Who was Kate Sharpley?

Portrait of Kate Sharpley

[In 1917]… Queen Mary was handing out medals in Greenwich, most of them for fallen heroes being presented to their womenfolk. One 22-year old girl, said by the local press to be under the influence of anarchist propaganda, having collected medals for her dead father, brother and boyfriend, then threw them in the Queen’s face, saying, ‘If you think so much of them, you can keep them.’ The Queen’s face was scratched and so was that of one of her attendant ladies. The police, not a little under the influence of patriotic propaganda, then grabbed the girl and beat her up. When she was released from the police station a few days later, no charges being brought, she was scarcely recognisable.

The girl was Kate Sharpley, who had been active in the Woolwich anarchist group and helped keep it going through the difficult years of World War 1. After her clash with the police she was sacked from her job ‘on suspicion of dishonesty’ (there was nothing missing but a policeman had called checking up on her…) and, selling libertarian pamphlets in the street, she was recognised by the police and warned that if she appeared there again she would be charged with ‘soliciting as a prostitute’ (which in those days would have been a calamity, and even today a disaster, if once convicted). Isolated from her family, and with the group broken up, she moved out of activity, away from the neighbourhood, and married.

I met her, by chance, last year [1982] in Lewisham. Twice widowed, she remembered the anarchist movement with nostalgia, and gave me a fascinating account of the local group in the years before World War 1. Unfortunately, she was already very ill, and a few weeks ago, she died, I was told by one of her neighbours.

I had, though, asked her for a message to the Anarchist movement today. Her answer: ‘Tell the kids they’re doing all right, they don’t need any advice from me.’ Especially she praised the young women of today: ‘I wouldn’t have had to take cover like I did if women of my day had any guts’ she said. But she did have guts. A few only in 1917 dared take any action in bereaved England.

‘One of the countless “unknown” members of our movement ignored by the official historians of anarchism.’ We hope this tribute, written by Albert Meltzer in 1978 will help to fill that statement out a little. There are more details in Albert’s autobiography I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels.

Taken from the KSL website: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/doc/introduction

Should Britain Go To War With Germany? The Dockside Debate August 1914

Opposition to WW1 in Bristol in August 1914

War enthusiasm?

There is a perception in Britain that popular patriotic pressure drove politicians to declare war on Germany on August 4th 1914 and that the population somehow desired war. This so-called ‘war enthusiasm’ has been characterised in the popular memory as: “cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace, long lines outside recruiting offices and of soldiers marching away singing ‘Tipperary'”[1] . These images have been recently promoted by TV programmes and films such as Blackadder Goes Forth, War Horse and Downton Abbey.

But how true is this perception? Was the desire for war widespread? What actually happened in August 1914?

Over the first weekend of August 1914 there were numerous anti-war marches, protests and demonstrations across Britain. Similar protests involving hundreds of thousands had occurred a few days before in Germany and other European countries. In almost every city and major town in the country thousands of people met to voice their opposition to the impending conflict and to Britain’s potential entry into what became a disastrous world war.

In the preceding week, the dispute between Austria and Serbia which had begun at the end of June had begun to escalate towards a major conflict between the Imperial powers; Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Germany and Austria had declared war on Russia and the following day, Sunday 2nd August, Britain was being pressurised by its allies to declare war on Germany.

Fifteen thousand people attended a demonstration in Trafalgar square where a resolution calling for Britain to stay neutral and to prevent the spread of the conflict was unanimously passed. Similar resolutions were passed across the country by tens of thousands. Provincial media opinion, whether Liberal or Tory, “expressed a firm preference for neutrality” [2]. Non-conformist churches, along with most socialists and Trade Unionists were united in their opposition to war. The evidence suggests that the public, although sympathetic to the plight of ‘small nations’ such as Belgium, was certainly not convinced of the case for war.

Anti-war politician Kier Hardie addresses a protest in Trafalgar Square (Sunday August 2nd 1914)

Anti-war politician Kier Hardie addresses a protest in Trafalgar Sq. (Sun Aug 2nd  1914)

As for pro-war demonstrations; these were, despite the perception of “cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace”, few and far between. One historian stated that “close examination of the ‘pro-war’ crowds in the metropolis during the war crisis causes them to dwindle almost to the point of disappearance”. He estimated that the traditional Bank Holiday crowd at Buckingham Palace on 3rd August 1914 to be in the region of 8,000, “little over one in a thousand of the metropolitan population”[3] .

And in Bristol?

What was happening on the streets of Bristol in those critical August days?

On Sunday 2nd August an anti-war protest on Durdham Down was addressed by the Trade Union leader Ernest Bevin. Somerset born Bevin, originally a farm labourer was by 1914 a committed socialist and national organiser of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union. Trade Unionists such as Bevin had worked hard for years to build an international movement whose primary aim was to stop any conflict breaking out between the Imperial powers. Now they were faced with the predicted but unthinkable…a world war. Would their nerve hold?

On the Downs, a young Bevin, steadfastly called for action by workers in all countries to prevent war [4]. In the preceding months Bevin had supported a resolution at the International Federation of Trade Unions to call an international general strike if a conflict looked likely to break out. However the speed with which the Austrian-Serbian crisis had escalated in July had caught Trade Unionists and Socialists on the hop. The possibility of international action by workers against the war seemed to be receding in the first few days of August, despite protests across Europe.

Earlier that day Bevin had been speaking at a well-attended a mass meeting of Dockers on the Grove in the city centre to discuss the worrying situation on the Continent. Bevin, addressing the Dockers, pointed out prophetically that “‘the South African war would be a mere fleabite compared with a great war in Europe” and added: “English Trade Unionists are on the most friendly terms with Trade Unionists across the Continent. It would be insane to fight them simply because there is a dispute between Austria and Serbia”[5] . He railed against the machinations of the British Government with its secret alliances and diplomatic manoeuvres, all of which he argued were undemocratic and hidden from the population.

Bevin proposed a resolution which called upon the:

Government to immediately declare its neutrality in connection with the European war and…upon the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Labour and the Labour Party to call a national conference to discuss way and means of preventing this country from being involved in ‘hostilities’ [6].

This resolution was carried unanimously by the assembled Dockers. The following day, in emergency meetings, the Bristol No.1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (representing 1,400 workers) and their sister organisation the NUR Women’s Guild both voted against British intervention in the conflict and for neutrality[7]. That first weekend of August churches prayed for peace and in most quarters there was widespread gloom, dread and uncertainty rather than enthusiasm.

War is declared…

The British government declared war on Germany at 11pm on Tuesday August 4th 1914. During the evening crowds gathered in Bristol city centre to be near the newspaper offices where the news would break. When it did there were mixed reactions in the crowd; some were stunned whilst others took part in impromptu marches through the streets singing the national anthem[10]. The debate as to the righteousness of the decision continued; but now the die was cast and the full force of patriotic propaganda was unleashed on the populace.

An important aspect of supposed ‘war enthusiasm’ is the idea that the moment war was declared there was an immediate rush of patriotic volunteers to enlist in the armed forces. In fact, although there was significant recruitment in the first weeks of August, the majority of enlistees joined much later, between 25th August and 15th September 1914. Why was this?

On 25th August 1914 two important events occurred which caused an unprecedented burst of recruitment. First the Government published exaggerated details of shocking atrocities by German troops in Belgium. The same day The Times published the ‘Mons dispatch’ which gave distressing reports of the defeat and retreat of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and appealed directly for men to join up. Despite our perception of widespread naiveté amongst patriotic recruits, who supposedly thought it would be ‘over by Christmas’, one historian noted that: “Men did not join the British Army expecting a picnic stroll to Berlin but in the expectation of a desperate fight for national defence”[11].

The myth of ‘war enthusiasm’ in the days prior to the declaration of war and supposed immediate, massive and naïve voluntary enlistment in the days after, abound in films and TV programmes. The historical evidence suggests these perceptions are dubious to say the least. On this centenary of the start of World War 1 the time has come to dismiss these tired clichés about widespread popular jingoism.

Dockers Debate Recreated

On Saturday 26th July the Dockers Debate of August 1914 was recreated on Narrow Quay on the water front in the city centre. The historical drama featured Somerset and Bristol-born Trade Union leaders Ernest Bevin and Ben Tillett, both of whom made passionate speeches arguing for Britain to stay neutral in August 1914.

  KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still Camera

 Ben Tillett of the National Transport Workers Union makes the opening address

 A lively crowd of a hundred or more included many in period dress with anti-war Independent Labour Party members, a contingent of Irish Dockers and some lively ‘patriots’ all having their say. The resolution for Britain to stay neutral was passed unanimously by the crowd, as it was in 1914. The drama concluded with the Red Notes choir leading the crowd with the ‘Internationale’ and a women’s choir singing the popular anti-war song “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”.

Independent Labour Party anti-war protestorsA lively crowd gathered on Narrow Quay

A lively crowd of Dockers, Anti-war protestors and patriots gathers on Narrow Quay

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Ernest Bevin (Dockers Union Organiser) and Ben Tillett interviewed by the press

Author and actors in the play, Roger Ball (Ernest Bevin) and John Bassett (Ben Tillett) both commented on the importance of highlighting the dissent against what became World War 1. Roger said ‘It is great to see the number of people who turned up today in period dress to participate in this drama. This was a key historical event in Bristol’s vibrant history of anti-war protest which has been obscured for too long’.

Anti-war Womens’ choir

Anti-war Women’s choir singing ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier’

The Remembering the Real World War 1 Group who organised the event aims to highlight hidden histories of the ‘Great War’ and to dispel some of its myths.

They meet regularly and can be contacted at: Website: https://network23.org/realww1/ E-mail: rememberingrealww1@gmail.com

The Script

Ernie Bevin – Ben Tillett Debate: The Grove, Sunday 2nd August 1914

(Outside Arnolfini, Narrow Quay, 2.00pm Saturday 26th July 2014)


Ernest Bevin (National Organiser of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union) [Roger]

Ben Tillett (Secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Federation) [John]

Chairman (Bristol Branch: Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union) [Johnny]

Mr. G. Clark [?]

An Irish Docker [Ruari]

Independent Labour Party members [Woodsy, Di, Mel, Zoey, Helen]

Some ‘patriots’ in boaters [Rich, Mike, other troublemakers]

A large crowd of dockers (members of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union)


[A restless crowd of Bristol Dockers and bystanders surround a simple podium, a small group of ILP supporters hold anti-war placards, others in boaters are waving Union Jacks]

Chairman: [stands on podium] Brothers, Brothers…..Order, Order….Can we have some quiet…[crowd quietens]

Brothers, this emergency meeting of the Bristol branch of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union has been called in response to the distressing news from the Continent.

The dispute between Austria and Serbia which began at the end of June threatens to become a major conflict between the imperial powers, including Britain. Last Tuesday the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. On Thursday Austrian Ironclads on the Danube began bombarding Belgrade in Serbia. Russian and German armies began mobilising during the week and then yesterday, as you know, we received the dreadful news that Germany had declared war on Russia.

