Review of We Did Not Fight: 1914-18 Experiences of War Resisters
We Did Not Fight: 1914-18 Experiences of War Resisters Ed. Julian Bell (Cobden-Sanderson, 1935)
Without wishing to wander into the realm of political controversy, one cannot avoid the fact that this year sees the centenary of the start of one of the most savage conflicts the world has ever seen, and our politicians and media commentators have already locked horns over the nature of the commemorations. This review of a book that almost no-one has heard of, which has not been republished in any modern edition, and which cost me £1 in a second-hand book shop nearly twenty years ago, is my contribution to the centenary, since the volume gives a strident voice to those who have been silent for so many years.
The plight of those who refused to fight in World War I for political, moral or religious reasons is more or less well known. Some were imprisoned, and their treatment was uniformly severe. Some simply refused to bear arms, committing acts of great bravery as stretcher bearers or ambulance drivers. Others, deemed unfit for service, avoided harsh treatment on health grounds. What is far less commonly known, in this country at least, is that there were conscientious objectors in all of the warring states, as well as in the connected and contemporaneous Irish republican conflict, and some of the most eye-opening detail in this book concerns contributors from those countries.
The volume is edited by Julian Bell, son of the art critic Clive Bell and the artist Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's elder sister. It was published in 1935, when there was strong opposition to the prospect of a further war with Germany. The rise of Hitler had unsettled the post-war arrangements, and the threat of a new war was recognised by everyone as real. In February 1933 the Oxford Union had controversially debated the motion "This house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country" and carried it by 275 votes to 153. Just three weeks later a second motion, to delete "King and Country" from the original, was defeated by a massive 750 votes to 138.
In his introduction Bell begins by claiming that the Oxford Union debate and the results of the Peace Ballot of 1935, in which a large percentage of the British people answered questions (albeit loaded ones) on their willingness to support a new conflict, seemed to suggest that the majority were in favour of peace. Bell states that "public opinion has turned, vaguely and emotionally perhaps, but quite definitely towards pacifism." Yet he is under no illusion as to what may happen to these opinions should the political situation change. He was no innocent idealist. His declaration of belief in the power of pacifism over nationalistic aggression is full of extraordinarily prescient statements. Take the following, for example, and remember that it was written in England in 1935:
"...the bellicose civilian sending other men off to be killed, and maintaining 'order' and militaristic tyranny at home, is almost always contemptible and repellent"
"Nor can we neglect the very obvious process by which war leads to Fascism, the destruction of liberty and democracy, just as Fascism, the exaltation of nationalism and violence, leads to war."
Bell sees the way ahead in terms of a struggle between those who want to resist war and those who are willing to countenance another destructive conflict. He does not elaborate on how this resistance might develop, but he is clear that the intention would be to bring down any government which seeks to promote war. If these views seem familiar to us, this is probably because they have been repeated by dissidents throughout human history, from Thucydides' account of the wars of ancient Greece to the contemporary period's Iraq and Afghanistan engagements. The cry of the pacifist has been a constant, and in many ways pacifism has always been an individual cause, often a single person's lonely stand against an action by a seemingly all-powerful state. These various accounts are the testimonies of individuals who were unwilling to compromise their principles in the face of great hardship.
The contributors to this collection are a disparate group, with no connecting thread except for their beliefs. They include an elderly Quaker, Edward Grubb, Treasurer of the No-Conscription Brotherhood; Stephen Hobhouse, a conscientious objector who was sentenced to hard labour in prison; Julius Braunthal, an Austrian who was appalled by the way in which his country took to war with no reference to the democratic process; and Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington, the widow of Francis, the Irish pacifist shot by the British military in April 1916.
Sheehy-Skeffington's account of the events leading up to her husband's execution still has the power to shock. When the Easter Rebellion was just a few days old, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was arrested as he was walking home. In the early stages of the rebellion he had bravely attempted to help a wounded British soldier, and then tried to organise a civilian force who would protect shops and businesses from looting, as the police had all but disappeared. Sheehy-Skeffington was well known in Dublin. He was the editor of The Irish Citizen, a radical journal which greeted the outbreak of war in 1914 with the headline "Damn Your War! Votes for Women Now!", thus neatly encapsulating Sheehy-Skeffington's two major preoccupations: female suffrage, and complete opposition to any form of organised violence.
When the Easter Rebellion began he was sympathetic to its aims, but not to its methods. This did not save him from being viewed as a suspicious radical by the British Army, and several officers were told to be on the watch for a chance to apprehend him. Consequently, on the evening of the 25th April, he was arrested by Captain Colthurst. What followed was both tragic and shameful.
Colthurst was leading a raiding party on a suspected house, and Sheehy-Skeffington, his arms tied behind his back, was forced to accompany him. On the way Colthurst ordered a fifteen-year-old boy named Coade to stop and explain what he was doing. When the boy did not answer quickly enough, Colthurst ordered one of his men to break his jaw with his rifle. The boy fell to the ground, whereupon Colthurst shot him. Horrified, Skeffington protested, and was told to be quiet, or he would be next.
Colthurst located what he believed to be the house (he was, however, in error), hand grenades were thrown, and the two occupants inside were arrested. Along with Sheehy-Skeffington, they were returned to the Portobello Barracks and spent the night in the guardhouse. The following morning at around ten, Colthurst reappeared and demanded that the men be handed over to him, so that he could have them shot. He later justified his action by claiming that he had thought it "the right thing to do." The men were led into the courtyard and shot by Colthurst's men. The bodies were then wrapped in sacks and the courtyard washed to remove their blood. Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington was not informed for another four days. At a later inquiry it was established that the declaration of martial law did not confer the right on soldiers to behave in any way they wished, as those involved in this episode had believed. Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington's account of her husband's death is a moving testimony; that a deeply pacifist man should die in such a manner is both tragic and perverse.
