What were the beliefs of the socialist anti-conscriptionists during World War One, and how were they relevant?


This project aims to investigate and analyse some of the protestation against and reactions to the introduction of conscription in Britain with the passing of the Military Service Act of January 1916, focusing on the dissent coming from the British left wing.  More moderate Socialists made up the largest part of left wing opposition, with organisations such as the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain taking a firm stance against compulsory service and the largest anti-conscriptionist organisation, the No-Conscription Organisation, being made up predominately of Socialists.  More radical communists also fiercely objected and fought against it, and I will attempt to analyse both components of the left wing and consider their variation.  First this project will study two similar but certainly not identical anti-conscription documents – an ILP pamphlet entitled ‘The Perils of Conscription’ from 1915, and an article from the Communist newspaper ‘Freedom’.  Both these sources were produced before conscription was officially introduced.  I will then look at a poem called ‘The Secret!’ written by Herbert W. Whatley, a conscientious objector and socialist, in April 1917, which demonstrates the prevalence of liberal attitudes towards war and conflict throughout the First World War.


Analysis of the relevance of the British attitude to conscription and their anti-war sentiment during World War One has been slow to develop.  Cyril Pearce and Niall Ferguson are among those who have recently assessed that the feeling against war was more considerable than previously thought [1], and Trevor Wilson has written suggesting that the size of the anti-war movement was of secondary importance to the fact that it existed at all, as it demonstrated Britain’s ability to conduct a modern war ‘without abandoning all liberal precepts’.  Wilson writes that the socialist anti-war movement exhibits that ‘despite many lapses into beastliness, the fundamentals of a liberal community had been preserved.’ [2]  The view that the anti-conscription movement was more widespread than initially thought would be difficult to assess by looking at only three sources, but I will attempt to analyse the argument that it was part of the facilitation of the survival of liberal ideas to a certain extent.  In my view, anti-conscriptionism is essential to the study of anti-militarism more generally as it forced the participation of all members of society – beyond January 1916, passive or inactive objection was no longer a possibility for men in opposition to the First World War.  


Those against conscription, especially the conscientious objectors, were hounded both officially by the government and unofficially by the general public.  Caroline Moorhead has written that ‘pacifism is basically the most lonely of beliefs, held for the most part in private and sustained in isolation often in the face of powerful opposition’ [3], and this is patently true of pacifists living in Jingoist British wartime society.  The motivations of those brave enough to stand against conscription must have been strong.  It would be extremely challenging and perhaps reductive to attempt to cover all the varied motivations of the anti-conscriptionists and conscientious objectors, so this project will not address those who objected on purely humanitarian or religious grounds, although there was arguably some crossover between these and the main political motivations I will be focusing on.  While I agree with Wilson’s view, I believe it can be taken further, as I will discuss in this project.  I will also argue that the anti-conscription movement was entirely important as it acutely displays many of the class tensions within early 20th century society.  The intention of this work is to examine the motivations behind anti-conscriptionist thought, while contributing to the recent historiography that places greater emphasis on its relevance. 


'The Perils of Conscription'


Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism


The Left Wing Anti-Conscriptionists: Moderate and Marxist

Conscription was a contentious issue long before it was introduced in 1916, and many organisations foresaw its introduction when war broke out and began arguing against it early on.  One such organisation was the ILP, and another the newspaper Freedom, which described itself as a ‘Journal of Anarchist Communism’.  The ILP issued a pamphlet entitled ‘The Perils of Conscription’, which outlined many of the socialist reasons for opposition to conscription, beginning with the general argument that militarism was used by the elite to control and oppress the working-class people.  The pamphlet quotes Catharine of Russia, who contested that ‘the only way to save our empire from the encroachments of the people is to engage in war and thus substitute national passions for social aspirations.’  It is certainly true that the kind of social aspirations Catharine would have scorned were rife at the beginning of the 20th century, throughout Britain and beyond.  Class structures were being questioned and socialist parties that represented the working class were appearing everywhere, most notably the Bolsheviks and Communists of Russia but also in Western countries and in the form of anti-colonial movements.  The outbreak of war must have been deeply frustrating to these movements, who saw years of progress undone by what they perceived as an effort from the elites to maintain their power and privilege.  The 1906 Labour Parties election manifesto had claimed unambiguously that the Boer War had been a ‘capitalist war’, and that ‘wars are fought to make the rich richer’, and so socialists saw the Great War as regressive to whole new extremes.  As Catie Gilchrist argued, ‘socialists abhorred war because… the capitalists’ exploitation of workers was heightened in times of war as traditionally it was the workers who fought while the ruling class profited.’ [4]  Pearce describes that 'old and middle-aged men's passions for noble causes are not always shared by the young men they call upon to die for them' [5], but I would argue that the class divide between these those pushing for war and those called up to fight in them is more relevant than their differences in age.  