Brothers, this is an extremely dangeous situation as Britain is currently in an alliance with Russia and France. Pressure will be applied to the British Government by our allies, who are now at war with Germany, to join the conflict. Brothers, I am sad to say, we maybe days from an all-out war in Europe.

Crowd: [heckles and groans] Bring it on….the Hun won’t stop us… down with bosses wars…no war but the class war etc.

Chairman: Brothers, Brothers…..Order, Order….this meeting is a chance for us to discuss this disturbing situation and to make some resolutions.

We are lucky to have a two west-country Union men here today, who don’t need an introduction…

…a Bristolian [points to Tillett], Ben Tillett, founder and secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Federation to whom we are now affiliated [crowd cheers]…

…and a sturdy Somerset lad [points to Bevin, laughter in crowd], Ernie Bevin, national organiser for our Union [crowd cheers].

Both would like to speak on this worrying news, I give you Ben Tillett….

Tillett: [stands on podium to applause] Fellow workers, it is a pleasure to be back in Bristol, the city of my birth and always close to my heart. I see some comrades from Easton…. [waves]

However, it is a shame that I have to speak to you in these difficult times. I am here to bring a warning to you all. We stand on the brink of war, a war created by the intrigues and manoeuvres of Kaiser Wilhelm, Emperor Franz and their allies. At this very moment German armies are marshalling on the borders of Russia and France, their Dreadnoughts are getting up steam ready to foray into the North Sea and the German people are charged up with propaganda.

Brothers, I have only recently returned from Germany and I assure you that all that can be done is being done to prevent a war amongst the European nations.

As you know since the Agadir crisis three years ago and the conflict in the Balkans the year before last, we have been facing the danger of an all out war between the major powers. It was on that basis that the Manifesto of the International Socialist Congress at Basel was passed two years ago. This manifesto states that:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective

It is my belief that Basel Resolution calls for a European-wide strike of organised labour, which, if adhered to, will make this militarist adventure impossible.

However, while I in no way make any compromises, that fact is that events are moving very rapidly. In Germany I put the Basel Manifesto to our comrades. Any action they take in support of that resolution we will reciprocate with our own action.

ILP heckler: Why do we need to wait for the Germans?

Tillett: I am sad to say, without the Germans, comrade, there is no international strike…

ILP heckler: But hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Germany against war on Wednesday and Thursday last week….

Tillett: They may have marched, my love…. but Germany declared war on Friday in case you didn’t know… [a few laughs in the crowd]

Patriotic Hecklers: [Start singing God Save the King]

Tillett: [shuts them up] We don’t want to sing ‘Rule Britannia’ nor ‘God Save the King’, what we want is to sing ‘God Save the People’….

[Addressing hecklers] England is the freest country in the world and I hope I have been one of its biggest rebels. This is because I always wanted it to be better than the best. I have fought in more strikes than any man living; I may have advised against a strike, but when it had been agreed on I have never let down my class. As I stand by my class in a strike; so I stand by my country.

Crowd: [Some cheers and applause, some heckling] Hear hear…. etc.

Irish docker: You didn’t stand by the Irish working class, you didn’t stand by the Dublin strikers last year, you sold Jim Larkin out ….

Tillett: We sent them money, I fought for Larkin and Connolly when they were imprisoned, I shared a platform with Larkin…

Irish docker: Fine speeches are one thing, action another. You stabbed Larkin in the back, and the TUC and the Labour Party sold them all out….

Tillett: That strike was doomed by Larkin’s mouth not mine….

Irish docker: Charlatan, sell out… [scuffles as the Irishman is restrained by his fellows]

[Tillett retires from the platform]

Chairman: Ernie, would you like to take the platform…

Bevin: Brothers, I come before you with a heavy heart after reading the stop press in the newspapers.

Yesterday, the first steps to a major conflict in Europe were taken when Germany declared war on Russia. This is a critical moment in history when we need clear heads, without emotion, without propaganda and without fear.

In these moments we should turn to what we know best and what is best for our class; that is the working class of Bristol, Britain, Europe and the World.

The imperial powers of Europe and the near East have been rattling their sabres and trading insults for months; they may have prepared for war, they may now be heading for war, but without the international working-classes behind them they are incapable of war.

This afternoon, all across Britain, in every city and major town, tens of thousands of working people are meeting like this. Together we oppose the head-long rush to bloody conflict that our rulers seem incapable or unwilling to halt.

Patriots: Pacifist traitors! German lovers! Cowards!

My public school friends may be a little confused, despite their education….I don’t see many pacifists here….No disrespect my love [points towards ILP women]. What I do see are fighters for the working-class, who have been proved in many battles [Cheers from the crowd].

We have not come here today to discuss Christian morals; we are deciding whether Britain should enter a conflict that could escalate across the world; a world war which could end in the slaughter of the working-class; English, French, Russian or German and Austrian alike. It is we the workers who will suffer, not the ruling classes.

We all know the suffering of the recent South African war will be a mere fleabite compared with total war between the imperial powers. Fighting a few Dutch Boers…and I see some veterans here… with all the death and misery that entailed, will be nothing compared to the havoc and destruction that Dreadnaughts, Airships and Armies will wreak on the cities of Europe if they are unleashed.

Some may think there is no choice but to join this impending conflict, but there is always a choice for the working-class. Do we support our moneyed-rulers or do we support the international working-class? That is the question.

Struggling for peace, comrades, does not make you a moral pacifist. However, arguing for conflict makes you war-mongers [looks accusingly at patriots].

Only the other day, in the lobby to the House of Commons… somewhere I cannot say I am accustomed to [laughter in crowd]…. I heard of an agreement to send 70,000 British soldiers to the Continent in case of war. 70,000 British workers! Have you been consulted about this? Has this been debated by our so-called democracy? If it was, comrades, then I think it would not be agreed to. It is this urgency to fight by our rulers that endangers us.

As my comrade Ben Tillett knows full well….English Trade Unionists are on the most friendly terms with Trade Unionists across the Continent. It would be insane to fight them simply because there is a local dispute between Austria and Serbia.

This is not our war. This is not a war for the workers. This is a war for profit, land and booty.

[Bevin retires from the platform, Tillett retakes it]

Crowd: [Some cheers and applause] Hear hear…. etc.

Patriots: Pacifist traitors! German lovers! Cowards!

Tillett: Our pro-war friends over here accuse us of being pacifists, as if we would stand around doing nothing whilst thousands of British workers died for an unjust cause. No, we are far from being canting humbugs… Afraid? Are we afraid? Are we cowards? No, comrades we are not.

However, neither are we lovers of war.

I have in my hand a piece of paper [fumbles for a piece of paper]…a manifesto which I have brought from London, signed today by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, as you know both recent leaders of the Labour Party.

This manifesto urges our movement to:

  • Hold mass demonstrations against war in every industrial centre.
  • Compel the governing class and their Press…who are eager to commit you to co-operate with Russia….to keep silence and respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people, who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy.
  • Workers stand together for peace!
  • Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all.
  • Proclaim that for you the days of plunder and butchery have gone by.
  • Send messages of peace and fraternity to your fellows who have less liberty than you.
  • Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the war.
  • Up with the peaceful rule of the people.

Tomorrow there is an emergency session of the Dockers’ Union executive in London. At this meeting we will consider what action can be taken. Your decisions today, Brothers, will have a bearing on this.

Our resolutions will be sent to the presidents of the Miners, Transport Workers and Railwaymen…our triple alliance…. I hope the purpose and power of this alliance can be made felt and the grave necessity of the occasion and our sacred responsibilities in preventing war and demanding the neutrality of England be realised.

The Kings, Czars and Emperors of Europe may have their alliances, their so-called triple ententes….. but if there is to be an alliance between countries, let that alliance be confined to the workers of each country who have no quarrel with each other.

[Tillett retires from the platform, Bevin retakes it]

Bevin: Comrade Tillett is right to speak of alliances. We are being asked to support an unholy alliance to which the British people have never agreed. We are being asked to give our lives in fighting against German dictatorship. It seems our rulers and their media lackeys have lost their memories which is no surprise in these fevered times…..

As for German militarists, have they forgotten about Russia our supposed ally? Are we meant to leap to the defence of the Czar and his band of corrupt aristocrats? Everyone knows that Russia is a cruel autocracy, a place where peasants and workers are treated like cattle, where to even organise a strike is a crime. Why should British workers die for corrupt dictators who would lock us up if they had half a chance? [cheers in the crowd]

We as workers have no say in the secret deals between the rulers of Britain, France and Russia. We have no idea what they are getting up to in their hallowed halls with their sherry and cigars, with their maps, carving up the world between them.

But what I do know, and this is a fact; without us, Brothers and Sisters, workers of the world, they cannot have their wars and they couldn’t carve anything except a Sunday joint… [cheers] and we probably wouldn’t trust them with that… [Laughter]

[Bevin retires from the platform, Tillett retakes it]

Chairman: Brothers, we need to move to a resolution. Ernie would you like to propose?

Bevin: I move the following resolution….that this meeting of the Bristol branch of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union calls upon the Government to immediately declare its neutrality in connection with the European war……..and further calls upon the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Labour and the Labour Party to call a national conference to discuss way and means of preventing this country from being involved in ‘hostilities’.

Chairman: Does anyone second this?

Mr. G. Clark: I second you Ernie….

Chairman: Then we’ll take it to a vote….

All those in favour of Ernies resolution, we call on the Government to declare Britain’s neutrality and for a national conference to debate ways for preventing this country joining the conflict. All those in favour raise your hands and say Aye….

Crowd: [most raise their hands] Aye, Aye …

Chairman: All those against, raise your hands…

Crowd: [A few hands are raised, the patriots cheer them] Nay, Nay

Chairman: The resolution is carried, unanimously…. [cheers from the crowd]

Before we conclude this meeting Comrades, I would like to bring your attention to very sad piece of news. On Friday, as some of you may know, the French Socialist Party leader, Jean Jaurès was assassinated in Paris. Jean was shot down in a café in a cold-blooded and cowardly murder. His assassin, it seems, was a French Nationalist, a lover of war and one who could not bear Jean’s principled internationalism and anti-militarist stance. I would like to read a few words from a friend of Jaurès who was present at his horrific demise in Paris.

I have known M. Jaures well, and a more simple-hearted man I never met in my life. He was absolutely free from personal vanity and personal ambition, and gave up the whole of his life to the cause of Socialism and peace. His death is a terrible loss to the Socialist party in France which cannot replace him without the very greatest difficulty.

Comrades, in memory of our comrade and brother Jean Jaurès I would like you to respect a minutes silence…

[A minutes silence]

Unless there is any other business or any objections we will conclude this afternoons meeting with a song… Comrades in memory of Jean Jaurès, I give you the Bristol Socialist Society Choir. Let’s give ‘em a big hand comrades….

