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History The struggle for peace amid the 1918 war carnage

JOHN ELLISON reviews the events of April 1918

April 1918 began on Easter Monday, 12 days into the German offensive on the Western Front.  Twelve days of mass slaughter on both sides.

Militarily, the British sector, having been pushed back above the join with the French army some 40 miles across a long sector, had stabilised.

The longer-term aims of the rulers of Germany and Britain remained hidden from most people.

Germany’s elite, having so far a tiny empire, sought to dislodge the much stronger world imperial positions of the ruling groups of Britain and France, while Britain and France sought to sustain and extend their own colonial dominance.  

The British Socialist Party paper The Call on April 4 described the German offensive as “a gamble,” declaring that “the counters in the game are the millions of fair, strong, beautiful human beings, our fellow workers…”

War propaganda — powerful as it continued to be — did not deter a peace march from taking place in Leicester over the Easter weekend before the Independent Labour Party’s annual conference.

The Leicester Daily Mail had encouraged in its columns an angry public response to this parade, but the organisers went ahead and no “patriotic” physical punishment followed.

At the front of the procession on the Sunday was a band, followed by Socialist Sunday School children, bearing a wide banner between them.

The Labour Leader’s report went on: “Many other little flag bearers followed, their flags’ words striking home to the onlookers’ heads. ‘I want my daddy’, ‘They’ve taken our daddies’, ‘Why can’t daddy come home’, ‘We want peace.’”

Adults marched too and a large gathering in the town hall congratulated “the workers of Russia” for “their stand made for social and economic freedom … and their exposure of capitalist imperialism by the publication of the secret treaties.”

ILP leaders Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald, however, were unwilling to demand a “socialist peace,” preferring to place faith in recent signs of increased Establishment interest in negotiation.

The BSP had held its own conference over the Easter weekend in Leeds, though the shortage of civilian trains meant some delegates arrived very late. This was a united anti-war and anti-capitalist conference.

A letter from Russian ambassador Maxim Litvinov, working from home again after eviction from his Victoria Street office, “conveying cordial greetings from socialist Russia,” was read to the delegates.

This conference debated whether or not the BSP should remain affiliated to the Labour Party. On the one hand, John Maclean, who had been appointed Soviet consul in January, replacing Joe Fineberg who, Russian in origin, had been acting as Litvinov’s secretary, argued that non-affiliation would isolate the party from the broader currents of the labour movement.  

The reverse on the Western Front certainly caused the war cabinet much alarmed debate.

Prime Minister Lloyd George, who was contemptuous of the military competence of Field-Marshal Haig, told his colleagues on April 6: “I cannot tell you what happened … there was widespread chaos … the 5th Army has practically disappeared. There are only some remnants of it still in the line.”

There was no publicity for the estimates of casualties from the start of the offensive to April 6 presented to the war cabinet on the 10th. The calculation of killed, wounded and missing combined, was in excess of 112,000, comprised of more than 10,000 dead, around 50,000 wounded and more than 50,000 missing, including prisoners.

Resistance among engineers and others to the extension of conscription imposed early in the year had now faded because of the military crisis, which now emboldened the government to introduce fresh emergency legislation directing a fuller “comb-out” of men into the army.  

On April 9 Lloyd George introduced the new Bill. As well as allowing existing exemptions to be cancelled by proclamation, men up to the age of 50 — and even 55 if with special qualifications — would be called up, though mainly for home defence, and the men of Ireland were to be conscripted too.

The Bill had the backing of Labour war cabinet member George Barnes.

Lloyd George spoke for two hours and sat down, said the New Statesman, “after a horribly creaking peroration.”

Novelist Arnold Bennett, who observed the session, commented in his diary: “He did not know his case… Ll G’s oratorical effects very poor — like a Lyceum melodrama.”

A fresh German attack came on April 9. Enemy forces, said the war cabinet record, had “got into our front line system everywhere” between the Lys and another river and there were further advances next day.  

On the 12th came Field-Marshal Haig’s “Backs to the wall” message. “Every position must be held to the last man,” it insisted. Field-marshals were naturally exempted from this requirement.

On the 16th the new “Manslaughter” Bill came into force. The following Sunday in Ireland a pledge against conscription was taken solemnly by large congregations in Roman Catholic churches.

Earlier, the Workers’ Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst, contained an article by Maud Gonne McBride, the widow of John McBride, one of the Easter Rising’s executed leaders.

It contained a powerful warning against the imposition of conscription in Ireland.  The suppression of the Rising with summary executions had stimulated, not cowed, the independence movement.

“Ireland is awake today,” she wrote, “as I have never known before, awake and burning for freedom.”

Government anxiety about the situation in France did not prevent development of a small-scale incursion into Russia.  

On April 5 around 50 British troops and 200 Japanese disembarked at Vladivostok, a fact reported in the press four days later.   

A week later the war cabinet settled on sending a second small cruiser to Murmansk in north Russia. On the 19th it approved the dispatch of a cruiser to Archangel “to protect Allied interests.”  

Of this the public were not told, while Britain’s agent in Russia, Bruce Lockhart, was now establishing contact with anti-Bolshevik groups and supporting Allied military intervention to bring down the Lenin government.

In Britain, press jingoism was directed towards peace activists, but the No Conscription Fellowship’s Tribunal remained outspoken. On April 11 its columns called out: “STOP THE WAR… In all countries the peoples must say ‘We will not go on’… COME OUT FOR PEACE.”

Scotland Yard’s answer came on the 22nd. Six police officers arrived with a cart at the Streatham premises of the paper’s new printer. They broke up the printing machinery and took it away together with paper supplies, confiscating some £500-worth of equipment — equivalent to £33,000 today.

Joan Beauchamp, the Tribunal’s publisher, was visited too. She admitted being the publisher but refused to identify the current editor, who was another peace heroine, Lydia Smith.

Despite these vicissitudes, the paper was able to appear as one sheet on the 25th, headed “HERE WE ARE AGAIN,” but from this time on, the printing location was a close secret and circulation was down to around 2,000.

The Workers’ Dreadnought also suffered a direct police onslaught on its print machinery but managed to find another printer.

These attempts to suppress peace movement activities in London were supplemented by another in Glasgow. On the 15th John Maclean was arrested and committed for trial without bail. It was alleged that he had carried on Bolshevik propaganda in various places. His trial was set for May.

More German attacks, commencing on April 24, led to War Cabinet fears on the 30th — which were absurd, especially considering the pouring into France of large numbers of US troops — that, if French channel ports were reached, Britain might be invaded.  

The government and its press allies and agents could be expected to suppress the peace, and therefore the socialist, movement, ever more viciously.

Yet the anti-war movement pressed on, seeking to broadcast evidence of the secret treaties previously made by allied governments and exposed by the Bolshevik government the previous November, but little noticed in the mainstream press. 

During April the Glasgow-based Socialist Labour Party’s monthly The Socialist produced a special “Socialist war map” highlighting the bonus territories to be awarded to victorious allied countries in despicable imperial deals, while the Union of Democratic Control, in an edition of 4,000 copies, published in full The Secret Treaties and Understandings. 

Maclean’s pamphlet, The War after the War, was available too for two pence.

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