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  Top » Catalog » Pages » Reviews
Comrades in Conscience: The story of an English community's opposition to the Great War by Cyril Pearce

Out of print

Reviewed by Martin Wainwright in The Guardian 23 February 2002

Just occasionally a historian chisels open a jammed, cobwebby window and reveals an astonishing view. After years of believing that X was the case (based on second-hand reports, propaganda or simple fiction), we suddenly discover that it was actually Y – and that there are bundles of overlooked primary sources to prove it.

Cyril Pearce's window opens initially on Huddersfield; not the gritstone terraces or the misty Pennines, but social tensions in the town when military difficulties led to conscription in the first world war. This was the time, accepted wisdom has long suggested, when jingoism ruled and contemptuous women handed out white feathers to any supposed shirker of enlistable age. Not so; or not, at any rate, in Huddersfield, where an extraordinarily strong and coherent opposition to the "great" war emerges from Pearce's explorations in archives ranging from his own university of Leeds to the Public Record Office in Kew. And, of course, in the rich political world of Huddersfield itself, with its many societies, chapels and venerable activists.

It was one of these, the late Wilfred Whiteley, a member of the Band of Hope, Christian Endeavour and ultimately parliament, who baited Pearce's trail. With that resigned acceptance that you still commonly find in older Huddersfielders – that Truth will only be known in the Next World – he would quietly say that the town was the national capital of anti-war feeling and genuine toleration of it by those who disagreed; and he would leave it that.

"But if anything, he probably understated the true position," says Pearce, whose 370 pages absorbingly prove the point that Whiteley didn't ever expect to excite anyone. Instead of white feathers, we have military service tribunals on the run from crowds of "conshie" supporters, and Huddersfield railway station crammed with singers of "The Red Flag" as six refuseniks are marched on to a train by soldiers.

Socialists provided this raw energy of the movement, even more vividly in February 1917, when off-duty but uniformed servicemen made a hash of disrupting a meeting addressed by Philip Snowden, the fiery orator who was to become Labour's first (and exceptionally miserly) chancellor of the exchequer. Like a caricature of the Somme, this ended with a piteous plea from the owner of a captured Royal Flying Corps cap that he might be allowed it back, "or he would get into trouble with his officer in the morning".

Membership of Huddersfield Central ILP actually rose in 1916, the year of conscription, when anti-war meetings were carefully mixed with evenings of billiards and sausage and mash. But more disturbing for the authorities was the high-minded support of the wealthy and virtuous Liberal nonconformists, the Huddersfield establishment of the day.

When the Military Service Act was foreshadowed in June 1916, Pearce conjures up images of Jellicoe's Grand Fleet by describing how "the Mayor brought out the Liberal conscience in full battle order". The council resoundingly voted call-up down. But the Huddersfield Women's Liberal Association made the most telling point at their monthly meeting by condemning conscription as "contrary to the principles of individual liberty for which the Empire stands" and denouncing "the introduction of Prussianism and the doctrine of slavery of the citizens of this country".

Such phraseology was also central to conscientious objectors' arguments at the tribunals which were soon to send many of them to prison, labour camps or reluctant soldiering. In one of the verbatim transcripts which are the jewel of this book, a heckler supported by Reverend Lark of Paddock United Methodist chapel tells the Huddersfield Military Tribunal chair on 20 March 1916: "As we boast so much of British Liberty, why not give fair play? You say you are going against German methods and yet you are adopting them." To the great resentment of the military representative, Mr Crosland, they were all allowed to have their say.

The arguments have an obvious resonance today, but Pearce's most promising effect may be on the hiccupy progress of revisionist historians who are currently challenging the long-held consensus that the first world war was never unpopular, and that its domestic opponents were few and marginal. Central to this, not surprisingly, has been the "national" nature of the supporting evidence and the lack of detailed local studies like this one.

"Despite massive outpourings of scholarly work on Britain and the great war, we are still largely ignorant of what was going on at home, where the people were," says Pearce, adding in tones which are pure Wilfred Whiteley in their modesty: "In another and more presumptuous way, I am trying to suggest that although the view from Huddersfield Public Library is different, it is nevertheless just as valid as that from Kew, Colindale or the Imperial War Museum." Hear, hear.

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