Long Bennington Local History Society

Alternative Voices (1914 – 1918)  A talk given on January 23.

When he acceded to his throne late in the 19th century Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken aboard Bismarck’s observation on military power,

policy can’t succeed through speeches and shooting-matches and songs; it can only be carried out through blood and iron”.  He chose comlianqt senior politicians who with his generals and admirals followed his lead; together they initiated a huge Dreadnought construction programme and increased financial support for their army.  The Kaiser and his cohort believed that when their policy came to fruition they would be able to dictate not only to Europe but also to the rest of the world.  This naked ambition on the part of Germany created apprehension in the other European countries.  They felt obliged to engage in an arms race.  Interestingly, and almost immediately, the Germans presented their country as the victim of stratagems devised by France, Russia, and Britain to reduce Germany to impotenc3. 

The First World War (WWI) was precipitated in 1914 by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo.  Austria (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) declared war on Serbia, whereupon Russia, claiming that Slavic countries in the Balkans lay within its sphere of influence, declared war on Austria.   Austria’s sole ally in Europe was Germany which joined the war quite willingly.  Allied with Russia the French joined in.  Britain, although having an Entente with France, didn’t act until several German armies marched into Belgium on their way to France.  Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by Russia, Prussia, England, and France when the modern state of Belgium was created in1839.  This presented the British Cabinet with the basis of an ultimatum to Berlin; its rejection led Britain to declare war on Germany.

The accepted image of the outbreak of the war is of crowds of men and boys massing in London (or in large German cities) eager to join in the fight.  Britons volunteered to join the army, “Kitchener’s army”, as soon as they could.  There was, however, a small minority of Britons who rejected the idea that it was their duty to engage in military activity.  This dissenting minority had multifarious reasons for their pacifist attitudes ranging from the realisation that Britain’s financial position would be destroyed by the cost of a war, through the socialist position that workers from one country shouldn’t engage in killing workers from other countries, to sincerely held religious beliefs of sects which held it was wrong to join in any form of conflict, particularly international war.  Initially these tiny groups attracted hardly any attention from the general public, after all, “It would all be over by Christmas”.  But it wasn’t and the casualty lists for the British army were frighteningly large.  To the popular mind it became obvious tat those who hung back from volunteering needed to be subjected to “moral” pressure which would persuade them to join up.  Some people handed out white feathers as badges of cowardice and others made disparaging or insulting remarks to men who were not wearing uniform. 

It soon became obvious that creating a huge army to match the conscripted armies of France and Germany required conscription.  The idea of conscripting young Britons had been mooted after the end of the Boer War but the proposition gave rise to arguments which didn’t lead to any action.  As their armies melted away into casualty lists British politicians realised that they could procrastinate no longer and in 1915 introduced the “Derby scheme”.  Sign up for the scheme and you will be called not now but later, as you are required.  The scheme met with a fairly muted response but it gave the government breathing time in which to prepare conscription legislature.  In January 1916 the Military Service Bill which required all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 to register for service in the armed forces.  Married men in the same age range were included only four months later.  No more shirking, only those engaged in essential war work would be exempted.  Now the minority who refused to fight, the conscientious objectors, presented the Establishment with a problem which was resolved by requiring the “Conshies” to appear before a tribunal.  There they could gain exemption if they justified their position to the members of the Tribunal who took the parts of prosecution, jury, and judges.  The appellants whose arguments were rejected were offered a simple choice; become a soldier or go to jail.  Successful objectors were offered the possibilities of taking positions as medical orderlies, as ambulance drivers, as farm labourers, and so on.  Those who refused these opportunities defended their decisions by observing that taking up them up would free other men for combatant duties.  By rejecting these alternatives these pacifists exposed themselves to ill treatment as prisoners, by threats of execution, and by heavy jail sentences. 

After the war stories of this state sponsored persecution of conscientious objectors leaked out.  These revelations stimulated a revulsion of feeling so that by 1939 when war again broke out Conshies could expect a more sympathetic treatment from the Establishment.  It seems likely that the general public whose family members were conscripted resented those who ducked out of engagement in the armed services.  Even though the objectors might well have been subject to dislike and disapproval they didn’t suffer as did their predecessors of twenty-five years before.

Chris Read with his able assistant gave a Box and Cox presentation of the talk.  They ably guided their audience through a morass of information and cast a bright light on a subject which is not often discussed.  It is remarkable how the mores of British society have changed during the past century.