The ‘comrades in conscience’ of 1914

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HISTORIAN Cyril Pearce has uncovered remarkable stories of defiance among the working people of the West Riding.

Among the conscientious objectors (COs) were Arthur Gardiner, a textile worker and Marxist, and his friend Percy Ellis, founder members of Huddersfield Socialist Society who faced military service tribunals in which they explained their belief that the war was caused by ‘sordid capitalism’ and should be resisted by the working classes.

When their appeals failed in 1916 they went on the run.

“They set off on their bicycles in May 1916, determined to stay away from the army and from home until the weather turned, their money ran out or they were caught,” says Mr Pearce.

“They camped out in the Yorkshire Dales, slept rough in campsites in the Ribble Valley and, for a time, worked on Liverpool docks. They successfully evaded capture and, in late September 1916, when their money ran out they came home.”

Ellis was arrested and Gardiner handed himself in.

Both were handed over to the army and with other COs were escorted by soldiers to Halifax. Large numbers of sympathisers saw them off with cheers and a rendition of The Red Flag.

They continued to refuse to have anything to do with army life and were jailed. Gardiner later had a nervous breakdown during solitary confinement at Wormwood Scrubs.

Ellis was eventually released from jail in 1919.

The pair are among 117 conscientious objectors listed in Huddersfield - a “significant and noisy minority” - who can be identified by name, yet Mr Pearce believes many more had deeply held anti-war beliefs yet still signed up.

His 300-page study of Huddersfield’s resisters, Comrades in Conscience, argues that the extent of opposition to the Great War has been underestimated.

In the 1960s he interviewed key former members of the town’s Independent Labour Party, who were by then in their 80s.

“What they told me was that Huddersfield had more than its fair share of COs and that they were generally tolerated.”

Later he found evidence that many other towns shared with Huddersfield this apparent lack of enthusiasm for the war.

In the last 13 years he has created a database of British COs which contains 17,000 names.

“I took the view that there was no such thing as a ‘national mood’ in terms of how people reacted to the war. On the basis of evidence from Huddersfield, things were different at a local level and they would be different right across the country.

“There may have been moments of high enthusiasm (for war) but this often coincided with chucking out time at the pubs.”

He argues that many joined up simply to escape unemployment, short-time working or excessive overtime while pressure and inducements from employers and landowners played a part in encouraging reluctant men.

Anti-war sentiment could be found in many communities, according to Mr Pearce, who is involved in Leeds University’s Legacies of War project. In Huddersfield the movement included feminist and Quaker Alice Robson who came from a radical Liberal tradition.

Towns with significant numbers of COs include Settle in North Yorkshire (with its Quaker presence) and Nelson, Lancashire.

After years of viewing Huddersfield - his home town - as a “one-off” for its anti-war activism, he’s revising his opinion.

A century on, he believes it is worth looking afresh at how we think about popular reactions to war from 1914.

“The notion that this tiny minority of people can be dismissed to the margin really needs re-examining.”

He thinks of COs as “the awkward squad”.

“In any democratic system that is worth the name, you ignore at your peril the awkward squad who speak truth to power. These men and women were, as they saw it, speaking truth to power, whatever the consequences; the consequences could be unpleasant. Not all COs and their families were as fortunate as the ones in Huddersfield, where there was a level of tolerance. Other COs were set upon in anti-CO riots in Dartmoor, Knutsford and Wakefield.”

The life of Arthur Gardiner after the war suggests that COs in towns like Huddersfield did command respect.

After serving time in jail, he continued his life in politics. He joined the Labour Party in 1918 and served as a councillor in Huddersfield during the 1920s and up to the end of the 1960s. Gardiner, who died in 1971, was Mayor of Huddersfield in 1941-42.

Other Huddersfield COs made new lives after fleeing to New York with assistance from dockers at Liverpool.

There is evidence that at least three Huddersfield COs went on the run and evaded capture. Archie Key, a militant socialist, made a successful life for himself in Canada. Two others settled in America.

“It was probably only a small minority of the war’s opponents who took such drastic action,” says Mr Pearce.

“Of those who did, if the Huddersfield evidence is any guide, it was probably socialists and others of the left who were most likely to take it.”

* Comrades in Conscience is published by Francis Boutle, price £15. England Arise!, a play written by Mick Martin and based on the book, is to open at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre in October ahead of a tour.