies in British politics over the proceeding year. Thousands of troops were dying ever day and they were no longer being replaced by equal numbers of volunteers. Some on the political right had campaigned for conscription for years – since long before the war began. Others now supported conscription on pragmatic grounds, believing it was necessary to win the war.

Many were opposed. Of course, those who opposed the war naturally opposed conscription. But it is important to recognise that there were many people, particularly in the Liberal Party, who supported the war but who opposed conscription.

The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith had given into pressure in May 1915 and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives and the pro-war wing of the (very divided) Labour Party. A small group of Liberal MP refused to support the coalition and sat as “Independent Liberals”.

The Tories in the government, along with certain Liberals such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, began to push hard for conscription (Churchill was on a political journey that saw him join the Conservative Party a few years later).

Asquith had not been keen on conscription, nor had Reginald McKenna, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, or John Simon, his Home Secretary. After lengthy debate in cabinet on 28th December 1915, Asquith backed plans to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce conscription for unmarried men. McKenna was reluctantly persuaded to go along with it. John Simon was having none of it, and resigned the same day.

When Parliament debated the bill in January 1916, John Simon provided a powerful voice of opposition from the backbenches. But the bill was passed into law on 27th January 1916. On 2nd March 1916, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 40 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces.

The provision was soon extended to married men, and the age limit was later raised. Provisions guaranteeing exemption for conscientious objectors turned out to be almost worthless and opposition to conscription continued for the following three years.

I will be blogging on the centenary of significant events in this struggle. Watch this space.

New historical evidence reveals Christmas Day mutiny in 1915

New historical evidence has come to light that is exciting for anyone engaged in researching resistance to World War One.

But this is not just good news for researchers. It is further evidence that resistance to World War One was stronger and more widespread than many would like to admit.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has long been celebrated and romanticised. Soldiers on different sides on the Western Front put common humanity first, at least for a day, sometimes with the encouragement of their officers. What’s less often mentioned is that commanders on both sides issued orders after the incident declaring that it must not be repeated.

A year later, ahead of Christmas 1915, the British army issued strict warnings that soldiers would be punished if the truce were repeated.

This has long been known by historians. What wasn’t known until now is that some troops openly defied such orders.

The new evidence is in the diaries of Robert Keating, a teenage private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which have been made public for the first time.

According to Keating’s account, members of both the Royal Welsh Fusliers and the Scots Guards responded to a request from German troops not to fire on Christmas Day. Troops on both sides got out of the trenches and shouted greetings to each other, although they don’t appear to have actually met in No Man’s Land as happened the previous year.

Keating writes that a senior officer came round the trenches and ordered the troops to fire on the Germans, which they refused to do. They only backed down when a machine gun was turned on them at the order of their own commanders.

Peace activists sometimes describe the more well-known Christmas Truce (of 1914) as a “mutiny”. This is probably an exaggeration, given that many junior and middle-ranking officers appear to have allowed it. The orders against it were only issued after it had taken place.

The newly revealed second truce (of 1915) is different. It involved open refusal of strict orders from a high level and was brought to an end by a British machine gun.

This was a mutiny. This was British troops choosing to put common humanity ahead of orders from on high. It is an incident every lover of peace can celebrate – and that future histories of World War One must include.

 

Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.

———-

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

A handy guide to militarist euphemisms

As I write, the UK Parliament is debating government proposals to send troops to bomb Syria. There’s a great deal of jargon about, so I thought I might offer a public service by attempting to decode some of it.

Firstly, there are all those words about defence and security. Here are some definitions.