Many of the other contributors to this volume also graphically describe experiences which we can barely understand. The imprisoned conscientious objector was often subjected to weeks of solitary confinement, an experience which, come wars end, had left many emotionally shattered. After his release from prison, J. P. M. Millar wrote, "I still had frequent prison nightmares - the relic of solitary confinement." On the same subject of isolation and hard labour, Stephen Hobhouse states that "Hard labour, in my case sewing up post office mailbags, was harmless enough. Other features, especially the accursed rule of almost perpetual silence, were deadly." Finally, B. N. Langdon-Davies reminisced that "There were several really serious features in being a pacifist during the war, apart from the general difficulties, intellectual, moral and physical of the propaganda. One was the clean sweep of all one's friends except the very few who were more or less of the same views; another was the association almost exclusively with people who were in deadly earnest, angry and plunged in gloom."
The historical debates about the war will continue, some asking why it began and how it was conducted. This small book does not address any of these questions. It is, instead, full of the testimony of a small body of men and women for whom the killing of human beings would always be inexcusable, and who would not, and could not, bend their principles despite the enormous pressure put upon them. It is a challenging reminder to us that the act of war is not necessarily an inevitable human response to political conflict, and that there have been many for whom the sanctity of human life is a moral prerogative.--Paul Flux
The Unreturning Army Huntly Gordon (1967; revised and expanded edition, Transworld, 2013)
One evening I met up for a pint and a chat with David Gordon, in a pub set sensibly on high ground, surrounded by flooded and rain-swept moorland. The prevailing conditions caused us both no little difficulty in getting there, but I had promised myself that I was never going to complain about anything as trivial as mere weather again- not now that I had read his father's war diaries.
The Unreturning Army is the story of Huntly Gordon, a Field Gunner Subaltern serving in the First World War, on some of its most infamous battlefields - Passchendaele, Hill 60, Bapaume, Meteren - from 1917 to 1918. Originally published in 1967, it has been re-compiled and reissued by David to include material omitted from the original account, such as basic (and painfully inadequate) training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
The end result is a rounded and coherent tale. Gordon's schooldays first set the scene, allowing the reader to identify with him in a succession of everyday occurrences: cricket matches, complaints about fusty teachers, an infatuation with a beautiful girl on a bicycle. As the narrative progresses there is a strong sense of the War increasingly overshadowing this idyllic, Edwardian childhood, as school friends and masters go off to serve, and returning news of their fates hints at the realities that await Gordon. Then finally, in the thick of action, conflict becomes the all-consuming concern of daily life, until we are left with the final aftermath and a counting of the costs.
The bulk of the narrative comprises an amalgam of Gordon's war diaries and letters home, giving an immediacy to the story. His writing style is accessible and straightforward; this is not a glorification of war, but neither is it a blood-and-guts depiction of conflict. Rather, it is an intimate account of one young man's war as he struggles to make the best of the dreadful conditions, particularly when conveying the history unfolding around him to his loved ones at home. Gordon writes against a soul-destroying backdrop of constant mud, freezing cold, lethal bombardments and inconceivable casualty rates.
There are moments of horror when the reader is left aghast at the author's ability to maintain enough self-control to record events - comrades injured, a fellow gunner dying in Gordon's arms, the stench of death in a captured enemy dugout. Yet these are interspersed with touchingly light-hearted vignettes: Gordon stops off to 'liberate' cigars from an army canteen, pleads with his well-meaning parents not to send him the monstrous family bath so he can bathe between bombardments, and berates himself for attempting to shelter from a shrapnel blast by hiding under a stable blanket hung on a rail ("I must try not to do it again!" he writes).
Meanwhile back in the present, the pub's log fire crackled and our conversation continued. David, himself a military man, told me of the cathartic effect that his father's book had had on him. He had found himself unable to think of much else during the previous twelve months, during what had been, for him, a long and all-consuming journey. At one point during the editing, in the spring, he felt compelled to make the slow trip to the war graves of Belgium to honour the memory of the fallen gunners to whom his father had dedicated his book, as the anniversary of their deaths approached. Over their graves, on the exact day, he read the poem by Siegfried Sassoon from which the title of the book is taken -- a last farewell from both his father and himself.
The Unreturning Army is an excellent, well-written book, formidable in its simplicity. Not triumphalist or celebratory - in fact, there is surprisingly little personal animosity expressed towards the enemy - it is the memoir of a professional soldier with a job to do, all the while trying to retain a sense of decency. This is one of the principal things that make this work so captivating - Huntly Gordon could be any one of us, an ordinary person made extraordinary by virtue of extreme circumstance. But could any of us say that we would have served as well?
I asked David if he could identify his main motivation for re-editing and publishing his father's diaries. After a moment's reflection, he replied that at first he had simply wanted to get this very human story, with the additional material, into the light of day again, and to help people understand "what it was like to be there."
After months of immersion in the book, however, he realised that an even more important message was emerging, namely a reminder that there is no higher or more civilised goal than working together. If there is anything positive to be learned from the First World War, despite the awful cost, it is this. The Unreturning Army is above all a tribute to our powers when we all agree to co-operate to a common goal, to mutual benefit. Huntly Gordon's sense of fellowship with his comrades shines from every page, and he only ever questions the motivations of distant generals.
It would be good also, I thought, as I downed the last drops of my pint, if this moving account might be one way of remembering an important lesson from history, and thereby avoiding the need to repeat it.--Niall Taylor