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Issue 472, 5 November 2001

War resistance in West Yorkshire – the Huddersfield hotspot of pacifism

A white feather – the symbol of cowardice and failing one’s country – was handed out scornfully to those who refused to fight during the First World War. The accepted historical view of conscientious objectors in that ‘war to end all wars’ is of a tiny minority, standing alone against the overwhelming tide of patriotism and jingoism which swept the country.

But is this the true picture? Bretton history lecturer Cyril Pearce has found that events in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield tell a very different story.

Conscription was introduced in the 1916 Military Services Act, but the law did allow for exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection. All those who claimed exemption were sent before a local tribunal, appointed by the local council, to have the sincerity of their claim assessed.

When one of the major figures of the non-conscription movement in Huddersfield, Arthur Gardiner, appeared before the tribunal, the town hall was packed with supporters and the atmosphere was very charged.

Left – the broad arrow badge of the no-conscription federation

"I interviewed Arthur about the hearing, and he described a dramatic courtroom scene," Cyril Pearce recalls. "He was very articulate and made an impassioned defence of his views. The tribunal had never come across such an articulate anti-war statement before and were unsure what they should do, so they granted him a month’s exemption from military duties.

"When Arthur complained that one month was not good enough, the tribunal’s chair, the mayor, told him they’d made the decision because they wanted him to appeal so that such arguments could be judged by a higher authority. It was very clear they didn’t know what to do with Arthur and wanted someone else to make the decision.

"There were many people in Huddersfield who were bewildered by the anti-war case but there were other well-placed people who had a different and more sympathetic view."

Huddersfield’s history during WW1 is charted in Cyril Pearce’s new book, Comrades in Conscience – an English community’s opposition to the Great War. Using local sources, including the testimonies of conscientious objectors themselves, he shows how objection to the war in the town was not restricted to a few individuals, but was part of a wider movement, supported or at least tolerated by the local community.

Cyril Pearce said: "Historians have tended to portray conscientious objectors in the First World War as heroic or misguided individuals, lonely and isolated in the face of general support for the war. By looking at a local picture, rather than trying to generalise nationally, I’ve been able to place objectors in context, and show how the individuals, and the groups they belonged to, were expressing a broader community consciousness."

Conscientious research – Cyril Pearce

Pearce’s interest in the subject began when he met many former WW1 conscientious objectors in the town while researching labour history in West Yorkshire. He realised that the picture they painted was very different from how historians saw the national experience.

He explains: "Huddersfield’s opposition to the war got most of its energy, personnel and organisation from a local Labour and socialist movement which was consistently opposed to the war. In almost every area of working-class social and political life, the anti-war elements were in charge – in the local parties, the socialist Sunday schools and clubs, and even most of the major trade union branches."

In addition to this groundswell of opposition at a grass-roots level, there was sufficient support amongst the well-to-do and well-connected middle classes to ensure the conscientious objectors were dealt with by the tribunals less severely than might otherwise have been the case. A general mood of scepticism and wariness towards the war meant that the conscientious objectors weren’t victimised in the town.

Nevertheless, very few applicants gained total exemption, especially those arguing on political rather than religious grounds. Where a claim was successful, the objector would be sent to perform non-combatant duties. When a claim was rejected, they would be sent to the military.

Some objectors refused to answer their call-up papers, and went underground; others joined the ranks but refused to obey orders and so were court-martialled. Many ended up in prisons, or later in work camps set up in local prisons – including Wakefield – for the duration of the war or generally longer.

Rather than appeal, Arthur went on the run with another objector, Percy Ellis, and ended up in Liverpool, where they worked on the docks for a while. Although offered a passage to Canada, they decided to go home and wait to be arrested.

Huddersfield conscientious objectors in Wakefield prison. Arthur Gardiner is seated on the left, front row.

Percy was arrested first and, as agreed, Arthur gave himself up. Once in the military, he refused to obey orders, was court-martialled and sent to prison. There he suffered a nervous breakdown, and was sent instead to a work centre where he remained until after the end of the war.

Arthur Gardiner was one of 120 conscientious objectors who appeared before the tribunal in Huddersfield. However, Cyril Pearce feels that official records may be misleading.

"If you add up those who went to tribunal and work centres, you get part of the picture. But there is no record of those who didn’t pursue their objection, who gave in faced with what it meant to resist. There were undoubtedly more people who didn’t want to fight than we know of. In one local paper, recording the death of a young man, they described him as ‘a soldier who still kept his views."

One question which remains following Pearce’s documentation of Huddersfield’s history during the First World War, is whether, as an apparent ‘hotspot’ of pacifism, it was an anomaly.

Pearce is now hunting through the records to document all the objectors across the country into one database, so he can plot whether any other hotspots exist.

"The records of individuals who went before the tribunals were destroyed in the 1920s," he explains. "The only way to uncover the detail now is to follow the fragments of information in press reports.

"War resisters in the Great War were under-reported, but a journal produced by the No-Conscription Federation – The Tribunal – has records of individuals going before tribunals, and to prison, army camp, army prison and work centres. By logging their movements it’s possible to see where they came from, and what they went through."

Having gathered over a thousand records so far, Pearce has identified other areas where concentrations of people opposed the war, notably, Blackburn, Smethwick and parts of London.

"It looks like Huddersfield wasn’t an exception, which means that what is accepted as the national picture of reaction to the war doesn’t reflect reality. People pontificate about a national history, but a national history is made of local and regional variations. We don’t yet have a true national history of the war based on these differences. I hope that my book can help to rewrite some of these treasured notions of our history – from the bottom up."

The official launch of Comrades in Conscience – the story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War by Cyril Pearce is at Huddersfield Town Hall – where the tribunals were held – on 9 November 2001. Orders before that date are at a special price of £12 (full price £15). Email comrades@francisboutle.demon.co.uk

See a transcipt of Arthur’s defence on the Reporter website.



 
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