[The Internationale]



Books and Journals

Ball, Roger The Origins and an Account of Black Friday 23rd December1892 (Bristol Radical History Group, 2013)

Belsey, James The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986)

Bullock, Alan The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin; Vol. 1 Trade Union Leader 1881-1940 (Heinemann, 1960)

Gregory, Adrian ‘British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment’ in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 Braybon, Gail (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003)

Hochschild, Adam To End All Wars: A story of protest and patriotism in the First World War (Pan, 2012)

Lorwin, Lewis Labor and Internationalism (Macmillan, 1929)

McNeill, Jim Ben Tillett (Bristol Radical History Group, 2012)

Millman, Brock Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain (Frank Cass, 2000)

Morgan, Kevin Bolshevism, syndicalism and the general strike: The lost internationalist world of A. A. Purcell (Lawrence and Wishart, 2013)

Moses, John Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler 1869-1918 (George Prior, 1982)

Pearce, Robert ‘Ernest Bevin’ in Labour Forces: From Ernie Bevin to Gordon Brown Kevin Jefferys (ed.) (I.B. Tauris, 2002)

Richardson, Michael Bristol and the Labour Unrest 1910-14 (Bristol Radical History Group, 2013)

Schneer, Jonathan Ben Tillett (Croom Helm, 1982)

Tillett, Ben Who was responsible for the war–and why? (Whitwell Press, 1917)


Bristol and the War December 1915

Western Daily Press 3 August 1914

Bristol Evening News 4 August 1914

Daily Herald 3 & 5 August 1914


Spartacus Educational http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWjaures.htm

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Jaur%C3%A8s

  1. Notes
  2. [1]A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 67.
  3. [2]A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 77.
  4. [3]A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 71-2.
  5. [4]Bullock, Alan The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin; Vol. 1 Trade Union Leader 1881-1940 (Heinemann, 1960) p. 45.
  6. [5]Western Daily Press 3 August 1914.
  7. [6]Western Daily Press 3 August 1914.
  8. [8]
  9. [9]
  10. [7]Western Daily Press 4 August 1914.[8].These expressions of mass popular dissent against the war in Bristol were matched by the reactions of local newspapers such as the Western Daily Press were initially reticent to support Britain entering the conflict warning its readers of: “the grim shadow of war over the Near East” and harangued the foreign politicians for “the sheer madness of it” [9]

    Western Dailiy Press 27 July 1914; J. Belsey The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986) p. 12.

  11. [10]J. Belsey The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986) p. 12.
  12. [11]C. Pennell WWI New Perspectives: Rethinking British Volunteerism in 1914 Youtube

WW1 Reading List

Some books, pamphlets, articles and other texts, which we have selected because they give accounts of resistance to World War One, the causes of the war, its effects, the initial collapse of the left and radical movements in the face of its outbreak, and related issues. Obviously this is just a beginning of a comprehensive list; any other titles, links, suggestions, welcome – email us at: therealww1@riseup.net.

Thanks to the Real WW1 blog and Remembering the real WW1 list for this excellent resource.

General accounts:

• Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-18

 • Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation

• B. Tuchman, 
The Guns of August 

An extract from Zinn’s ‘A people’s history of the United States’, relating the US’s participation in WW1 and resistance to it.

• John Zerzan, Origins and Meaning of WWI, Telos, no. 49, Fall 1981. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/49337748/Zerzan-Origins-and-Meaning-of-WWI)

• John Morrow, The Great War: an Imperial History.

Preludes to World War 1: The Balkan Wars

• The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky: The Balkan Wars 1912-13

Preludes to World War 1: (part ii): The pre-war Syndicalist Revolt and the upsurge of class struggle.

• David D. Roberts, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism (1979)

• SelfEd Collective, Revolutionary Syndicalism in Britain and Ireland, 1910-17.

The Causes of the War

• V I Lenin
, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. (1916)

• Woodruff D. Smith, European imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.

• Edward E. McCullough, How The First World War Began.

The Left and the outbreak of War

• Merle Fainsod, International Socialism and the World War (1935)

• Georges Haupt, Socialism and the Great War: The Collapse of the Second International. (1972)

Vladimir Lenin and John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International
, Monad Press‬, 1984 ,
The debate among socialist leaders, including V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, on a socialist response to World War I.

• V.I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International.

• V.I. Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism

• Lenin/Zinoviev, Against the Stream.

• Rosa Luxemburg, On The Spartacus Program (1918)

• Rosa Luxemburg, The War and the Workers – The Junius Pamphlet (1916)


• George Novack, Dave Frankel & Fred Feldman, The First Three Internationals, Their History and Lessons

• John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of British Anarchism.
Contains chapters on the wildly varying positions of British anarchists on the outbreak of the War.

• Leon Trotsky, Political Profiles (1972)
Contains profiles of leading socialists in the pre-WW1 period, and their actions around the outbreak of the War.

Mutinies and solder’s strikes

• P. Adam-Smith, The Anzacs: The True Story of the Young Men Who Went to Gallipoli, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne 1978, a nostalgic nationalist perspective, includes brief account of September 1918 mutiny by ANZAC troops.

• William Allison and John Fairley, The Monocled Mutineer, Quartet Books, London 1978, an overblown account of the 1917 Etaples Mutiny and biography of a rapist, thief and murderer.

• William Allison, Inadmissible Memories of a Suppressed Mutiny, Guardian, 22 September 1986.

• Anthony Babington, The Devil to Pay: The Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, India, July 1921, Leo Cooper, London 1991, a comprehensive account of the mutiny in 1920 of the Connaught Rangers at Jullunder in the Punjab on hearing of the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising, but generally unsympathetic to the mutineers.

• D. Birmingham, et al. (eds.), World War 1 and Africa, Journal of African History, Volume 21, no. 1, 1978, scholarly essays, some referring to mutinous action by African soldiers and military labourers.

• N. Boyack, Behind the Lines: The Lives of New Zealand Soldiers in the First World War, Allen and Unwin, Wellington 1989, a critical account of NZ troops, includes references to mutinies and ill-discipline, fully referenced.

• R. Boyes, In Glass Houses: A History of the Military Provost Staff Corps, Military Provost Staff Corps Association, Colchester 1988, ill-written, poorly edited and over-defensive, but useful for references to revolts by military prisoners.

• S. Brugger, Australians and Egypt 1914–1919, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1980, includes references to ‘Wazza’ pogroms, good bibliography.

• R. Ducoulombier, Une nouvelle histoire des mutineries de 1917

• David Englander, Mutiny at Etaples Base Camp, The Bulletin for the Society of Labour History, no. 52, 1987.

• John Field, The Kent Coast Mutinies of 1919, Cantium, Volume 4, no. 4, Winter 1972–73.

• J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914–1918, OUP, Oxford, 1991, concerns sport and leisure, refers to officers, ill-merited self-esteem, mutinies viewed as insignificant.

• B. Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, ANUP, Canberra 1974, refers to the 1915 anti-Egyptian pogroms and September 1918 mutinies.

• D. Gill and Julian Putkowski, The British Base Camp at Etaples 1914–1918, Musée Quentovic, Etaples sur Mer, 1997, includes a brief account of the 1917 mutiny, dismisses the ‘Monocled Mutineer’ thesis.

• Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, Mutiny at Etaples, Past and Present, no. 69, November 1975.

• Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, The Unkown Army: mutinies in the British army in World War One. (London, 1985.)

• F. Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War, Ravan Press, Johannesburg 1987, makes reference to mutinies by the black military labourers of the South African Labour Contingent.

• R.W.E. Harper and H. Miller, Singapore Mutiny, OUP, Singapore 1984, recounts February 1915 mutiny by sepoys of Fifth Battalion Light Infantry, but generally discounts the political significance of the outbreak.

• L.F. Guttridge , Mutiny: A history of Naval Insurrection (Ian Allan 1992)

• L. James, Mutiny: In the British and Commonwealth Forces 1797–1956, Buchan and Enright, London 1987, mostly about post-1914 period, many useful references but a whiggish interpretation of mutiny.

• T.P. Kilfeather, The Connaught Rangers, Anvil, Dublin 1969, a journalist presents a sympathetic account of 1921 protest, no references or bibliography.

• A. Killick, Mutiny!, Spark, Brighton 1968, reprinted 1976 by Militant, an autobiographical account by a participant in the 1919 Calais mutiny.

• Dave Lamb, Mutinies: 1917-1920. (Solidarity pamphlet, 1977).
Online at http://www.libcom.org/library/mutinies-dave-lamb-solidarity

• S.P. Mackenzie, Politics and Military Morale: Current Affairs and Citizenship Education in the British Army 1914–1950, OUP, Oxford 1992, references to Etaples 1917, April 1918 Soldiers’ and Workers’ Council, and Cairo 1944.

• Edt. C.L. Mantle, The Apathetic and the Defiant: Case studies of Canadian Mutiny and Disobedience, 1812-1919 (Dundurn Group and Canadian Defence Academy 2007)

• D. Morton, Kicking and Complaining, Canadian Historical Review, no. 61, September 1980. (Kinmel Mutiny)

• D. Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army 1860–1940, Macmillan, London 1994, devotes a chapter to mutinies by the sepoys of the Army of India, good bibliography.

• Guy Pedroncini, Les Mutineries de 1917, Presses universitaires de France, 1967 ; 4e édition corrigée 1999 (ISBN 978-2130473756) and –

• Guy Pedroncini, 1917, les mutineries de l’armée française, Julliard, 1968.

• R.J. Popplewell, Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of India 1904–1924, Cass, London, 1995, refers to ‘Ghadr’-inspired mutinies in Army of India during 1914–15, excellent references.

• S. Pollock, Mutiny for the Cause, Leo Cooper, London 1969. A journalistic hagiography of the 1920 Connaught Rangers mutiny.

• C. Pugsley, Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland 1984, describes the ‘Battle of Wazzir’, an anti-Egyptian pogrom due to NZ troops’ ‘pent-up frustration’, see also Boyack.

• C. Pugsley, On the Fringe of Hell: New Zealanders and Military Discipline in the First World War, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland 1991, nostalgic nationalism, refers to several mutinies, including December 1918 Surafend anti-Arab pogrom (‘cannot be condoned but can be understood’), contrast with Boyack.

• Julian Putkowski, British Army Mutineers 1914-1922,  (November 1998) Francis Boutle Publishers, 0953238822, ISBN 9780953238828

• Julian Putkowski (1989), The Kinmel Park Camp Riots, Flintshire Historical Society, 0951277618, ISBN: 0951277618

• Julian Putkowski, Mutiny in India, 1919. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol8/no2/putkowski2.html

• Al Richardson (Ed.), Mutiny: Disaffection and Unrest in the Armed Forces. Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no 2 (2002). A collection of articles on (mostly British) army mutinies, including several around World War 1.

• Andrew Rothstein, The Soldiers’ Strikes of 1919. (London, 1980.)

• T.R. Sareen, Secret Documents on the Singapore Mutiny, 1915, two volumes, Mounto, New Delhi, 1995, includes Court of Enquiry papers and other items associated with the outbreak.