Defence: War and preparations for war

Security: War and preparations for war

Defence spending: Money for war

Defence industry: Arms industry

Security measures: Restrictions on civil liberties

Keeping us safe: Killing people whose relatives will then want to kill us

The national interest: The interests of the UK establishment

There are other words that concern the process of going to war:

Intervention: Military intervention, i.e. going to war

Doing nothing: Doing something that does not involve war

Bombing ISIS: Bombing areas controlled by ISIS, full of innocent civilians

Finally, there are some terms that describe groups of people:

Terrorists: Vicious killers that the UK establishment does not like (e.g. ISIS)

Allies and trading partners: Vicious killers that the UK establishment does like (e.g. Saudi Arabian regime)

Terrorist sympathisers: Those who oppose a proposal that will result in the deaths of innocent people

It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. Perhaps language is the second.

Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop.

Nuclear weapons and bisexuality

My apologies for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks. I usually post a link to articles I have written elsewhere, but I admit I’ve not kept up with this lately.

Here are links to a few articles I’ve had published recently.

Corbyn should stick to his guns on defence policy (21.09.15)- My latest piece for the Huffington Post

Freeing sexuality from an either/or model (18.09.15) – My opinion piece for the Church Times to mark Bisexual Visibility Day

Hiroshima was an act of mass murder (06.08.15) – My blog post for Premier Christianity magazine, as part of a debate on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing

How the Church of England profits from the arms trade

Pope Francis last week attacked the “duplicity” of those who profit from the arms trade but “call themselves Christian”. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has adopted a policy of refusing to host events sponsored by arms companies. Guildford Cathedral took up a similar policy some time ago, cancelling a booking at short notice when they realised that it was for an arms industry event.

It seems that none of this has made any impact on Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England, which is next to Westminster Abbey. This week it will again host a conference sponsored by arms companies – and profit from their business.

The ‘Land Warfare Conference‘ will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday (30 June and 1 July). Its sponsors include Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms companies. Lockheed arms one some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain and Egypt. The company makes Trident missiles for the US (and loaned by the UK government). Lockheed also provides the Israeli government with F-16 aircraft and Hellfire missiles, used in attacks on civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the last two and a half years, Church House has been dismissing objections to its arms industry conferences, despite protests from within the Church of England and beyond.

Their first line of defence was to claim that the Church House Conference Centre was separate from Church House. Along with other campaigners, I have looked into this claim in some detail. It turns out that the Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose directors include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The separation is a legal technicality.

Church House are now trying to rely on the argument that the booking for the conference is not made by an arms company but by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. This is disingenuous. RUSI’s website makes clear that these conferences are sponsored by arms companies. Alongside Lockheed Martin, sponsors of this week’s event include MBDA Missile Systems (whose weapons were used on all sides in the Libyan civil war) and L3, owners of MPRI a “private military and security company” (or mercenaries, as they’re usually known).

Chris Palmer, secretary of the Church House Corporation recently claimed that:

“The conferences held at Church House by the Royal United Services Institute, an academic body respected throughout the world for its consideration and debate of defence and security issues, are perfectly legitimate and certainly do not breach any ethical stance taken by the Church of England.”

Whether or not RUSI is respected, it is certainly not unbiased. It lobbies for high military spending and promotes the arms industry. If you want to glimpse of the reality of RUSI, have a glance at the front page of the RUSI website, currently featuring a picture of them giving an award to the war criminal Henry Kissinger. Another picture features a celebration of the Duke of Wellington, who backed the use of troops to crush peaceful demonstrations.

But whatever we think of RUSI, Chris Palmer clearly finds it easier to focus on RUSI than on arms companies themselves. His comment deliberately ignores the fact that the conference is sponsored by arms dealers, whoever it is who made the booking.

In contrast, St Paul’s Cathedral has the wisdom to rule out “bookings, or sponsorship of bookings” from any company making more than ten percent of its money from the arms trade.

This is in line with the Church of England’s own ethical investment policy. The Church of England would not buy shares in Lockheed Martin, so why will it profit from it in other ways?

Chris Palmer said that the body that manages the Church’s investments has no connection to Church House and that therefore, “I cannot comment on its ethical stance”. He cannot, it seems, comment on why it has a higher ethical stance than Church House.

