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Anti-war Voices
Espionage, propaganda and citizenship
A patriotic home front
The war and the changing face of British society
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Anti-war voices


Opponents of the war in August 1914 were in a small minority. As Glossary - opens new windowRamsay MacDonald asserted gloomily at this time, the conflict with Germany 'would be the most popular war [Britain] had ever fought'. Shortly after Britain's entry into the war, he resigned the Labour Party leadership to the pro-war Glossary - opens new windowArthur Henderson.

Anti-war voices in both the Labour and Liberal parties, which had been numerous during the Glossary - opens new windowJuly crisis, largely disappeared after 4 August. In the press and among the general public, too, a pro-war consensus quickly became apparent. The anti-war appeal to British workers in the 6 August issue of the Labour Leader, the newspaper of the Glossary - opens new windowIndependent Labour Party (ILP), fell on deaf ears.

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The rise of anti-war feeling

In 1915, however, the patriotic unity of August 1914 began to dissipate. Anti-war voices, though diverse and relatively few in number, gained greater authority. Dissenters ranged from pacifists opposed to all war on principle to those who merely disagreed with the government about how the present war should be conducted and concluded.

By October, the Labour Leader had doubled its pre-war circulation figures to more than 40,000. Aside from the ILP, issues relating to the damaging conduct of the war through 'secret diplomacy' and the need to avoid a vindictive peace were raised by a more select group of prominent intellectuals and politicians. Formed in August 1914, the Glossary - opens new windowUnion of Democratic Control (UDC). numbered among its members MacDonald, Glossary - opens new windowNorman Angell and Glossary - opens new windowBertrand Russell.

Union of Democratic Control - opens new window
Union of Democratic Control

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The Spotlights on historyanti-conscription campaign that took root in 1915 was one issue on which the British left was almost completely united. It was led by the Glossary - opens new windowNo-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation formed in November 1915 by those opposed to conscription on political grounds (mostly ILP members) and for religious reasons (in particular, the Glossary - opens new windowQuakers).

At the peak of its influence in 1916, the Fellowship comprised roughly 12,000 members. Half of them - including its president, Glossary - opens new windowClifford Allen - served prison sentences for their opposition to compulsory military service. Indeed, the Fellowship's chief task from early 1916 onwards was to provide financial, legal and moral support to the Spotlights on historyconscientious objectors who refused to join the British armed forces.

Bertrand Russell - opens new window
Bertrand Russell: letter

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The anti-conscription movement in Britain had no parallels in any of the other belligerent countries, where conscription was a long-established norm. But it never developed into a more general anti-war campaign. Opinion among dissenters was simply too varied for this to happen, to say nothing of the limits placed on their activities by public hostility towards 'peace cranks'. In addition, the growth of any sort of mass anti-war movement was actively hindered by the raft of security and propaganda measures undertaken by the British state during the First World War.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

PRO 30/69: Papers of Ramsay MacDonald.
HO 45/11012/314670: Home Office file on the pacifist activities of Bertrand Russell, 1916-21.
HO 45/10786/297549: Home Office file on the wartime publications of the ILP, 1915-17.
HO 45/10814/312987: Home Office file on the pacifist activities of the Snowdens, 1916-18.


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