• G. Sheffield, The Redcaps: A History of the Military Police and its Antecedents from the Middle Ages to the Gulf War, Brassey’s, London 1994, an official history, only Etaples 1917 outbreak cited, but useful references to battlefield ‘stragglers’.

• G. Sheffield, Leadership in the Trenches: Officer–Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in the Era of the First World War, Macmillan, London 2000, refers to several mutinies but eschews ideology and opts to maintain a ‘Soldiers’ deference + Officers’ paternalism = good officer–man relations’ line, excellent bibliography.

• P. Stanley, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force. (Pier 9 2010)

• M. Summerskill, China on the Western Front: Britain’s Chinese Workforce in the First World War, Summerskill, London 1982, includes references to mutinies by Chinese Labour Corps serving with the British Expeditionary Force.

• Peter Tatchell, The Monocle That Blinds Us to the Many Other Mutinies, Guardian, 19 September 1986.

• The Murmansk Mutiny

• Steve Johns, The British West Indies Regiment Mutiny, 1918.

Resistance, desertion and soldiers’ daily experience

• A.E. Ashworth, The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), pp. 407-423

• A.E. Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The live and let live system (Pan Grand Strategy Series) 1979.

• RB., Tommy Atkins’ hidden tactics to avoid combat on the Western Front in WW1 or Why ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ could have been a lot funnier (and more subversive)…

• M. Brown and S. Seaton, The Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, Leo Cooper, London 1984, 1994, empiricist, explicitly rejects Marxist interpretations, but good narratives and well referenced.

• David Englander and James Osborne , Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class (1978) The Historical Journal, 21, p.593-4

• P. Liddle (ed.), Passchendaele in Perspective: The Third Battle of Ypres, Pen and Sword, Barnsley 1997, a chapter by P. Scott on law and order ascribes low level of dissent to deferential attitude of Tommies.

• Marc Ferro, Malcolm Brown, Remy Cazals, Olaf Mueller. Meetings in No Man’s Land Christmas 1914: Fraternization in the Great War. Constable & Robinson 2007 ISBN 978-1-84529-513-4. 264 pp

• Anonymous, A German Deserter’s War Experience, published in Britain in 1917! It’s an account of the horrors of WW1, and a fair amount of resistance to it, written by an anonymous German deserter who fought in the trenches in France. It ends with a call for the overthrow of capitalism, and even has a chapter entitled “Soldiers shooting their own officers”. What more do you want…?
Kindle and epub versions: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42721

Conscientious objectors/resistance to conscription

• A. Baxter, We Will Not Cease, Victor Gollancz, London 1939, an autobiography of an NZ ‘conchie’, details army punishments in France and Flanders during the First World War.

• John Taylor Caldwell, Come Dungeons Dark: The Life & Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist. (Luath Press, 1988). Has 11 chapters on the struggle of Aldred and others against the war, including resistance inside prisons by draft-refusers and conscientious objectors.

• Edwin H. Dare, Bread and Roses: Politics and Co-operation.
The story of Bermondsey Co-operative Bakery, a South London workers’ Co-op, with a very brief reference to its employing of conscientious objectors on the run during WW1.

• Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight:  the untold story of World War One’s conscientious objectors. London, Aurum, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84513-403-7. 296 pp.

• Thomas C. Kennedy, The Hound of Conscience, (1981), University of Arkansas Press, 0938626019, ISBN 0938626019

• Cyril Pearce, Comrades in Conscience.
Now out of print. Publishers site: http://www.francisboutle.co.uk/pages.php?cID=5&pID=144
Grauniad review:

Crabbed Age and Youth, A Divine Comedy of the Watford Tribunal.

Trials and Executions of Deserters, Mutineers etc

• Anthony Babington, For the Sake of Example. Pen & Sword, 1993. 256pp.

• Piet Chielen and Julian Putkowski, Unquiet Graves. Basically this is guide book for a tour of the sites connected to executions in the Ieper (Ypres) area during the first World War.

• Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Weidenfeld Military. 2004) ISBN 978-0-304-36659-0

• Andrew Godefroy, For Freedom and Honour? The Story of 25 Canadians Executed During the Great War (Toronto: CEF Books, 1998) ISBN 1-896979-22-X

• John Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War.  Phoenix, 2005. 544pp.

• David Lister, Die Hard, Aby!, (England: Pen & Sword, 2005) ISBN 978-1-84415-137-0 

• William Moore, The Thin Yellow Line, (London: Wordsworth. 1999) ISBN 978-1-84022-215-9

• Nicolas Offenstadt, Les fusillés de la Grande Guerre (Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1999)

• Gerard Oram, Death Sentences passed by military courts of the British Army 1914–1924, (UK: Francis Boutle Publishers, 1999) ISBN 1-903427-26-6

• Gerard Oram,  Worthless Men, (November 1998), Francis Boutle Pub, 0953238830, ISBN 97809538835 

• Gerard Oram, (2000),“What alternative punishment is there?”: military executions during World War I. PhD thesis, The Open University

• Denis Rolland, La grève des tranchées, Paris, Imago, 2005.

• Chris Pugsley, On the Fringes of Hell (1991: Hodder & Stoughton) ISBN 978-0-340-53321-5

• Julian Putkowski & Julian Sykes, Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One by Authority of the British Army Act, (England: Pen & Sword, 1996) ISBN 978-0-85052-613-4

• Julian Putkowski & Gerard Oram, British Army Officers’ Courts Martial: 1914–1924. Francis Boutle Publishers, 2000.

• Julian Putkowski & Mark Herber, Military Criminals. Francis Boutle Publishers, 2001.

• Leonard Sellers, For God’s Sake Shoot Straight! (Leo Cooper, London, UK, 1995) (an account of the trial and execution of Royal Navy officer Sub-Lt Edwin Dyett)

• Ernest Thurtle, Military discipline and democracy, (London: Daniel Books. 1920)

• Ernest Thurtle, Shootings at dawn: The Army death penalty at work, (Pamphlet)

Resistance on the Home Front

• Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story, The Life of Alfred Salter. Has some accounts of anti-war activity/conscientious objection in the South London borough of Bermondsey.

• Gertrude Bussey and Margaret Tims, Pioneers for Peace: Women’s International league for Peace and Freedom, 1915-65. (1965) Self-published.

• Julia Bush, Behind the Lines: East London Labour 1914-1919 (Merlin Press, 1984).

• Francis Ludwig Carsten, War Against War: British and German Radical Movements in the First World War. Univ of California Pr./Batsford (1982)

• Anthony James Coles, The Moral Economy of the Crowd: Some Twentieth-Century Food Riots (food riots in Cumberland 1916-17), Journal of British Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 157-176 Published by: Cambridge University Press

• Barbara Engel, Subsistence riots in Russia during World War I. Article on food riots, mostly by women, during World War I which helped spark the Russian revolution [and therefore end the war]. – 15pp. http://libcom.org/history/subsistence-riots-russia-during-world-war-i-barbara-engel

• Nick Heath, Anarchists against World War One: Two little known events- Abertillery and Stockport.

• Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter. (1978) Pluto Press. Autobiography of Scottish communist, with brief details of anti-war movement in Glasgow, (and interesting accounts of post-WW1 unemployed movement, the Communist Party and more.)

• Keith Robbins, The Abolition Of War: The Peace Movement in Britain 1914-1919. Cardiff: University Of Wales Press (1976)

• Dave Russell, Southwark Trades Council: A Short History 1903-78. Contains an account of local resistance to World War 1 in Camberwell, South London (reproduced in Rare Doings at Camberwell, past tense, 2008.)

• Sylvia Pankhurst, The Home Front.

• Bernard Waites (1987), A Class Society at War, 1914-18. (Leamington Spa, 1987.) Berg, 0907582656, ISBN 0907582656

• Ken Weller, Don’t be a soldier: the radical anti-war movement in North London 1914-18. (London, 1985.)

• John Williams, The Other Battleground: The Home Fronts, Britain, France and Germany, 1914-18 (1972)

• Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst (1996)

The Battle of Cory: Patriots Meet Dissenters in Cardiff. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+Battle+of+Cory+Hall,+November+1916%3A+Patriots+Meet+Dissenters+in…-a063583862

Wartime Repressive Measures in Britain

• Brock Millman, Managing Dissent in First World War Britain
The last chapter deals with the stationing of a million and a half troops in Jan 1918 at strategic points across Britain near industrial centres as the authorities became fearful of dissent and revolution – slightly problematic when combined with the threat of mutiny. They also had the problem of trying to fight a war in Europe!

• Margaret Flaws, Spy Fever: The Post Office Affair. Published by The Shetland Times at £14.99. (2009). A remarkable true story of the events surrounding the unexplained incarceration of the entire staff of the Lerwick Post Office at the beginning of the First World War.

• Panikos Panayi, Prisoners of Britain : German civilian and combatant internees during the First World Warhttp://www.worldcat.org/title/prisoners-of-britain-german-civilian-and-combatant-internees-during-the-first-world-war/oclc/799144766&referer=brief_results

• Panikos Panayi,  The enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War (1991) http://www.worldcat.org/title/enemy-in-our-midst-germans-in-britain-during-the-first-world-war/oclc/20798306&referer=brief_results

Jingoism, Racism and Chauvinism

• Stephen Bourne, Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War. (To be published 1 August 2014)

• Pat O’Mara, The Lusitania Riots of May 1915: A personal account. http://www.libcom.org/history/lusitania-riots-may-1915-personal-account-pat-omara

Effects of war on soldiers

• Anthony Babington, Shell Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neuroses.(Leo Cooper, 1997)

• JMW Binneveld, From Shell Shock to Combat Stress. (Amsterdam University Press, 1997)

• Ted Bogacz, War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914-22. (Journal of Contemporary History, volume 24, 1989)

• Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War. (Reaktion Books, 1996)

• Eric J Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War One. (Cambridge University Press, 1979)

• Peter Leese, Problems Returning Home: The British Psychological Casualties of the  Great War. (The Historical Journal, volume 40, 1997)

• Derek Summerfield, The invention of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the social usefulness of a psychiatric category. British Medical Journal, January 13, 2001, available at <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1119389/>.

Impact of the War: Studies of Society at War (and peace)

• Wolfgang J Mommsen, Imperial Germany, 1867-1918: Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State.

• N. P. Howard, The Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19. (http://libcom.org/history/allied-food-blockade-germany-1918-19-n-p-howard)

Women and World War One

•  Womens Web (Australia) Womens Stories – Womens Actions. “Remembering ANZAC”     http://www.womensweb.com.au/ANZAC.html

• “Prejudice and Reason”. Some Australian Womens responses to war from 1909 to now. Includes ‘2 Women and 2 Journals during WW1’ on support for and opposition to the war.    http://www.prejudiceandreason.com.au/index.html

• Karen Hagemann, Home/Front; the Military, War and Gender in Twentieth Century Germany.

• Gail Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War.

• Ute Daniel, The War from Within: German Women in the First World War.

