Fenner Brockway in the Great War

Brockway_Fenner_1915When the War broke out, Brockway was in Manchester, editing Labour Leader for the ILP (the Independent Labour Party); he had just got married, to Lilla Harvey Smith. When war broke out, Brockway declared (without consultation) that the ILP was opposed to it: he ran a slogan on top of the paper “German Socialists Are Our Comrades Still”.

The ILP was indeed hostile to the war, and its meetings were often broken up by the “patriotic”. In Bolton, Brockway stood against a wall as flying stones dented it, and in Marple a group of five young men beat him up and were about to throw him in the canal when they heard someone approaching. Brockway found the atmosphere very different in Glasgow, where opposition to the war was more open (urging strikes and boycotts), and more popular. Brockway saw thousands marching through the streets singing a song written by James Maxton:

O I’m Henry Dubb
And I won’t go to war
Because I don’t know
What they’re fighting for.
To hell with the Kaiser
To hell with the Tsar
To hell with Lord Derby
And also GR [Georgius Rex, presumably] (quoted Brockway 37-38).

Maxton ended up being imprisoned in Calton gaol, Edinburgh. Brockway says that Maxton met a thief who was doing three months, who asked him why he was in for a year. “Sedition,” Jimmy said. “Ah,” said the thief, “they’re always hard on sex” (quoted 38).

The offices of the Labour Leader were only raided once, and the Public Prosecutor sought to have an issue destroyed because of an article about two dying soldiers, one British and one German, who found out they were at root the same. Brockway fought the case in court, and won. On another occasion the police tried to censor an article by Clive Bell, and an advert for a book by Bell; Brockway went straight to C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian, who wrote a leader about the issue, giving the ILP a lot of free publicity.

Early in the war Brockway’s wife suggested that an organisation be formed of young men who intended to refuse war service. Brockway launched an appeal for members on 12 November 1914, and since the response was good, the No-Conscription Fellowship was founded. Brockway describes the cloak-and-dagger methods they used to evade the police, including the use of code and disguise.

The most dramatic event of the early years of the war was the attempt by the military to send 37 conscientious objectors to France, where they could shoot them for refusing orders. On their way to the docks in Southampton they threw out a message to the NCF, which was picked up by a railwayman who belonged to the ILP. Through contacts, members of the NCF lobbied against this. Asquith sent a telegraph forbidding the transfer to France. Seventeen had already gone, however; they were tortured, and eventually condemned to death: at the last minute the CO added”commuted to ten years penal servitude” (quoted 46). All seventeen were in a convict prison until the summer of 1919.

In August 1916 Brockway and his wife moved to London. Brockway was uncomfortable telling people to resist attempts to conscript when he himself was exempt, as the editor of a newspaper. He became NCF secretary. His wife and baby were evicted from their lodging in Bryanston Square by the landlady, after the police arrived to arrest him.

His first  imprisonment, along with the rest of the committee, was for distributing a leaflet against the Conscription Act. They refused to pay the £100 fine, and were taken off to Pentonville for two months. The first week they were in solitary confinement; after that they had to sew mailbags. Brockway was with Sir Roger Casement when he was removed from the cells for his execution (the ordinary prisoners were taking bets on whether he would be reprieved until the last minute).

Two months after his release he was arrested again under the Military Service Act. He had been before two tribunals, and offered exemption from conscription if he would do work of national importance within 25 miles of his home: a Quaker on the tribunal suggested that working for peace was work of national importance.

I took the view, however, that any duties under the Military Service Act would compromise principle. I ought not to get out of service by accepting an alternative at home. […] I was taken to Bow Street Police Station for the night, appeared in Court the next morning, and was handed over to a military escort for Scotland Yard Barracks. I prevailed on my soldier guard to take lunch en route at the Strand Corner House, where we were joined by my wife and NCF colleagues for a gay farewell meal. After a brief stay at Scotland Yard I was taken to the Tower of London (48).