In the eyes of the socialists, the root of the First World War was imperialism, a concept dictated by the elites that was anathema to left wing ideology and of no palpable relevance to the working class.  Conscription was a method of exploiting the working class to further their imperialist agenda.


Here the pamphlet uses rhetorical questions and deeply emotive language such as the 'lust of power' in an attempt to stir the hearts of the workers it targeted.  The view that this section demonstrates is, in my opinion, useful in the historiography of the causes of the First World War.  I believe that it is of paramount importance when studying the war to cut through the fog of nationalist fervour and Jingoist propaganda to analyse its true essence, and there is no more effective way of doing this than to study those who at the time set themselves up in opposition to these very ideals.  Through understanding this one begins to understand the relevance of the First World War anti-conscription and anti-war movement.  Mary Davies is one of many historians who has recently has undermined the view that the Great War was ‘great’ at all, describing it as an ‘imperialist game that went tragically wrong’ [6], and Niall Ferguson has written that 'for many people in Europe, the war was not a cause for jubilation but trepidation: apocalyptic imagery was as frequently employed as patriotic rhetoric.  People recognised Armageddon.' [7] In my view anti-conscriptionists were among these people, and provide historians with a lens through which the true nature of the First World War can be seen.  

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 15.22.02.png

This anti-conscription poster above reads 'War Profiteer: "ah, if these ruffians pause to object to me picking their pockets at such a moment as this the country will have to conscript the unpatriotic shirkers!"'.  This encapsulates the feeling of many of the working class – the war was a method used by the ‘profiteering’ elite to further their economic interests. 

A main argument of the pamphlet is that to conscript would be decidedly ‘un-British’.  Anti-conscriptionists represent a demographic of society that wasn’t caught up in the hateful, illiberal, violent wave of militarist mentality of the first world war.


By the beginning of the 20th century we had seen the belief emerge that to be British was to be liberal [8].  The British abolished the slave trade, and in their eyes were the civilising colonial influence that held the progressive world together.  These excerpts betray the sense of superiority that was fundamental to many of the criticisms of British wartime policy.  Liberal aspirations were largely abandoned during the First World War, not only with Conscription and compulsory military service but also with developments such as the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914, which gave the government wide ranging powers and massively restricted liberal features such as freedom of speech and the free movement of people.  The apparent decline of many of the liberal ideas from which socialism had stemmed was detested by many of the left wing, as can be seen by 'The Perils of Conscription'. 


This poster demonstrates this viewpoint – protestation against conscription often argued that its introduction would lower the British to the authoritarian levels of Prussia and Germany, and they would lose their ideological upper ground.  The ILP pamphlet aligns with Wilson's argument that liberal aspirations in Britain survived with the anti-war movement, through the anti-conscriptionists who aspired to retain values of freedom and reacted against the authoritarian measures of government.

Comparison of a Freedom article on conscription with the ILP’s ‘The Perils of Conscription’ provides interesting results.  They agree that war is primarily a method of exploiting and repressing the workers, showing how widespread this belief was throughout the left wing of British politics.  


Within Freedom we see various articles on conscription (one entitled 'The Menace of Conscription) among hundreds of other articles on a wide range of communist issues, predominately based around class struggle, all of which are clearly attempting to incite people to act against their 'oppressors'.  The number of articles on conscription shows how high on the agenda it was for communists during the First World War, and the similarities between many of the conscription articles and the others shows how intertwined the issue of compulsion was with ideas of class struggle.  Interestingly, as we move deeper into the left wing, we see a complete disconnection with this sense of national identity and ‘British-ness’ that the ILP pamphlet demonstrates.  Freedom addresses the argument used by conscriptionists that every man has a duty to defend his country, but debunks it on different grounds, saying:  


The workers do not have to defend their country, the communists argue, because they do not belong to the country.  They have no rights to land or to livelihood and have to hand everything they produce over to over to the ruling classes.  The argument against this from the ILP pamphlet is far less aggressive, pointing out the logistical flaws of absolute equality – that some men have more natural skill at some tasks and enjoy them more, so having a system where all men are expected to do the same is unproductive. 