• Laura Lee Downs, Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-39.

• Kate Adie, Fighting on the Home Front: the legacy of women in World War One. Hodder & Stoughton, 2013. 328pp. Wide-ranging, includes a lot about Sunderland.

Immediate Post-war Scene/resistance to Intervention in Russia• Andre Marty, The Epic of the Black Sea (on the Black Sea revolt).

• Chanie Rosenberg, 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution, Bookmarks, London 1987.

• Guy Sabatier, The 1918 treaty of Brest-Litovsk: curbing the revolution

• Dan Weinbren, Revolution at the Arsenal: the Campaign for alternative work at the Woolwich Arsenal after the First World War. (South London Record).

The End of the War, and how it was Celebrated

• Practical History, Churchill, the Cenotaph and May Day 2000. (http://libcom.org/history/churchill-cenotaph-may-day-2000-practical-history)

When did the War Really End?

According to one source the technical date of termination of the war was not until August 1921! Prolonging the war was used to keep people in arms to try to intervene in Russia, as well as to extend repressive powers, eg the vicious Defence of the Realm Act, criminalising dissent, allowing for harsher sentences etc…

• http://www.circlecity.co.uk/wartime/board/index.php?page=88


• http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol8/no2/putkowski2.html

WW1 to WW2: Did one lead to the other…?

• Arno Mayer
, The Persistence of The Old Regime.

WW1 In Fiction

• Pat Barker, The Regeneration Trilogy:
– Regeneration
– The Eye in the Door
– The Ghost Road

• Henri Barbusse, Under Fire (1916)

• A T Fitzroy, Despised and Rejected.
(pseudonym of Rose Allatini) whose central characters are a gay conscientious objector and his lesbian/bisexual anti-war woman friend. This was originally published by CW Daniel in 1918 before being banned under DORA, and was reprinted by Gay Men’s Press in the 1980s, and again quite recently by a small US press. It appears to be out of print, but there’s extracts on google books: http://is.gd/giRtdx
and Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Despised-Rejected-A-T-Fitzroy/dp/0922558485#reader_0922558485

• Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)

• Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk in the World War

• Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

Balls to War: a Sports Report from 1170 A.D. to the Present

This article was originally posted on Bristol Radical History Group’s website in December 2012.

Balls to War: extract

The above  film ‘Balls to War: a Sports Report from 1170 A.D. to the Present’ was submitted to BRHG by the poet and activist Heathcote Williams whose poetry has featured in several of our events over the last couple of years. This is definitely worth a watch especially for the amazing photographs concerning the fraternisation between British and German front-line troops on Christmas Day 1914. Now we all know about this story, well, I was certainly ‘educated’ about it at school. How German troops sang ‘Silent Night’ and the Tommies responded, then the crossing of the lines into ‘No Man’s Land’ and a game of football. It is now an iconic part of the popular history of WWI.

One thing that always confused me as I got older was why this potentially subversive act was even known about, let alone had become iconic. One completely taboo area in most nation-states history is mutiny in its armed forces (unless it led to a ‘succesful’ revolution of course where the history becomes available, e.g. Russia in 1917). BRHG have covered several of these hidden histories (for example the massive wave of mutiny, desertion and refusal in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam war, which certainly helped bring it to an end…see Sir! No Sir!) precisely because they aren’t known. And of course BRHG ask the more fundamental question; ‘Why don’t we know about them?’. However, the fraternisation in December 1914 bucks the trend, as it is widely known and taught in our schools. So why is this the case?

The first point to make is that we don’t actually know the full story and it is far more subversive than we imagine. Firstly, the initial fraternisation involved about 100,000 troops on both sides, not just a couple of football teams! It spread spontaneously like wildfire along whole sections of the western front and despite protestations from commanders it could not be stopped. It did not last one ‘holy’ day as is presented in the story, but in some areas of the front well into February 1915. The events were also successfully repeated in 1915 at Easter, in November and again despite explicit attempts to stop them at Christmas. British, French and German troops were involved in all these incidents.

For about a week, after the Christmas Day truce of 1914, the British Military and Government desperately tried to suppress news of the event. However, by the literal ‘weight’ of word of mouth and letters home from soldiers, the news leaked out. The authorities could not smother such an amazing story and it effectively went ‘viral’ amongst first the troops and then the public. It appeared in the press in the U.S. first and then it was widely publicised in the British media, with the first photographs appearing on 8th January 1915.

So this is why we know about the ‘Christmas Truce’, people talked en masse and the authorities eventually had no choice but to acknowledge it. However, in the great British tradition of propaganda, from Afghanistan to Dunkirk (and Hillsborough), if a story is ‘unfortunately’ out because it has been witnessed by tens of thousands, then it has to be sanitised, distorted or downgraded to remove its unpaplatable message. In the case of the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914 it is minimalised, shortened and turned into a particular ‘miracle’ related to Christian morality. It was an extraordinary aberration, a moment of ‘happy madness’ which restores our ‘faith’ in humanity or some other religious bollocks. So we end up with a peculiar but interesting incident which gives us a sniff of subversion but no more, amongst the bloody slaughter of WWI.

Of course, refusals to fight, desertion and massive armed mutinies led to the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the French, German and to some extent British Forces in 1917-18. I would argue that the degree to which the actions of the mutinous and revolutionary working class in Europe in this period stopped WWI, saving millions of lives, is massively underestimated and under-researched by historians. But this is no surprise; no nation-state is going to propagate the idea that ‘revolutionary defeatism’, mutiny and ‘turning your guns on your own officers’ is either the best way to stop war-machines or a good Christmas message! This is our and your job.

If you want to read more about the hidden histories of mutiny in WWI then check these excellent sources out:

RB 29th Dec 2012

World War 1: Film list

The following list was compiled for Bristol Radical History Group in Jan 2014.


Germany 1930 Directed by P.W. Pabst

Westfront 1918 (aka Comrades of 1918) was the first talkie effort from German filmmaker G. W. Pabst, which he made for Nero Films, a production company headed up by Seymour Nebenzahl. Like the contemporary Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front, Pabst’s film is a bitter, melancholy anti-war statement. The story concentrates on four German soldiers, sent to the front in the waning days of World War 1. The futility of killing an enemy who is already dead spiritually, and of being killed for a cause that has for all intents and purposes been resolved, is brought home to the viewer with both barrels. The astonishingly fluid camerawork of Fritz Arno puts the spectator in the thick of the battle, and the effect is both terrifying and heart-breaking To watch only a few moments of Westfront 1918, one might think that Pabst had been making sound pictures all his life, rather than a mere couple of months.




Germany 1931 Directed by P.W. Pabst

Valliant effort to use a mining catastrophe as a vehicle to pronounce this director’s distaste for war. The audience not only learns a great deal about early mining rescue procedures but, we learn that Europeans at the interval between WWI and WWII, had concerning pacifists (for lack of a better term). The speeches given by both representatives of each country at the end of the film, are inspiring given the time

Kameradschaft (Comradeship) was a French-German co-production; it was financed by Gaumont (French) and Nero-Film (German). It’s a strong follow-up to Pabst’s previous anti-war picture Westfront 1918. Pabst yearns for the two countries to overcome their natural mistrust and makes the film as a plea for peace. Many consider this film the high point of German socialist film-making of the period. But with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in 1932, the film after receiving honours for its technical and artistic achievements was quickly forgotten by the world, disparaged for being naive or completely ignored in Germany or criticized for being a fairy tale.



France 1937 Directed by Jean Renoir

But if “Grand Illusion” had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn’t be on so many lists of great films. It’s not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it’s a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behaviour. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I.

“Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” the captured French aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu tells the German prison camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein. A little later, distracting the guards during an escape of others from the high-security German fortress, the Frenchman forces the German to shoot him, reluctantly, and they have a final deathbed exchange. “I didn’t know a bullet in the stomach hurt so much,” he tells the German. “I aimed at your legs,” says the German, near tears. And a little later he says: “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I–it’s a good way out.”

What the Frenchman knows and the German won’t admit is that the new world belongs to commoners. It changed hands when the gentlemen of Europe declared war. And the “grand illusion” of Renoir’s title is the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their word not to.


J’ACCUSE (That They May Live)

France 1937 Directed by Abel Gance

As war approached Europe in the mid-1930s with the rise to power of Adolph Hitler in Germany, famed French filmmaker Abel Gance felt the need to make an artistic statement regarding his pacifistic leanings and deeply humanistic concern for the survival of mankind. The end result was this heartfelt, unrelentingly powerful and deeply moving drama. The setting is the First World War which supposedly was “The War To End All Wars.” A group of French infantrymen have been chosen by lot to be members of a “death patrol.” All are certain to die in battle. A soldier named Jean Diaz volunteers to replace one of the men, who is the father of four children. All eventually are killed, except for Diaz. Ironically, they are fated to be the final casualties of the war. Diaz goes on to be haunted by the memory of his fallen comrades. The battle scenes all are graphically real and utterly shattering. They are loaded with potent symbolism, such as the image of a dead dove sinking to the bottom of some murky, polluted water and a statue of Christ lying lopsided after being destroyed by a bomb. By far the films highlight is the celebrated and visually potent “Return Of The Dead” sequence, among the most famed of its type in motion picture history. Here, the ghosts of the wars deceased victims collectively rise from their graves and march in unison. Many of the extras in this sequence were real-life World War I veterans who had been wounded and scarred in battle. In French with English subtitles. 73 minutes.

JOYEZ NOEL (Merry Christmas)

France 2005 Directed by Christian Carion

In 1914, World War I, the bloodiest war ever at that time in human history, was well under way. However on Christmas Eve, numerous sections of the Western Front called an informal, and unauthorized, truce where the various front-line soldiers of the conflict peacefully met each other in No Man’s Land to share a precious pause in the carnage with a fleeting brotherhood. This film dramatizes one such section as the French, British and German sides partake in the unique event, even though they are aware that their superiors will not tolerate its occurrence



U.S.A. 1971 Written and directed by Dalton Trumbo

A young American soldier, hit by a shell on the last day of the First World War, lies in a hospital bed, a quadruple amputee who has lost his eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He remains conscious, and able to reason, and tries to communicate to his doctors his wish that he be put on show in a carnival as a demonstration of the horrors of war.

The movie ends with no political solutions and without, in fact, even a political position. It simply states a case. Here was a patriotic young man who went off and was grievously wounded for no great reason, and whose conscious mind remains a horrible indictment of the system that sent all the young men away to kill each other. The soldier’s own answer to his situation seems like the only possible one. He wants them to put him in a sideshow, where, as a freak, he can cause people a moment’s thought about war. If they won’t do that, he wants them to kill him. The army won’t do either, of course.


 Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White)

Hungary 1967 Directed by Miklós Jancsó

The Red and the White (Hungarian: Csillagosok, katonák) is a 1967 film directed by Miklós Jancsó and dealing with the Russian Civil War. The original Hungarian title, Csillagosok, katonák, can be translated as “Stars on their Caps” (literally ‘starries, soldiers’), which, as with a number of Jancsó film titles, is a quote from a song. The film was listed to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was cancelled due to the events of May 1968 in France. It was voted as “Best Foreign Film of 1969” by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.

