Forced to fight their war

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By early 1916 a flagging British war machine had to resort to conscription to round up enough men for the trenches of Europe. Chris Fuller looks at the machinations of the politicians and the resistance they faced.

One hundred years ago the British ruling class took a desperate gamble by introducing military conscription. The move was accompanied by huge opposition from below and spurred resistance to the war.

Conscription had been widely used on the Continent after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but was widely resisted. In Germany just 53 percent of those eligible to perform it actually did so. Fury at the process grew in 1910 when thousands of French railway workers went on strike over pay and pensions. The employers refused to negotiate and the government issued army call-up papers to the strikers with the threat of court martial if the workers did not return to work. Two hundred strikers were jailed and over 3,000 sacked.

The consequences of conscription were therefore well known by working class activists. John Maclean, the great Scottish socialist, said, “Conscription means the bringing of all young men under the control of the military authorities, whether this be in the field of battle or in the factory or workshop.”

The British government sensed the mood against conscription. A military conscription bill was defeated in 1913. One month into the war the cabinet rejected Churchill’s argument for conscription on the grounds that, “The people would not listen to such proposals.”

By the end of 1915 enthusiasm for the war had worn thin. The initial recruitment surge had died down. Lord Derby’s scheme to get men to volunteer at some future date, known as attesting, fell flat as up to 600,000 single men refused to do so. Those who did join were often economic conscripts. One east London worker told the socialist paper The Dreadnought that they signed up, “because we are starving”. However, the war machine needed more victims. In 1915 60,000 troops died at Ypres and a further 16,000 at Loos. The British army needed 35,000 recruits a week but less than half that were joining. Sitting comfortably in their offices King George V and Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and Mail, pressed for conscription. In January 1916 prime minister Asquith introduced the first conscription legislation.

It sent a shock wave through the labour movement. The South Wales Miners Federation voted to strike if the bill was passed. The Labour Party and the TUC called on the Labour ministers who were part of the coalition government to resign.
The Labour Party conference later in January confirmed its opposition to conscription but decided not to campaign against the bill. Over 500 people rallied against conscription in Leeds and another 400 in York. In Glasgow organisations came together in November 1915 to organise against conscription and planned a large rally for the end of that month.

The authorities responded by banning any events detrimental to the recruitment effort. This did not break the campaign. Thousands of leaflets were distributed all over the city building huge rallies addressed by George Lansbury, Sylvia Pankhurst and John Maclean. Labour’s leaders had other ideas. In July 1915 they agreed to the National Registration Act, which set up a complete register of the population with a promise that it would not be used for conscription.

After introducing the Military Service Bill, Asquith stopped the three Labour ministers from resigning by pledging to limit conscription to single men between 18 and 41 years of age. He had an easy job. Arthur Henderson had already told Labour conference delegates that he would not reject conscription. Not for the first time Labour MPs ploughed their own furrow. The conscription bill was duly passed. In May, Asquith broke his promise and extended conscription to all married men. The TUC meekly advised its members to support conscription.

Conscription stoked the flames of anti-war feeling. In April 1916 200,000 demonstrated against the call-up in Trafalgar Square. Over 20,000 people refused on principle to join the army and as a result many were imprisoned, harried and denied the vote.
In October 1916 12,000 fitters at Vickers engineering in Sheffield struck for three days to successfully stop the calling up of their workmate Leonard Hargreaves.

With 150,000 agricultural workers called up, farmers pressed for education to be suspended to obtain a new supply of workers. Huge numbers of young people, from the age of 11 upwards, were denied an education for long periods as a result. Meanwhile thousands were conscripted from the British Empire to make up labour battalions. They carried munitions to the trenches and lived in harsh camps surrounded by barbed wire. Some 400,000 African forced labourers died of disease or exhaustion.

In 1918 the age of conscription was raised to 51 and its introduction to Ireland was considered. Sir John French, one time commander in chief, said this would secure the “complete removal of useless and idle youths”. The government backed off, still stunned by the Easter Rising of 1916. Revolution was indeed the best riposte to the war machine.