Skip to main content

100 years ago: imperialist carve-ups and anti-war agitation

JOHN ELLISON looks back a century to how socialist writers were being persecuted for opposing war and how the seeds were being sown for WWII

OCTOBER 1918 opened with Bulgaria’s exit from the war. Kaiser Wilhelm-ruled Germany’s request for armistice talks to the US, whose million-plus fresh troops had decisively changed the balance of power on the Western Front to the allies’ advantage, swiftly followed.  

Messages were exchanged. On the 8th came a fresh eastward offensive. The war’s huge casualty lists mounted ever higher.
Meanwhile, the relevance of imperial aims to the British war cabinet’s motivations was apparent from the confidential minutes of its deliberations.  

In May 1916 Britain had made the secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France, under which much of Syria would go to France and much of present-day Iraq to Britain.  

This shady deal, and others, had been first publicised by Lenin’s Bolshevik government but achieved little mainstream press attention in Britain.  

Encouraged by the abandonment of Damascus by Turkey to British forces on top of earlier military advances, prime minister David Lloyd George’s latest thinking was that Sykes-Picot gave far too much to France.

Cabinet secretary Colonel Hankey, a dedicated fan of Britain’s empire, wrote in his diary on October 6: “LL G [Lloyd George] took a very intransigent attitude and wanted to go back on the Sykes-Picot agreement, so as to get Palestine for us and to bring Mosul into the British zone, and even to keep the French out of Syria … He also thought it would attract less attention to our enormous gains in the war, if we swallowed our share of Turkey now, and the German colonies later.”

Lately Lloyd George had also been shoring up his personal political prospects by acquiring the Liberal and pro-war Daily Chronicle. He did this, it is said, with the help of funds acquired through the sale of honours. There was no public disclosure of his role in the purchase.  

The personal prospects of those who took part in the questioning of the war’s righteousness were less well protected than those of the prime minister. On October 10 Charles Daniel, the publisher of newly released novel Despised and Rejected was convicted under the Defence of the Realm Act.   

Appearing under the nom de plume of AL Fitzroy, this book had actually been authored by “romantic novelist” Rose Allatini and contained a definite anti-war message.  

It featured a young homosexual male hero. During his fictional appeal against his conscription, he states in reply to a question: “As to the comparison of the respective war-aims of the allies and of Germany — who can say at this stage that England is only fighting to avenge Belgium, and with no view to the conquest of enemy territory or the extension of power? What about the conquest of German colonies in east Africa?”

Most of the trial of the publisher had taken place in late September, with final speeches adjourned. By that time most of the 1,000 copies printed had been sold. 

The prosecution counsel had described the book as “of a most pernicious character” and now stretched a point, claiming: “This was a pacifist pamphlet in the disguise of a novel.” 

Presiding magistrate Alderman Sir Charles Wakefield declared that he had “considerable hesitation” over whether or not to send Mr Daniel to prison. He imposed penalties totalling £460 and ordered confiscation of the book’s unsold copies. 

A century on, Despised and Rejected has been republished as an elegant paperback by Persephone Books. 

Formidable Scottish socialist John Maclean, serving a five-year sentence imposed in May for his anti-war speeches, remained in Peterhead Prison, continuing to be force-fed.   

Early each month large demonstrations for his release had been taking place in Glasgow and October 6 was the date for another.   

“Despite the boisterous wet weather,” as the British Socialist Party’s The Call reported on the 10th, “a large crowd assembled on Glasgow Green. 

“As one of the speakers remarked, the crowd who were gathered … required no convincing about the urgent importance of securing Maclean’s release.”

The No Conscription Fellowship’s publication Tribunal was surviving, despite its recent troubles with the police, but having to keep secret its printing and circulation.   

Clandestine co-editor and official publisher Joan Beauchamp had been claiming to be its printer, but, when prosecuted for printing the weekly on October 11, she was found not to be so.  

The wording of the legislation required that penalties could only be imposed on the publisher in respect of copies printed by the publisher, so Beauchamp escaped conviction on the grounds of these clear words, to the amusement of observers and to the frustration of her prosecutors.  

On the 17th, the Daily News reported accurately that “the German people are in a convulsed state and that the country is on the eve of an era of Bolshevism.” That day The Call headlined: “Peace of Revolution or Peace of Capitalism.”

The Socialist Labour Party’s monthly The Socialist was being hounded mercilessly.

Its printing and circulation had been seriously disrupted by a police raid on Renfrew Street premises in Glasgow on July 6, when printing machinery was taken away by police.   

Printing was subsequently transferred to a London printer, but, now, as The Call was to report on October 24, the printer’s premises in Devons Row, Bow, were closed by police.

On the same date the paper reported a police raid on its own premises at 21a Maiden Lane, off the Strand.   

“At noon on Saturday last Detective-Inspector Fitch and other officers of the Special Branch … raided our central offices in London. Acting on a warrant under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, they took possession of the premises, and confiscated several thousands of copies of the pamphlet, Lessons of the Russian Revolution’, by N. Lenin…” 

On the 19th, Britain’s agent to Russia, Bruce Lockhart, who was exchanged for never recognised and recently deported “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov, was confirmed in the press as back in Britain. Exchange completed.   

British intervention in Russia continued, with small military columns strung out southwards from Murmansk and Archangel, and with troops on the Trans-Siberian railway and elsewhere, while 8,000 US troops had joined a much larger Japanese force at Vladivostok.  

On the 23rd came an arrest of longstanding No Conscription Fellowship administrator Ernest E Hunter. He had been “absent from his regiment” and sought after for two years past, though actually exempted from military service.  Sent back under escort to “his regiment,” Hunter was to escape a prison sentence. Of irrepressible personality, he had caused anti-war academic Bertrand Russell intellectual pain earlier in the year by composing a poem, very possibly a limerick, in honour of the said mathematician-philosopher, whose six-month prison sentence for an anti-war article was now over.  

On the 28th Sylvia Pankhurst of the east London-based Workers’ Socialist Federation, appeared before the magistrates at Renishaw, Derbyshire, summoned for making a speech organised by the Cresswell Labour Party exactly a month earlier.   

The war, she was reported as saying, was “a sordid scramble between two rival groups of capitalists who were struggling to get control of the world’s raw materials.”   

And “one of the greatest tragedies” was that “we were sending working class soldiers to Russia …” She was fined £50 with costs, with an alternative of three months in jail.

Two days earlier, the George Lansbury-edited weekly Herald had announced that Germany “has left us nothing left to fight about,” but in the war cabinet on the date of Pankhurst’s conviction, Lloyd George was open to the harshest of war plans. “The issue really was,” the secret minute of his remarks stated, “as to whether we should grant what might be termed a good peace now, or whether we should impose such drastic terms for an armistice now that the enemy could not accept, our intention being utterly to crush him next year, with the idea of obtaining better security for peace for the future.”

Putting on to the scales the factor of further deaths, wounds and mutilations was therefore unnecessary.  

More insightful was Fabian Beatrice Webb, who wrote in her diary the same day that, if Germany surrendered unconditionally, it would become “a secret rebel against the world.”  

Seeds of the next world war were being sown.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 3,181
We need:£ 14,819
29 Days remaining
Donate today