Radical Leicester in the First World War

Resistance, Opposition and Non Co-operation

Sidney Collins (back row, second from the left) a Leicester Conscientious Objector at the Home Office Scheme Dartmoor, with fellow members of the Church of Christ. Image courtesy of Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

Radical Leicester in the First World War

Resistance, Opposition and Non Co-operation

By Sue Mackrell

On 2nd August 1914 Alderman George Banton asked the crowd at an anti-war rally in Leicester Market place:

‘Is the Archduke's body worth more than the body of a common soldier?  No, yet there will be thousands and thousands of lives lost and seas of human blood spilled as a result of that murder.’ [1] Leicester’s rally was one of many across the country. Over 100,000 people demonstrated against British troops being sent to fight in a European war.

Ramsay Macdonald, who was MP for Leicester, resigned from his post as the first Labour leader when war was declared on 4th August 1914. With several Liberal cabinet ministers who had also resigned in protest, he set up the Union of Democratic Control whose Leicester branch met in the Secular Hall. They campaigned for peace terms to be agreed at the outset which would ‘neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.' [2]

Recruiting figures in Leicester were low, partly due to high levels of employment in factories producing boots and uniforms for the military, and also because of local support for the peace movement. It was clear early on in the war that there would never be enough volunteers to fulfil military needs and the Leicester branch of the No Conscription Fellowship met at the Cafe Vegetaria on Cheapside. Conscription was introduced in early 1916 and those who refused military service had to persuade the Leicester Tribunal of their genuine convictions.

It is believed there were around 189 Leicester Conscientious Objectors and 61 from across the county. The exact number is difficult to establish as nearly all the tribunal records, including Leicester’s were destroyed in 1922. There may be more who come to light as research continues. Many religious COs belonged to the interdenominational Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Leicester branch was chaired by Rev. Frank Beddow at Wycliffe Congregational Church. His wife Ethel was also a peace activist and in 1917 she organised a Women’s Peace Crusade meeting in Leicester, when 3,000 people listened to the all women platform.

Some Leicester Conscientious Objectors were associated with the Secular Society, the co-operative movement, trade unionism Adult Schools and international socialist movements. For many their objections to fighting came from a range of deeply held beliefs. Around 76 COs whose appeal was allowed were ordered to do Work of National Importance often in factories or in food production.

Around twelve men from Leicester and the county joined the Friends Ambulance Unit which had been set up by a group of Quakers in 1914. Many COs were ordered to join the Non Combatant Corps, which was a military unit. Those who refused to put on uniform or obey orders faced brutal punishments. At least 98 COs from Leicester and Leicestershire were sent to prison, usually with hard labour. William Stanton was one of those who died as a result of harsh treatment. Home Office Work Schemes were set up as an alternative to prison, and at least fifty local men were sent to schemes at Dartmoor, Wakefield, Warwick and several other prisons where locks were removed from the doors and the men were allowed to congregate. Courts Martial of COs was continuing even after enlistment had ended which led to prison riots, including one at Leicester. The last men were released from prison in August 1919.

© Sue Mackrell 2017

[1] http://www.nednewitt.com/whoswho/BA-BK.html 

[2] Leicester Memories in Conflict Collective, Uncovering Resistance Leicester and Leicestershire in World War One, Leicester CND, 2015

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