The film, a Russian-Hungarian co-production, was originally commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia in which the Bolsheviks seized power. However, Jancsó chose to set the action two years later in 1919 and showed Hungarian irregulars supporting the Communist “Reds” in fighting the Tsarist “Whites” as the two sides battled for control in the hills overlooking the Volga river. As well as deviating on the required setting, Jancsó also chose to use a radically different approach to the film than that expected. Rather than shooting a hagiographic account of the birth of Soviet Communism, Jancsó produced a profoundly anti-heroic film that depicts the senseless brutality of the Russian Civil War specifically and all armed combat in general.

Uomini contro (Many Wars Ago)

Italy 1971 Directed by Francesco Rosi 

Italy 1917 – society is violently split down the middle over the question of whether to continue intervention in the war. Anarchists and socialists are intent on causing so much trouble that continued intervention is impossible. Railway lines are ripped up, battle lines are drawn. On the Isonzo front a General smells socialism behind the troops reaction to his orders, a disastrous Italian attack upon the Austrian positions leads to a mutiny among the decimated Italian troops.


Mutiny on the Western Front

Australia 1979 Directed by Dick Dennison 

An account of the 119 Australian soldiers jailed by the British Military for desertion in 1918 (they later received a royal pardon). Possible re-master and re-release coming next year.

Capitaine Conan

France 1996 Directed by Bertrand Tavernier 

Conan (Philippe Torreton) burns his way across the chaotic battlefield while slashing throats and causing violent destruction. He commands a group of fifty “warriors” who differ in his mind from the “soldiers” of the rest of the army. Their method of attack is close and brutal, and lacks the impersonal technologies of war. They function as killing machines who feel alive amidst the dark recesses of trenches, camps, and the bloody battlefield.

In his new film Capitaine Conan, acclaimed French director Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight, Sunday in the Country’) takes us into the French army in the Balkans during the conclusion of World War I. The story begins in the days before the signed Armistice, and it quickly showcases the dark and destructive nature of the war. But this is not a typical war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan or Gettsyburg. Instead, a majority of the film focuses on the time following the end of the actual war.


C.K. dezerterzy (The Deserters)

Poland 1986 Directed by Janusz Majewski

The story begins in what is described in most synopses as an Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp. That may be the case. Although it’s not stated in the English subtitles for the film, there could be visual clues or something in the Polish dialogue indicating this setting. At any rate, it’s amusing that there only seems to be one man present who is clearly a prisoner of war, an Italian who is taken off of janitorial duty and adopted as the personal assistant of the new Lieutenant, von Nogay (Wojciech Pokora). Von Nogay even has the Italian taking care of his parrot, to whom he teaches anti-war, or at least anti-Austro-Hungarian phrases. Still, the rest of the soldiers on base are usually called “politically suspect” in most synopses, and it’s at least clear that they’re an ethnically diverse group (accurate for the demographics of Austria-Hungary at the time) of layabouts and troublemakers. In fact, their reputation for being an undisciplined group of partiers and subversive practical jokers is what precipitated von Nogay’s appointment to the base in the first place. Von Nogay is a tightly wound German, as were most officers in the Austro-Hungarian army, a strict disciplinarian—he’s almost abusive, who dedicates himself to getting the troupe back into shape. He’s outraged at their facial hair. He’s outraged that they do not know the German anthem. He’s outraged by just about everything he sees, and he probably has a right to be.

Horvatov izbor (Horvat’s Choice)

Croatia 1985 Directed by Eduard Galic

It is 1918, the evening of The Great War. Austro-Hungarian Empire is collapsing, and all around Croatia there are outlaw deserters, fighting in forests. A city journalist decides to become a country schoolteacher, just to find some peace in that restless political situation. But, neither the village is safe from the militaristic policy of the imperial government.

Lalie Polne (The Lilies of the Field)

Slovakia 1973 Directed by Elo Havetta

Havetta made his second film, The Lilies of the Field, during the period of so-called “normalization,” as a sort of postscript to the 1960s. The Lilies of the Field is the story of men who had returned home from World War I—not deserters, but soldiers who had been discharged and who did not know how to fit back into society, who did not know why they should go back to tilling the soil and looking forward to the harvest. Their disengagement is contrasted with the traditional life of farmers, which does not question life’s values and which considers work as natural as breathing. The young men, in their roles as vagrants, outcasts, and beggars―like the birds of the field that do not sew nor reap, yet sing beautifully―ask whether such life is not as valid as a life of work and a career.


United Kingdom



United Kingdom










Episode Fifteen  – Touches on mutiny among the French Regiments.

Episode Eighteen – Covers the rebellion on the Russian Front and the subsequent revolution.

Free DVD copies of the complete series were issued free with the Daily Mail. Copies can sometimes be found in charity shops or at car-boot sales.

WORLD WAR 1 in Colour


Why Blackadder Goes Forth could have been a lot funnier

Tommy Atkins’ hidden tactics to avoid combat on the Western Front in WW1 or why ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ could have been a lot funnier (and more subversive)…

A young Army, but the finest we have ever marshalled; improvised at the sound of the cannonade, every man a volunteer, inspired not only by love of country but by a widespread conviction that human freedom was challenged by military and Imperial tyranny, they grudged no sacrifice however unfruitful and shrank from no ordeal however destructive… If two lives or ten lives were required by their commanders to kill one German, no word of complaint ever rose from the fighting troops. No attack, however forlorn, however fatal, found them without ardour. No slaughter however desolating prevented them from returning to the charge. No physical conditions however severe deprived their commanders of their obedience and loyalty. Martyrs not less than soldiers, they fulfilled the high purpose of duty with which they were imbued. The battlefields of the Somme were the graveyards of Kitchener’s Army[1]

Winston Churchill speaking of British soldiers slaughtered during the Battle of the Somme (1916)

From now on the veterans, myself included, decided to do no more than was really necessary, following orders but if possible keeping out of harms way[2]

A Tommy speaks in the aftermath of the Somme (1916)

Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realized that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all[3]

The view from the front-line late in the war, a Tommy reminisces…

About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket at Etaples and cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped.[4]

Letter from a Tommy (1917)


Much of the media discussion concerning WW1 over the last few years has been centred on the Courts-Martial and executions of so-called ‘cowards’ from the British Infantry between 1914-1918. This debate has been focussed on getting pardons for those who were shot (often in front of their comrades) on the basis they were ‘shell-shocked’ or suffering from ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ rather than being ‘cowards’[5]. This victim-orientated narrative (there were 300 posthumous pardons issued by the state in 2006) implies that on the whole the issue of desertion and disobedience was limited to relatively isolated incidents[6]. Arguing about those who ‘refused’ the slaughter of WW1 on the basis of ‘cowardice’ or ‘mental illness’ provides both an exception to the rule (of supposed generally good discipline) and takes away the agency of soldiers, instead presenting the few miscreants as either embarrassing ‘gibbering weak-willed wrecks’ or deserving our sympathy as ‘damaged lunatics’. In contrast, very little attention has been paid to the mass of mutineers, strikers, agitators, shirkers and skulkers who were consciously and actively refusing and/or avoiding front-line combat and the war in general.

Mass refusals, disobedience, mutinies, strikes and out-right rebellion were all part of the British armed forces experience in WW1[7]These were all fairly explicit events and to a certain extent these hidden narratives are becoming part of the historical record despite the attempts of contemporary military censors and government ‘D’ notices on the press as well as the 100 year rule in suppressing military documents. Subsequent post-war collective memory loss related to dominant patriotic ideologies served to smother these events even further, but in the 1960s/70s a critical historical reappraisal of WW1 began, marked in the cultural sphere by the biting satire of the musical ‘Oh What a Lovely War’[8]. This reassessment of WW1 led to a series of historical and sociological examinations of the ‘life in the trenches’ in the succeeding decade. Some of these works provide a new and interesting angle on the subterranean (but at the same time mass) collective tactics British (and German) soldiers used for avoiding combat.

It is no surprise that in historical studies that examine tactics for refusing or avoiding warfare, the classical ‘lefty’ researcher will be drawn towards explicit (and often momentary) events, such as the mutiny or strike. Despite the taboo nature of such events for any nation-state it is hard for the authorities to completely supress or ‘air-brush’ such important histories from the record. However, these explicit ‘waves’ of incidents (such as in 1917-19) often mask a much greater ‘sea’ of more discrete discontent, disobedience and refusal which contextualise the subsequent mutinies. By way of example, it is as if criminal activity was only marked in the media by spectacular bank robberies, whilst many more instances of banal, clandestine and consequently unknown illegality such as fraud were successful and rife in the population. Searching for repertoires of tactics based on non-explicit fraudulent type activities, that achieve their success by their ‘hidden’ and ‘unwritten’ nature (else they would have been discovered and probably failed), is obviously problematic for the researcher. The widespread and successful use of such tactics necessarily implies an unrecorded subterranean form.

However, a pioneering sociologist and two historians touched on these tactics of refusal and avoidance in WW1 in a couple of excellent papers separated by ten years; the 1968 ‘The Sociology of Trench Warfare’ and in 1978 ‘Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: the Armed Forces and the Working Class[9]. These two papers provide the basis of this article.

The unwritten ‘agreement’

The first of the two studies, based upon participant accounts, battalion histories and military records, considers some interesting evidence for informal and collective collusion between British, French and German front-line troops on a mass scale. The form of this activity was effectively a ‘live and let live’ doctrine in complete opposition to army protocols and direct orders[10]on both sides of ‘No Man’s Land’.  The author describes this strategy as:

‘The Live and Let Live principle was an informal and collective agreement between front-line soldiers of opposing armies to inhibit offensive activity to a level mutually defined as tolerable.

Some primary source examples given in the paper of the tactics involved in this doctrine of refusal are presented below:

Refusal to engage on a daily basis

The first item has interest on two accounts. It suggests an extreme case in which all offensive activity is absent from the front. Secondly, the author is a staff captain, a member of the military elite, and his recorded reactions indicate the elite attitude to this phenomenon.

