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A look back 100 years to WWI

IN EARLY March 1918 literary historian Lytton Strachey was close to publishing his soon to be famous book of essays Eminent Victorians, which treated his highly respectable subjects with a near scandalous degree of irreverence and wit.

He had recently attended the trial of anti-war philosopher Bertrand Russell, when the latter had been sentenced to six months in prison for inciting disaffection in a January article in the No Conscription Fellowship’s weekly Tribunal.  

His sympathies were entirely with Russell. He wrote in a letter to a Bloomsbury circle fellow member: “It was really infamous … The spectacle of a louse like Sir John Dickinson rating Bertie for immorality and sending him to prison!”

Russell now belonged to the determined few sentenced to jail for peace agitation.  

Another was Edmund Morel, serial exposer of Britain’s imperialist motives in the war, lately released from Pentonville Prison.  

He had been given a six-month sentence late the previous summer for sending a Union of Democratic Control pamphlet to a friend in Switzerland (technically contravening the Defence of the Realm Act). His freedom was celebrated at a public meeting in Leicester.

The treatment of “absolutist” conscientious objectors to the war — who had refused military (and, when prescribed, non-combatant service) — had been severe. For them repeated sentences with hard labour was the preferred punishment. 

On March 7 Clarence Norman, imprisoned since summer 1916, and now charged with refusing to don a military uniform, defended himself on the basis that he should only be judged by a civil court. For him another hard labour sentence followed.   

The playwright George Bernard Shaw in a letter printed in the Manchester Guardian on March 15 described Norman as 
“a very obstreperous martyr … Mr Clarence Norman … may be depended on not to suffer in dignified and melancholy silence.”

Another CO died in Hull Prison early in March following a hunger strike. It was later confirmed that his death was due to pneumonia accelerated by forcible feeding. Had a longer tube been inserted, a doctor stated, he would not have choked to death.

The Lloyd George-led government was not much bothered by the fate of war resisters. On March 1 war cabinet discussion was focused on a proposed landing of a small party of British soldiers at Murmansk in northern Russia’s Kola Inlet, and then on what looked like the approach of the anticipated German offensive on the Western Front.

On March 6 a company of British marines — 130 men — disembarked at Murmansk from a warship and marched into local barracks.  

No fighting took place, but this was the moment of the first direct British military action against the Lenin government of Russia. It was not publicised.

But government support for a landing by Japanese forces in the far east of Russia, at Vladivostok, was quickly known.

In late February a secret message had gone to Washington inviting the US to approve a Japanese landing on the basis that a Japanese force would move westwards across Siberia as far as the railway centre of Chelyabinsk, just east of the Urals.  

The notion was that credibility could thereby be lent to the argument that Japanese intervention would be as an ally against Germany more than as an ally against Bolshevism. 

There was a fall-back inference that the Bolsheviks, having declined to continue to fight Germany, were more or less its agents anyway.

The independent-minded weekly The Nation on March 9 was critical of approval for a Japanese landing. 

“The case publicly advanced for this intervention is that the Germans, after extorting from Russia her consent to a peace which she regards only as a truce, are now in a position to threaten Japan, 5,000 miles away at Vladivostok. This pretext … is manifestly remote from any reason which could sway responsible statesmen.”

The British Socialist Party’s The Call drove deeper, classing the adventure with that of Britain in 1882 when, on the pretext of restoring public order and the authority of Egypt’s Khedive, British troops had landed in Egypt in order to put it under British control. 

It stated flatly: “Japan and Germany, formally belonging to two opposite camps, are acting as the joint executors of the capitalist world.”

From Petrograd, however, British agent Bruce Lockhart was cabling his Whitehall masters anxiously and vainly opposing support for Japan, as he considered it made less likely Russia’s return to war against Germany.

Lockhart had a revealing meeting with Lenin on March 1, when told he would have facilities to work in Russia and would be free to leave when he wished.  

In his 1932 book Memoirs of a British Agent, Lockhart recounted that Lenin told him: “So long … as the German danger exists, I am prepared to risk a co-operation with the allies … In the event of German aggression, I am even willing to accept military support. At the same time I am quite convinced that your government will never see things in this light … It will co-operate with the Russian reactionaries.”

Indeed, it was already financing them. Before the end of January the war cabinet had decided to send a gift of £20,000 to anti-Bolshevik forces in eastern Siberia.

Lockhart’s London counterpart, Maxim Litvinov, Russia’s “ambassador” since early January, was now enjoying less freedom of action. 

Notice to quit his office rooms at 82 Victoria Street had been followed at the end of February by his landlord’s agent’s refusal of access. 

Granted an injunction, Litvinov was able to return, but on March 8 Mr Justice Neville at the Royal Courts of Justice brushed away any thought of political neutrality.  

The regime Litvinov represented earned only judicial contempt: “I know of no such government.”

Litvinov’s claim to remain at Victoria Street was dismissed with costs on the grounds that he had not come to court “with clean hands,” having been apparently in breach of Defence of the Realm Regulations by making a statement to trade unions “likely to cause disaffection.” He was compelled to work from home again.

He was now subjected to a new The Defence of the Realm Act regulation — in force from March 5 — prohibiting an alien from addressing meetings and engaging in propaganda.

In mid-March The Call commented tolerantly on the demonisation of Litvinov and socialism: “There has always existed a curious notion among our bourgeoisie that socialism, and all other ‘subversive’ ideas are foreign importations, principally advocated in this country by uncouth individuals in wide-awake hats and mysterious trousers.” 

The government continued to pursue the cancellation of exemptions from conscription in the Manpower (“Manslaughter”) Bill, though its intentions had been confronted by a substantial vote of the engineers’ union against the “comb-out,” and now by a smaller majority vote against by the miners.

On March 8 the Daily Mirror guessed where the German army would strike on the Western Front. It would be “at the extreme British right-wing, with a view to breaking its contact with the French left-wing.”

The Mirror routinely recorded that day the latest Roll of Honour casualty list, which included 17 officers and 326 NCOs and men dead, and many more wounded and missing. 

The much larger casualties necessarily resulting from another offensive were not the subject of mainstream press consideration.

If the German armies, strengthened by the end of the war in the east, were to win in the west, they needed to do so before the mass of US forces arrived. 

The offensive began on the 21st, following a massive artillery bombardment, and, as the Mirror had predicted, just above the join with the French army, and on a 50-mile front.  

By the 28th, to Field Marshal Haig’s bewilderment, a 40-mile British retreat had taken place. Once again the generals underestimated enemy strength, reflected this time by putting far too many defending troops in the most forward trenches. 

By evening on the 26th, a general noted that British casualties were up to 80,000.

A new “Manslaughter” Bill was now hastily planned to conscript not only men in Britain aged up to 50, but the men of Ireland too — while Irish nationalist feeling was growing ever stronger, inspired by the Easter Rising’s bloody suppression almost two years before.

 

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