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100 years ago: the anti-war movement comes under attack

IN June 1918 the Lloyd George government’s drive to stifle the public voice of the anti-war movement in Britain, which was powered by both socialist and pacifist convictions, continued to be extra-energetic against the background of the critical military situation on the Western Front.  

Symbolic of this repression was the June 6 issue of the No Conscription Fellowship’s weekly paper, the Tribunal, which consisted of nothing more than its front page — though this itself was a statement of defiance.   

Printing problems as a result of the government’s instructions to police to dismantle machinery, in preference to prosecutions for inciting disaffection, had taken their toll.  

The imprisonment of the Tribunal’s printer and publisher, Joan Beauchamp (actually clandestine co-editor), for one month, following refusal to pay a large fine, may not have helped matters.  

Still, from June 13 a four-page issue appeared again, printed in secrecy, despite the best Home Office efforts to render production impossible.

Leading Scottish socialist John Maclean had commenced his five-year jail sentence “simply for talking,” but on June 2 thousands attended the first rally on Glasgow Green calling for his release.

If the anti-war movement’s publicity was reaching only a limited part of Britain’s population, the largely pro-war press was uninhibited in condemning war resisters as traitors.  

In early June the reactionary fantasies of maverick Tory MP Pemberton Billing were given wide circulation as a result of a private High Court prosecution for criminal libel by him.  

The fantasy, promoted in Billing’s well-titled paper The Vigilante, was that 47,000 people in Britain were named in a (never produced) Black Book as having been blackmailed into support of the enemy primarily because of “sexual weaknesses” ie not being heterosexual.  

Billing had targeted a female actor in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, whose libel claim failed, giving credence to Billing’s fantasy. A virulent campaign to intern German-born naturalised British residents followed.

Real enough, on the other hand, was the fact of the continuing German offensive, commenced on March 21, and renewed repeatedly. 

The allied lines had been pushed back. On May 27 German forces made rapid gains along the ridge of the Chemin-des-Dames, assisted by the unrealistic decision of the French general in charge to place far too many troops in the forward trenches, as if they were poised to attack.  

On the 30th the advance reached the river Marne. Soon it was believed that Paris itself could be in danger. 

But this latest offensive fizzled out, and another renewal on June 9 was also short-lived.  

Casualties on both sides continued to be horrific, while German divisions entrained to France from the Eastern Front — and infected by Bolshevik ideas — were increasingly prone to desert.

Press willingness to pump out war propaganda for the Lloyd George government was bottomless.   

Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook was also Minister of Information (ie propaganda).

The owner of the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and other papers was the extreme reactionary Lord Northcliffe, who at this time was informing Scotland Yard of suspected enemy agents invisible as such to anyone else.   

News of the World owner was Lord Riddell, a frequent guest and confidant of Lloyd George.

Riddell had in January’s honours list been made a baronet. Now, on King George’s birthday, Northcliffe’s brother was awarded a baronetcy, while the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Liverpool Post were both knighted.  

How many beneficiaries of titles this time paid cash down for them to Lloyd George’s honours broker Maundy Gregory?  All of them? 

On June 6 the Labour Leader publication commented: “When we remember how hundreds of thousands of men and women are enduring indescribable suffering and performing great deeds of noble heroism, it seems almost offensive to single out for special recognition and distinction the mediocrities whose names appear in the Birthday Honours List…”

In June’s last 10 days the voice of the anti-war movement became louder.  

On the 23rd in London’s Finsbury Park the Sylvia Pankhurst-led Workers Socialist Federation held a demonstration, protesting against the suppression of the May Day celebration.  

By now the government’s pledge to extend conscription to Ireland was quietly forgotten, though Sinn Fein leaders arrested the previous month remained in custody.  

Eamon De Valera for one was in Lincoln Prison, where refuser of conscription Fenner Brockway, former editor of the Labour Leader, was also incarcerated.   

On June 26 1,000 delegates sat down in Westminster’s Central Hall for the second Labour Party Conference of the year.  

Supporters of the war had resumed tight control of the agenda. In the chair was Arthur Henderson, not long before in the War Cabinet.  

January’s wave of revolt against the war amid enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution had faded, extended conscription and the fraught situation in France having taken their toll.   

The platform refused to hear an Independent Labour Party motion that the Cabinet be told to terminate the war and strike out the secret treaties. 

Refused too was the joint proposal of Robert Smillie of the Miners’ Federation and of the British Socialist Party for Labour’s withdrawal from the government.

Former Russian prime minister Alexander Kerensky (who days before had had a secret meeting with Lloyd George, when he supported intervention against the Bolshevik government), was welcomed to majority applause. 

When, during his second speech in two days, he openly advocated international suppression of the Bolshevik revolution, he was applauded more feebly, and there was discontent when the platform refused to allow Russian “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov, present as an observer, to speak.   

Sylvia Pankhurst, besides speaking at the conference in support of Smillie’s motion, took a leading part in a demonstration on Tower Hill on the 30th.  

There, surrounded by other women wearing pale blue armlets stamped with a silver cross and the word “Peace” (the answer to the silver badges of discharged servicemen), she began to speak against the war to passers-by before being prevented by the police from continuing.  

Although the press next day claimed the peace demonstrators had been “chivvied and hurtled in all directions,” the reality was that the violence against them was minimal.  

The participants simply took a train to Whitechapel, where they continued the meeting to a finish without further interruption.
German advances in France did not stop the War Cabinet from proceeding further with intervention in north Russia. 

At Murmansk, where the local soviet was anti-Bolshevik, the tiny British force was on the 23rd of the month augmented by 600 more men, while another 600 were Archangel-bound.  

The Manchester Guardian’s man in Moscow, future Labour MP Michael Phillips Price, soon reported this escalation. 

US president Woodrow Wilson, who gave his blessing at the beginning of June to the dispatch of US troops to north Russia, was less certain about approving the intervention of Japan — a rival in imperialism — in Siberia.   

Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour nevertheless pressed the Japanese ambassador to agree to intervene there where, according to The Times correspondent, “workmen and undesirables” were exerting a pernicious influence.  

If the US approved, he asked, would Japan be willing to enter Siberia and advance as far as Omsk if not to Chelyabinsk? 

The latter was about 1,000 miles from the nearest Germans, Omsk some 500 miles still further distant.

On the 24th Lloyd George made vague but menacing noises in the Commons about British intentions.  

He promised “help” to Russia “if Russia wants it.” The George Lansbury-edited Herald observed a few days later: “By ‘help’ we presume he means a Japanese invasion; and by ‘the Russians,’ those people who will make common cause with anyone — Germany, or Japan, or the devil — against the Bolshevists…”

In Russia, Britain’s agent Bruce Lockhart was now supporting Japanese intervention. He had the previous month facilitated the departure for Britain via Murmansk of Kerensky by granting him a visa, enabling him, as it happened, to attend the Labour Party conference. 

Lockhart was to recall much later: “June was a dreary month … I increased my contact with the anti-Bolshevik forces.”  

The British Socialist Party’s Russian-born Joe Fineberg, on the other hand, had now arrived in his homeland to join the Bolsheviks — now fighting external aggressors.

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