‘We were astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their lines. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things could not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of Live and Let Live.’[11]

‘Search and ignore’ patrols[12]

‘All patrols-English and German-are much averse to the death and glory principle, so on running up against one another . . . both pretend that they are Levites and the other is a good Samaritan, and pass by on the other side, no word spoken. For either side to bomb the other would be a useless violation of the unwritten laws that govern the relations of combatants permanently within a hundred yards’ distance of each other ….’[13]

Suspension of ‘sniping’

Sniping, however, like other offensive activity was on occasion regulated by the Live and Let Live principle. In the example below an artilleryman is in the trenches with an infantry-man as guide. His mission is to take him within 20 yards of the German line. He is cautious upon hearing this until his guide assures him ‘that they [the battalion holding the line] had a complete under-standing with the Hun infantry and that we should not be sniped’[14]

Refusal to rudely interrupt the ‘enemies’ daily life

In addition the norm regulated activities of a non-offensive nature; thus by mutual agreement working parties between the lines were often un-molested-these might include soldiers who emerged in daylight to cut grass in front of their trenches. Similarly each side would often allow the other to deliver the front-line rations without interference. One infantryman observes that ‘it is only common courtesy not to interrupt each other’s meals with intermittent missiles of hate’, while on occasion game was shot in no-man’s-land and retrieved with complete confidence in daylight’[15]

Ritualization of offensive activity

Firstly, sniping: ‘The only activity with which the battalion had to contend was sniping … not all of this was in deadly earnest. On the left the Germans amused themselves by aiming at spots on the walls of cottages and firing until they had cut out a hole ….’

Secondly, in relation to machine-gun operations, an infantryman observes, ‘all was quiet save for the stammer of a Lewis gun firing at the enemy’s rear line to conceal our lack of activity’

Finally, an unusual example in which ritualization occurs by explicit verbal contact. ‘Some of our saps are less than ten yards apart. At first we threw bombs at each other, but then we agreed not to throw any more … if a Frenchman had orders to throw bombs several times during the night he agreed with his “German comrade” to throw them to the left and right of the trench.’[16]

Routinization of offensive activity

Offensive activity would often follow a regular and unvarying pattern in terms of time and volume. A certain amount of ritualized and predictable activity was mutually accepted without the application of negative sanctions. Such episodes were referred to as the ‘morning hate’ or the ‘evening strafe’. A typical description of a routinized front is as follows: ‘in the middle of the morning a dozen or so 5.9 shells come over at regular half-minute intervals, and then the front nearly always remains quiet until stand-to at sunset, when there is usually some rifle-firing and a machine gun in Gommecourt shows us what it can do’[17]

These examples of a collective and cooperative ‘doctrine of refusal’ could be dismissed as merely exceptions to the rule, but the author follows this up with evidence from a study of two battalions of the British Army from 1915-18[18]. Often whole sections of the combat zone were considered ‘quiet fronts’, where tactics such as those outlined above were in operation. Ashworth notes that this study demonstrated that, outside of major offensives, somewhere between 35-50% of front-line sectors were considered ‘quiet’ whilst only 20-25% were considered ‘active’, with the remainder ‘inconclusive’. So the clandestine philosophy of ‘live and let live’, in all its diverse forms, may have been replicated by troops on both sides for large sections of the front-line and for considerable periods of time[19].

Non-verbal communication between the ‘lines’

So how was it possible that the British soldier was able to enact and organise the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with the ‘enemy’? Ashworth explains that this did not necessarily involve direct verbal communication between the opposing forces:

This understanding was tacit and covert; it was expressed in activity or non-activity rather than in verbal terms. The norm was supported by a system of sanctions. In the positive sense it constituted a system of mutual service, each side rewarded the other by refraining from offensive activity on the condition, of course, that this non-activity was reciprocated.

So an ‘understanding’ was reached, by careful study of action and reaction by the troops on both sides, about acceptable levels of violence. This was enforced by a negative sanction if the unwritten and non-verbalised ‘agreement’ was infringed as one British soldier recounted:

…the incident related occurred during an un-certain period during which the Germans appeared to be exceeding the existing level of offensiveness. ‘The Germans about this time also fired minenwerfers[20][see Fig. 1] into our poor draggled front line; this in-humanity could not be allowed and the rifle grenades that went over no-man’s-land in reply, for once almost carried out the staffs’ vicarious motto: give them three for every one. One glared hideously at the broken wood and clay flung up from our grenades and trench-mortar shells in the German trenches, finding for once that a little hate was possible.’ The arrival of the minenwerfer made clear the violation of the norm. The term ‘inhumanity’ is either a reference to the in-formal norm or else it is meaningless. The sanction was immediate: the maximum and officially prescribed offensiveness. The author, however, makes clear that such retaliation was not the rule.[21]

The disapproval (and reply) of the British troops to this unusual transgression was an attempt to re-establish the ‘quiet front’, rather than deal death to the ‘enemy’ as the Generals wanted on a day to day basis.  Interestingly this negative sanction also reciprocally applied to their own actions and those of their officers as was explained by another ‘Tommy’:

‘The most unpopular man in the trenches is undoubtedly the trench mortar officer, he discharges the mortar over the parapet into the German trenches . . . for obvious reasons it is not advisable to fire a trench mortar too often, at any rate from the same place. But the whole weight of public opinion in our trench is directed against it being fired from anywhere at all’[22]

In this case the decisions of the trench mortar officer could seriously damage the unwritten ‘agreement’ by unleashing the negative sanction, this time from the German-side, and in so doing endanger British lives.


Fig. 1: German soldiers loading a 25 cm Minenwerfer, World War I

Such tacit ‘agreements’ as ‘live and let live’ combined with the ritualization and routinization of offensive activity had to remain partially or wholly ‘hidden’ from the upper echelons of military command on both sides, else the ‘agreements’ would be forcibly broken by these powers. It had to ‘look’ and ‘sound’ like something was happening for the benefit of  the ‘brass’, even if the troops themselves were in little danger. Ashworth notes:

We have here a curious and paradoxical situation in which a ritualized and routinized structure of offensive activity functioned within the informal structure as a means of indirect communication between antagonists. The intention to Live and Let Live was often communicated by subtle yet meaningful manipulation of the intensity and rhythm of offensiveness. The tacitly arranged schedule which evolved established a mutually acceptable level of activity. To the uninitiated observer such a front line would appear to show a degree of offensive activity compatible with officially prescribed levels; for the participants, however, such bombs and bullets were not indicators of animosity but rather its contrary.[23]

So it was necessary that the collective ‘fraud’ was tacitly accepted by all (including front-line officers) and kept secret from the ‘brass’, as this was in the interests of both the British and German combatants.

Ashworth concludes his paper by noting that such forms of cooperation by supposed front-line adversaries began to undermine the nationalist propaganda which was intended to divide them from ‘the enemy’ and motivate them to kill each other. He argues:

The experience of tacit co-operation came as a reality shock to combatants. It demonstrated to each side that the other was not the implacably hostile and violent creature of the official image. The latter eroded and was replaced, as we have seen, by an indigenous definition based on common experience and situation. This deviant image stressed similarities rather than differences between combatants. The institutionally prescribed and dichotomous WE and THEY dissolved. The WE now included the enemy as the fellow sufferer. The THEY became the staff.[24]

This change in relationship may provide significant background context for the mutinies and strikes which ripped through the Russian, French, German and British armies to varying degree from 1917-19.

Skulkers, shirkers and deserters

Another ‘hidden’ aspect of the ‘Tommie’s’ war resistance is examined in the second of the two papers by David Englander and James Osborne. Desertion is generally understood to mean ‘running away’ from the front and it is certainly true that the official desertion rate in WW1 was significantly higher[25] than WW2 despite the serious nature of the offence during the former conflict. However, in which direction you ‘run’ is also an interesting point. According to the British Army Council:

‘desertion to the enemy….was a serious and growing problem particularly after Passchendaele’ [June-Nov 1917]

And they added in March 1918 that:

‘During the present war a large number of surrenders have taken place, which if evidence could be produced, would be found to have been without any justification’

A contemporary right-wing military historian, a Colonel, stated that he had:

‘direct evidence’ that British troops deserted to the enemy ‘in considerable numbers’ during the battle of the Ancre in August 1916, as they were again to do the following October.[26]

What was the attraction of ‘deserting to the enemy’ to become a POW? On the face of it, not much. So were these miscreants ‘cowards’ and/or ‘traitors’, or was something else going on, another collective ‘fraud’ perhaps? A clue to the wiles of the ‘Tommy’ war resister were noted in this statement by a War Office Committee:

‘The recent exchange of prisoners while the war is in progress and the campaign largely undertaken in the Press of this country, in order to influence the nation to look upon prisoners of war indiscriminately as objects of sympathy, and indeed, almost as heroes, will in the opinion of the Army Council go far towards undermining the fighting discipline of the Army.’[27]

So it appears many late-war battle-weary British combat troops chose the option of ‘deserting to the enemy’ and becoming a POW for self-preservation. Knowing that their stay in an enemy prison camp (surely better and safer than the trenches?) would be fairly short as the war was coming to an end and the great British press was campaigning for their ‘exchange’; consequently the option of ‘running in the wrong direction’ became very attractive. In fact an added bonus was, with a prisoner exchange, they could return to ‘Blighty’ as a ‘war-hero’ and of course very much alive. This area of military research is notoriously difficult to ascertain as it is of course a taboo subject, but the comments of the Army Council alone suggest something significant and collective was going on at the front which could seriously undermine the morale and effectiveness of the British Army.

Self-incarceration as a ‘hidden’ collective survival strategy also had an interesting parallel behind friendly lines. Consider this statement from General Childs who spotted the following in 1915 when on a visit to G.H.Q. St Omer:

‘I met about 120 soldiers being marched under escort through the streets. They were singing and whistling and in very good humour. I ascertained that they were all on their way to the base to undergo punishment in the military prisons there. It was pretty obvious, at once, that such a state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, as it was evident that certain types of men would commit crimes solely to avoid duty at the front[28]

This may have been a ‘hidden’ strategy to avoid front-line combat but it was not a new problem for the British Army, as Englander and Osborne note:

During the Boer War, for example, front-line troops deliberately flouted the law, confident that misbehaviour would entail their withdrawal to the base for punishment[29]

In fact the ‘problem’ of self-incarceration as a means to avoid combat created significant difficulties, particularly for stretched armies undergoing intensive fighting. If troops committed misdemeanours then they should be Court Martialled and typically sent to Military Prison. However, this removed them from the front-line and depleted numbers, especially if a collective strategy of refusal was in operation. Consequently, a series of changes to Army policy were introduced both before and during WW1.

‘Field punishments’ were introduced into the British Army in the 1880s to combat such strategies by keeping the ‘criminals’ in the front-line. Rather than the costly and depleting Courts Martial-Military prison route, ‘Field Punishments’ were typically aimed at public suffering and humiliation for soldiers who had committed fairly minor offences. Wikipedia states:

Field Punishment Number One [see Fig. 2]…consisted of the convicted man being placed in fetters and handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel, for up to two hours per day. During the early part of World War I, the punishment was often applied with the arms stretched out and the legs tied together, giving rise to the nickname “crucifixion”[30]

Unsurprisingly such sanctions were very unpopular amongst the troops and although they may have stemmed the tide of self-incarceration it was a ‘double-edged’ sword for the Military as it bred further resentment. In addition to the Field Punishment system, General Childs (who had spotted the happy prisoners in St Omer), drafted up a new protocol, the Army Suspension of Sentences Act. Englander and Osborne note that the Act:

‘fulfilled the basic tenet of military law in that the penalty did nothing to precipitate a man-power shortage. In consequence, an offender might remain on active service despite conviction, the army reserving the right to acquit or impose sentence at will’[31]

The interest of the historian in these revised punishment measures should not be primarily concerned with their effect, rather, why they were being introduced and enforced during WW1. They are a sign that something ‘hidden’ was underway; in fact it appears the reformed punishments were probably a counter-response by the Army Council to a collective strategy for avoiding combat.