Freedom demonstrates that those on the far left did not argue that conscription would be un-British, because they were entirely disillusioned with the concept of national identity.  It describes that 'the country is a sonorous word designed to induce the workers to defend an order of things which oppresses them.'[9]  Instead, they appealed to a class identity – the international working class. Freedom argues that it is not only for the British working class that conscription should be fought – it is for the proletariat across the world which are forced into imperialist wars by oppressive elites, whom the majority of British people have a lot more in common with than their respective governing powers.  


Communists often objected to war on the basis that they were fighting men they saw as their ‘Continental brothers’, and this sense of internationalism was a key part of anti-war sentiment.  David Martin has analysed that the anti-war movement from the left was ‘both internationalist and socialist’ [10], and I would add to this that the more left wing the party you are analysing, the more prevalent this internationalist element becomes.  It could even be argued that to look at the socialist movement purely within Britain is reductive in itself, as it was by its very nature so inclusive and unbound by national borders.  In a similar way to how the anti-conscription movement demonstrated that liberal ideologies prevailed in an era of militarism and overt war-time authoritarianism, it also showed that during a period of intense nationalism there were those whose internationalist ideals burned on and perhaps flourished.

'The Secret!' and Conscientious Objection


Page 2


I have chosen to analyse this poem by Herbert W. Whatley as my third source as I believe it can be linked to many of the themes raised in the previous two, and also because it shows a different perspective – one of a socialist individual, not an organisation, who makes the monumental decision to resist compulsion due to his conscientious objection to the war.

The poem demonstrates both of the reasons which Martin argues were prevalent, showing the internationalist and fundamental socialist motivations of a left wing conscientious objector.  Firstly, internationalism; Whatley writes in his first paragraph that ‘all men in harmony must live’, and makes it clear that much like the writers in Freedom he believes in class conscience over national conscience with phrases such as ‘the workers of the world must see’ and ‘stretch out your hands across the sea’.  This is the internationalist impetus Martin points to – pacifism motivated by the view that nationalism is inherently selfish and detrimental to the general greater good of mankind, and that men from all countries should reach out and embrace one another.  Similarly to the other sources I've analysed, the poem seems like a call to arms - its emotive tone and abusive description of the governing classes is similar to both 'The Peril of Conscription' (where the upper classes are labelled 'tyrants') and to the deep sense of frustration in Freedom.  

It also exhibits many fundamental socialist principles.  Writing that ‘all men in harmony must live’ in the first paragraph sets the tone for his overtly socialist attitudes, and the language used throughout the poem follows this trend.  The workers ‘pay with labour and with life’.  They are ‘slaves’ to their ‘masters’, who use their ‘big-stick’ to make them adhere to their will.  The simplistic, black and white sense of oppression of the working classes by capitalist, elitist and power-hungry ‘despots, parasites and rogues’ is effectively conveyed by this poem, but, in the true nature of the socialist ideology, a solution is also suggested.  Whatley advocates non-violent revolution against the corrupt system – sounding much like Freedom’s article, which stated that the government 'decided when we should become enemies - let us decide when we should become friends', ‘The Secret!’ writes that the workers must fight against their repressors by ending the war themselves by laying down their arms. 

The date which this particular source was created is also relevant.  Written in 1917, this poem demonstrates that the same fundamental socialist ideologies were being used to argue against conscription towards the end of the war and post the National Service Act as before it.  It would have been written either in the lead up to or after a major anti-war conference in August 1917, which according to David Martin was a symptom of a shift in public opinion towards the war.  Martin writes that at this conference 'once again, it was not over pacifism that the Labour Party reunited, but through common opposition to imperialism and a corrupt foreign policy.'[11]  The socialist takeover of Russia also occurred in 1917, and this too would have been a deeply promising sign for socialists the world over.  George Robb has attested that 'the socialist takeover of Russia in October further rejuvenated the peace movement, and lent confidence to more radical and oppositional voices in Britain' [12].  The upbeat, optimistic, positive tone of this poem is, in my view, indicative of a left wing sense of the changing of the tide.  