When there, he refused the order of a sergeant to line up in front of a colonel. “I’m sorry, sir,” Brockway told the colonel, “but I’m not prepared to obey any military order”. When the colonel and the sergeant left, the other soldier prisoners gathered around him, laughing and slapping him on the back. “Told the colonel off proper, you did” (48). He was sent off to Chester Castle, where conditions were much worse. And he realised that efforts were being made by the authorities to rid themselves of this nuisance. Once evening he was marched off to the Officers’ Quarters, and a senior officer asked him why he didn’t want to do press work for a department in Whitehall, as an experienced journalist. “You want me to use my pen for the war when I won’t use a gun?” (49).

Brockway conducted his own defence in the court martial, though in an odd way: he had mastered the military regulations, and had to help his prosecutors find the right passages. He was sentenced to three months hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs. There were around 600 objectors already there. His first campaign in prison was to fight for the right to a vegetarian diet: he did this by going on hunger strike.

It is not clear from his autobiography what happened next. He was transferred to Wandsworth, and then back to Chester. At that point he was sentenced to two years with hard labour: he went to Walton Prison in Liverpool.

I entered in a new mood. When first imprisoned I was prepared to accept the punishment, proud to undergo it as a witness to anti-war convictions. Now I had no longer the spiritual exaltation of a novice and was not in the temper to accept penalties gladly. I found myself in a hall with sixty other objectors and we developed elaborate plans to overcome the rule with forbade speech and communication (50-51).

They communicated between cells; Brockway secretly produced a prison paper, the Walton Leader, written on toilet paper; he even smuggled out a one-act play.

Eventually Brockway decided on open rebellion. He and four others went to the Governor to tell him that the prohibition on speech and communication was inhuman. The other objectors joined in the protest, and for ten days the Governor allowed them effectively to run their lives in their own hall. Then the five ring-leaders were sent off to other prisons. Brockway was sent to Lincoln, and put in solitary confinement (with one month—all the doctor would allow—on bread and water). He read, though he was only allowed one book at a time. For a while it was the New Testament in Esperanto, which he had never learned.

His break-through came when Alastar Macaba, the Sinn Fein MP for Sligo, who was in the prison with Eamon De Valera and others, threw a note into his open window: “We are Irish and can do anything for you—except get you out” (55). The Irish smuggled out letters, and brought in newspapers for him. He rejoiced when De Valera, Milroy and three others managed to escape back to Ireland: “the Lincoln prison had ludicrous security precautions” (56).

An exhilarating item of news reached me through the Sinn Feiners. As seems inevitable when prisoners are isolated, rumours spread outside that I was suffering from tuberculosis. The shop stewards in Lincoln’s engineering industry heard it, and, amazingly (they were making munitions), they called a one-day stoppage whilst a deputation waited on the prison Governor and Medical Officer who justifiably reassured them. It was a remarkable gesture of solidarity and it was good to know that I was not forgotten (56).

A warder told Brockway on the morning of 11 November 1918 that the Germans had been given until 11 a.m. to surrender, so he knew what was happening when the Lincoln hooters went off. But he was not released until April 1919. He had a partly paralysed leg, so it was six months before he could work again. His wife met him at King’s Cross, and they both joined their infant daughters in a pacifist community at Standford-le-Hope in Essex. A few weeks later the War Office informed him that he had been discharged from the Army, and “if I ever attempted to join the forces in the future I would be subject to two years imprisonment” (57).

He took up the job of London correspondent for the Labour Leader (he had hoped to going back to being its editor, but Philip Snowden had that in mind for himself). He had not been in London for long when he got a cheque for £100 from an Australian pacifist. This man had asked Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and E.D. Morel whom they thought was the bravest pacifist in the War, and they had named him. Brockway found it difficult to accept. He was even more flabbergasted when he met the Australian in person, and was given £1000 to buy a house. Keir Cottage at Thorpe Bay, named after his hero Keir Hardie, became his base for future campaigning.

My sole source so far is Towards Tomorrow: The Autobiography of Fenner Brockway (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1977).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s