First world war bravery was not confined to the soldiers

The commemorations of the first world war now under way in the media and museums are, we are given to understand, intended to be inclusive. They will cover the roles of women, soldiers from Africa and Asia, even animals, and examine the impact of the war on everything from the economy and technology to medicine and cinema. This is all to the good if it furthers our understanding of how that terrible conflagration still shapes our difficult present. But in an atmosphere thick with invocations of "courage" and "sacrifice", there seems to be a curious exclusion. The bravery of those who rallied behind the powerful banner of nationalism will be honoured, but what about the courage of those who took the path of most resistance and dissented from the status quo by challenging the war itself?

Unlike those historians who can, with the benefit of hindsight and peer approval, lament the pity of that war, the motley coalitions that organised resistance to the unfolding of the first world war did so in the face of enormous social disapproval and institutional pressures. As the War Propaganda Bureau's massive efforts, along with press acquiescence, kept public opinion on side, it took a special kind of bravery to query the wisdom of bloodshed before shots were fired, or call for a negotiated peace mid-carnage. Fighting for peace earned you anything from vitriolic accusations of cowardice and treachery to job loss, state-abetted mob attacks, arrest, imprisonment, hard labour, courts-martial, show trials and even execution orders. As a consequence, many campaigners suffered nervous breakdowns and ill health. Their sacrifices must not go unsung.

Well before the first trenches were dug, questions were being asked about the motives for and conduct of the war by an expanding anti-war coalition, fronted by some of Britain's most distinguished people. Denounced furiously by Rudyard Kipling as "human rubbish", Britain's dissenters included Liberals, Labour supporters and socialists; a striking number were women. They ranged from the aristocratic philosopher Bertrand Russell, who lost his Cambridge lectureship over his activism, to the socialist James Keir Hardie, raised in a Glasgow slum; the lion tamer John Smith Clarke; and the train driver's daughter Alice Wheeldon. There were aristocratic pacifists like the conscientious objectors – or "conchies" – Clifford Allen and Stephen Hobhouse; feminists like Catherine Marshall and Sylvia Pankhurst (whose stance estranged her from her pro-war mother Emmeline; and the famous exposer of Belgian atrocities in the Congo ED Morel, imprisoned on obscure charges for criticising secret diplomacy. Adam Hochschild's excellent To End All Wars tells some of their stories.

While anti-war organisations such as the Women's International League, the Society of Friends, the Union of Democratic Control, and the No-Conscription Fellowship differed on many matters, including whether it was all right to work in non-combat roles, what brought them together was a sense that behind the rhetoric of a "glorious, delicious war" for civilisation and freedom lay rather more grubby interests, not necessarily those of ordinary Britons. Some, admitting they too felt drawn to nationalism and war fever, believed this was not so much a war against militarism as a war between militarisms. In claiming to fight militarism in Europe, asked Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, was Britain actually giving it "hospitality, harbourage and welcome" at home?

As the commemorative drums of national unity start to beat again to rally us behind dominant narratives, it is time to remember that more than 20,000 men, remembered by the Peace Pledge Union, refused conscription after it was introduced in 1916, seeing it as a violation of freedom. Then, as now, dissidents – which included thousands of Clydeside workers who staged walkouts – understood that the belligerent question "do you love your country?" is not answered by blindly following politicians' commands, particularly where there is lack of consultation. The distinguished economist JA Hobson, neither socialist nor pacifist, saw the war as rational only for the capitalist ruling classes, who stood to benefit from the "ever-worsening burden of armaments". Wasn't massive state expenditure better directed towards a "beautiful school … a grander sight than a battleship"? To be anti-war was to actively fight poverty, mediate for peace, build schools and workshops, undertake relief work, and provide food and refuge for troops and civilians alike.

Many critics of the war also understood that it was being waged for stakes outside Europe in great tracts of colonised land in Asia and Africa. While it is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifices made by soldiers from these regions, it is dishonest to assimilate them to Kipling's narrative of "everybody's war" for freedom. These were colonised subjects whose war this was certainly not, and in whose countries Britain was doing anything but defending freedom – its own occupying troops as unwelcome as German ones in Belgium. It is no surprise, then, that many prominent anti-war leaders, including the feminist Sylvia Pankhurst and Labour politician Fenner Brockway, became trenchant critics of British imperialism, which believed itself better than the German brand. At a 1917 Leeds anti-war conference, resolutions were also passed calling for the independence of Ireland, India and Egypt.

Commemorating Britain's anti-war campaigners – invoked by the National Archives in a small online exhibit – is not about fetishising the past. Many of the issues they faced remain pressing today. They were on the front lines of the criminalisation of dissent, the erosion of civil liberties and press freedom in the name of national security, and crackdowns on industrial action and popular unrest at a time of economic privation. Then, as now, the poor were requisitioned to fight the wars which enrich the few, dying and suffering disproportionately.

The fighting spirit we need to invoke today is that which was willing to face down a small but powerful ruling class with control of state and media apparatuses complete with embedded war correspondents and close advisory relationships between politicians and press barons. Remembering that the Great War also unleashed revolution and anti-colonial rebellion, it is this spirit of principled dissent that we must seek to channel and honour.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

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