Fig. 2: Illustration of Field Punishment No.1

Fig. 2: Illustration of Field Punishment No.1

For many British soldiers (perhaps the less desperate) the object was to avoid the misery of either the trench or incarceration in Military prison as a result of a court martial or as a POW. These ‘shirkers’ and ‘skulkers’, as they were labelled by the army leadership, practised covert, subtle tactics which trod the line between both of these unpalatable options. The ‘base camps’ (such as Etaples, see Fig. 3), effectively staging points through which tens of thousands of troops heading to combat on the front-line passed, became crowded, chaotic and unruly as the war progressed. These massive, sprawling logistic centres were perfect for ‘professional malingerers and shirkers’ who ‘refined the practice of [avoiding front-line combat] to an art’.[32] It is difficult to gauge the extent of such practices for obvious evidential reasons but Englander and Osborne use an indirect approach to gain some evidence for the existence of a chronic ‘problem’. The authors note that the numbers of military police per serviceman grew at almost an exponential rate during the four years of war. In 1914 there was approximately one MP for every 3,000 soldiers; by 1918 this had grown to one MP for every 300 servicemen; an increase by a factor of ten[33]. So something was happening; and it appears like a serious increase in ‘criminality’, ‘disorder’ and a significant breakdown in discipline were occurring. Perhaps a large part of the repressive effort was aimed at ‘ferreting out’ the growing numbers of invisible ‘skulkers’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘deserters’?

Fig. 3: The British Army Base Camp at Etaples, France showing a hospital section

Fig. 3: The British Army Base Camp at Etaples, France showing a hospital section

If our ‘Tommy’ could now not avoid combat by being sent to Military prison or the opportunities for day-to-day ‘shirking’ and ‘skulking’ were reduced by increased repression by the Military Police, then there were, other, more pleasurable ways to get out of the ‘front-line’. Most of us are aware of self-mutilation as a strategy for avoiding war, through the proverbial expression ‘shooting oneself in the foot’. However, according to British Army sources, less than 1% of courts-martial offences accounted for such acts of self-mutilation.[34] A much more favourable strategy for ‘Tommy’ was self-inflicted Venereal Disease. The equivalent of approximately two divisions of the British Army in WW1 (about 20-30,000 troops) were ‘out-of-action’ at any one time with this affliction[35]. Once again the consciousness of this act is hard to prove, but it is not unreasonable to assume that lots of unprotected sex and subsequent disease was a more attractive way out of the misery of the front-line than a ‘heroic’ death or serious injury.

Conclusion: Tommies, ‘apathetic victims’ or ‘cunning foxes’?

It is no surprise that the ‘combat avoidance’ tactics outlined by the two papers, ranging from tacit co-operation on the front-line between opposing forces, through self-incarceration or desertion to the enemy to shirking, skulking and self-imposed VD, remained the concealed ‘unwritten rules’ for survival in the military environment. But why were they not exposed in the social sphere during the relative security of post-war civilian Britain? There is probably is a simple reason for this. The supposed ‘victory’ of Allied Forces in WW1 and attempts to rally the British population around this nationalist rejoicing (which was vital during the industrial and political upheavals of 1919) effectively smothered these ‘hidden’ tactics. The post-war ‘hero’ culture was not an environment where you would be likely to admit to ‘avoiding combat’ as a veteran of the trenches. It was much easier to keep ‘mum’ and remain a silent  ‘hero’, than to admit to the unpatriotic reality. So Tommy’s hidden ‘knowledge’, the repertoire of tactics that enacted this ‘doctrine of refusal’ during WW1, declined in the same way as a ‘dying language’ or a ‘thieves kant’, with fewer and fewer demobilised adherents admitting to speaking its tongue.

The perceptions of the WW1 British soldier by establishment historians and military commentators range from the optimistic (and fantastical) of Winston Churchill (see Page 1), as loyal, brave and steadfast  through to the negative and derogatory which argued that the Tommy was driven by the war to ‘self-regarding and indolent apathy’ or ‘reduced to a perpetual state of morbid introspection and incipient breakdown’[36]. In each case ‘Tommy Atkins’ is individualised, lacks agency and is unable or unwilling to act against his miserable condition. Ashworth and Englander and Osborne’s excellent papers provide some counter-evidence for these views. The authors’ demonstrate that British resistance to WW1 on the Western Front was not just the province of the spectacular (and momentary) mutiny, strike or rebellion, but in fact also took an every-day subterranean form which evaded both the military authorities and the historian. Rather than seeing Tommy Atkins and his comrades as ‘apathetic victims’ perhaps they should be viewed as a collective of ‘wily foxes’ avoiding both their misery and potential demise with a ‘cunning plan from the University of Cunning’.

Epilogue (Jan 2014)

This article was originally written for Bristol Radical History Group in April 2013 (see http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/why-blackadder-goes-forth-could-have-been-a-lot-funnier/). Since then we have become aware of a more comprehensive work on the subject: ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The live and let live system’ Tony Ashworth (Pan Grand Strategy Series) 1979. This is a follow up to Ashworth’s paper of 1968 ‘The sociology of Trench Warfare’ which was the basis of of part of this article. We recommend this book to readers who want to delve more into this vital hidden history of WW1.


  1. [1] Quoted from Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class David Englander and James Osborne (1978) The Historical Journal, 21, p.593-4
  2. [2] Quoted from Englander and Osborne (1978) p.598.
  3. [3] Quoted from The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 A. E. Ashworth The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), p.418.
  4. [4] Quoted from Englander and Osborne (1978) p.597.
  5. [5] See for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4796579.stm
  6. [6] About five million British people were under arms in the latter part of the war. About 3,000 British soldiers were condemned to death by Courts Martial; the majority of sentences were commuted to imprisonment. Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class David Englander and James Osborne (1978) The Historical Journal, 21, p.595.
  7. [7] Putkowski states that there were over 300,000 courts martials between 1914 and 1920 and he estimates that about 250,000 British troops were involved in ‘strikes, demonstrations and other forms of direct action on an unprecedented scale’ towards the end of the war; A2 and the ‘Reds in Khaki’ (J. Putkowski Lobster 27 1994). Other secondary sources of interest are: The Soldiers Strikes of 1919 (A. Rothstein Journeyman 1980), Mutinies (D. Lamb Solidarity 1975), The Unknown Army (G. Dallas & D. Gill Verso 1985), Mutiny (L. James Buchan & Enright 1987), British Army Mutineers 1914-22 (J. Putkowski Francis Boutle 1998) and The Apathetic and the Defiant (Edt. C. Mantle Dundurn Group 2007).
  8. [8] Oh, What a Lovely War! originated as a radio play, The Long Long Trail in December 1961, and was transferred to stage by communists Gerry Raffles and Joan Littlewood in their Theatre Workshop created in 1963. Both were under surveillance by the British State as ‘subversives’ in the 1960s.
  9. [9] The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 A. E. Ashworth The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), pp. 407-423. Jack, Tommy, and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class David Englander and James Osborne (1978) The Historical Journal, 21, pp. 593-621
  10. [10] Ashworth outlines British military offensive doctrine in stating ‘In all situations the soldier was expected to use the weapons at his disposal for aggressive action against the enemy. The exemplary soldier, in terms of elite values, was the soldier who, on his own initiative, instigated action likely to cause the enemy deprivation. The object of war was to eliminate the enemy both physically and morally. In short the soldier should be saturated with what in military jargon was termed the ‘offensive’ or ‘fighting’ spirit. Offensive activity was the product of the soldier; as far as the military organization was concerned, offensive activity was to be restricted or limited only by fatigue, orders to the contrary or the shortage of weapons and ammunition’ Ashworth (1968) p.409.
  11. [11] Ashworth (1968) p.411-2
  12. [12] This is a reference to a ‘search and avoid’ missions, a similar mass refusal tactic in the Vietnam War. G.I.’s would be ordered to go on ‘Search and Destroy’ missions (i.e. find and engage the enemy). In reality the patrols would aim to avoid the enemy and combat at all costs. See the excellent pamphlet on armed forces resistance to the Vietnam War, ‘Olive Drab Rebels’ at: http://www.prole.info/texts/olivedrabrebels.html. Also this authors introduction to the film ‘Sir, No Sir’ at http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/sir-no-sir/.
  13. [13] Ashworth (1968) p.412
  14. [14] Ashworth (1968) p.412
  15. [15] Ashworth (1968) p.412-3
  16. [16] Ashworth (1968) p.413
  17. [17] Ashworth (1968) p.414
  18. [18] Two Battalions were studied, the 7th Royal Sussex and the 2nd Royal Welch over the period June 1915-Jan 1918.  Ashworth (1968) p.422 Note 16.
  19. [19] Of course, direct fraternisation between opposing troops is part of our collective memory as ‘The Christmas Truce of December 1914’. This event however was neither momentary nor localised as outlined by the following piece: http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/balls-to-war/
  20. [20] Minenwerfer (‘mine launcher’) was a class of short range mortars used extensively during the First World War by the German Army. The weapons were intended to be used by engineers to clear obstacles including bunkers and barbed wire; that longer range artillery would not be able to accurately target. See Fig.1.
  21. [21] This author’s emphasis in bold. Ashworth (1968) p.414.
  22. [22] This author’s emphasis in bold. Ashworth (1968) p.415.
  23. [23] This author’s emphasis in bold. Ashworth (1968) p.414.
  24. [24] This author’s emphasis in bold. Ashworth (1968) p.421.
  25. [25] In WW1 the rate was approximately 10.3%, with 6.9% in WW2. Englander and Osborne (1978) p.595.
  26. [26] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.596.
  27. [27] This author’s emphasis in bold. Englander and Osborne (1978) p.596.
  28. [28] This author’s emphasis in bold. Englander and Osborne (1978) p.597-8.
  29. [29] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.597.
  30. [30] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_punishment. According to this Wiki page, Field Punishment No.1 was employed over 60,000 times in WW1. A commanding officer could award field punishment for up to 28 days, while a court martial could award it for up to 90 days.
  31. [31] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.598.
  32. [32] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.598. Of course the controversial 1980s TV series, The Monocled Mutineer, drew attention to Percy Topliss as an impersonator of British officers and fraudster at Etaples and elsewhere, something which was apparently easy to achieve in the ‘organised chaos’ of these logistic camps.
  33. [33] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.595.
  34. [34] 273 cases of self-mutilation out of one million British casualties were recorded. Englander and Osborne (1978) p.598.
  35. [35] Englander and Osborne (1978) p.598.
  36. [36] Quoted from Englander and Osborne (1978) p.594.