Chris Palmer’s comments were made in a letter to Richard Bickle, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who had written to him to raise objections to hosting arms dealers’ conferences. FoR is a long-standing Christian pacifist network. It is not only pacifists who object to these events at Church House. Others oppose them because they do not want to support companies that arm dictators and they do not want the Church to be making profit from the business of such companies.

As Christians, we do not hate arms dealers. We seek to love and forgive them. I for one know that I am just as sinful as an arms dealer, and that I need God’s forgiveness. I do not object to an arms dealer entering a church building. I would not have a problem with Church House hosting a debate on the arms trade (as long as it was not sponsored by arms companies), in which arms dealers were challenged and allowed to challenge others.

But this is not what is happening at Church House this week. This is about making money from the arms trade and giving it moral legitimacy.

FoR has been joined by groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Pax Christi and Christians for Economic Justice to call on Church House to adopt an ethical lettings policy and throw out the arms industry. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians, including Church of England clergy, have written to Church House to raise their objections.

Church House’s leadership, however, are not even engaging with the issues. As we can see from Chris Palmer’s quote above, they talk of the formal booking and ignore the issue of sponsorship. They have dismissed polite letters, ignored criticism in the media and refused to acknowledge that there is anything to talk about. Last year, security staff at Westminster Abbey tried to stop us from peacefully singing hymns as we held a vigil outside one of Church House’s arms dealers’ conferences. I cannot believe that everyone working for Church House shares these high-handed attitudes, but our polite appeals to reason are being met with rudeness and arrogance.

At 8am tomorrow (Tuesday 30 June), Christians and others will gather outside Church House for a nonviolent vigil and act of worship. A Church of England priest will lead us in Holy Communion. This is entirely appropriate. Communion is a memorial and a celebration of Jesus, who was tortured to death by the oppressive Roman Empire after his nonviolent activism. As a Christian, I have faith that Jesus rose again, heralding the eventual defeat of the unjust powers of this world.

Perhaps the Church House authorities expect our campaign to fade out, or to continue only as a minor irritant. If they do think this, they won’t be thinking it for long.

World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.

We need to cut ‘defence’ spending, not increase it

The Daily Telegraph’s campaign for high military spending has gathered momentum. Tory backbenchers, retired generals and even some Labour MPs have backed calls to keep “defence spending” at 2% of GDP. Last week, in a Commons debate attended by very few MPs, the majority of those who bothered to turn up voted in favour of the proposal.

There are several facts that rarely get mentioned.

Firstly, when they speak about “defence spending”, they mean the budget of the Ministry of Defence. A great deal of military and war-related spending is from other budgets. This includes funding for research and much of the cost of fighting actual wars. When this is added in, the figure is far above 2% of GDP.

Secondly, the UK’s military (or “defence”) expenditure is not low by international standards. It is very high. According to academic research in Sweden in 2013, the UK has the sixth highest military budget in the world. Even if it has fallen slightly since then, Britain is still spending far more on war than most of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. The Daily Telegraph itself published a chart illustrating that the UK is spending a higher percentage of GDP on “defence” than almost every other member of NATO and the  European Union.

Thirdly, “defence” is clearly a euphemism for spending on warfare and preparations for warfare. Despite the choice of wording, much of this expenditure has little or nothing to do with defending the British people. Supporters of “defence” spending talk about “national security” as if only weapons and soldiers can make anyone secure. In reality, the use of British troops as a support act in US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan has increased terrorist threats to Britain, making us less secure. All sorts of things help to make people secure – including a warm home, enough to eat and healthy relationships. These are being denied to increasing numbers of people in Britain by vicious cuts to public services, the welfare state and local authority budgets – cuts that are much larger than cuts to “defence” spending. The British people are threatened more by their own government than by any foreign power.

The militarists are increasingly vocal and well-organised in lobbying for high military spending in the UK. As the pressure grows, those who believe in real security need to speak up and expose the reality.