The socialist anti-conscription movement is the most acute way in which the discontent of the working class in the First World War was expressed, and therefore in which the general disillusionment of the working classes with those who they saw as exploiting them for their own personal gain can be seen. 


To conclude, I believe that the anti-conscriptionist movements and individuals during the First World War were of a far larger relevance than most prior historiography has given then credit for.  Margaret Levi has written that anti-conscriptionists were ‘too small and politically weak to make much difference’, and they are often dismissed based on the views that their low numbers and the strength of the tide of jingoism in Britain pushing against them negates their historical relevance – far too easily, in my opinion.  I agree with Wilson that much of the relevance of those against compulsory service doesn’t stem from their numbers, it comes from the fact that they existed at all.  As he says, through the anti-conscriptionists we see the prevalence of humanitarianism and liberalism during a period when man as a collective was at his most savage and violent, and governments, especially the British government, were at their most authoritarian and illiberal.  I believe this can be taken further, however – in a similar way, the anti-conscriptionists also demonstrate the endurance of internationalism and positive cross-border feeling, showing that these ideals were not entirely abolished by the wave of fervent nationalism that swept across the world.  J.M. Bourne has written that 'in retrospect, [anti-conscriptionists] exerted a moral influence out of all proportion to their numbers.  Posterity has acclaimed them as heroes.' [13]. I think this acclamation is justified.  Finally, the anti-conscriptionists demonstrate as succinctly as any other movement of the time the disillusionment of the working class with the higher class at the start of the 20th century.  It was to be a century of mass class revolt, and socialist uprisings shaped the geopolitical landscape for years to come – although there was never such an uprising in Britain, the subsequent success of the labour party demonstrated how strong the working class views that they were being exploited and marginalised were during this time, and these ideas are demonstrated no more acutely than in the anti-conscription movement.

Critical Reflection

Having studied the First World War extensively over the years I wanted to look in more detail at a topic within it that had been mentioned in textbooks and lessons previously but which I’d never really covered in any great depth.  Upon investigation into the topic I was surprised both by the relative lack of coverage anti-conscriptionists were given, and by the minimal importance and relevance they were attributed by the majority of existing historiography.  Wilson’s analysis aligned with the opinions I developed after reading about the topic and examining various primary sources – that the anti-conscriptionist movements and individuals were relevant because of what they represented.  Exploring this topic also facilitates the exploration of a variety of other deeply relevant issues, such as class conflict at the beginning of the 20th century and the imperialist nature of the First World War. 


One of the main methodological issues I faced with this project was narrowing down which primary sources to use.  The Modern Records Centre had an impressive number of primary sources regarding conscription during the First World War, which almost complicated things as choosing between records and cutting out many which each offered slightly nuanced avenues for analysis was difficult to do.  An area in which I experienced far less problems than I anticipated at the beginning was the use of the site-builder – it was straightforward to use, and produced a well presented and easily accessible document.  The only technological issue was that taking pictures of the documents in the MRC proved to produce lower quality images than I had hoped – luckily, I only had to do this for one resource, as the other two had been digitised.  I read several poems from Conscientious Objectors during my research, and the 100 year old handwritten documents were often difficult to decipher with what I was confident was complete accuracy – lengthy examination and comparison of lettering and words helped me to overcome this problem, however.  Overall, I found the MRC to be a thoroughly useful and deeply interesting resource, and I found myself engrossed in many of the primary sources. 


The main intellectual challenge was the surprising lack of specific reading on the topic of anti-conscriptionists or conscientious objectors.  Extracting historiographical opinions was difficult as most of the literature on the movement was part of a work on much broader topics, that covered anti-conscriptionists with what I considered to be too much brevity.  I also changed my title several times, struggling to find an exact question which summarised my aims but remained succinct and not overly long.  Researching and compiling this project has been challenging but certainly rewarding, and very interesting.  I feel that I have learned valuable skills in locating sources useful for historical investigation, and then subsequently picking out the relevant parts and analysing them.  The lack of ideal secondary sources has given me experience in picking out arguments on a specific topic amongst historical analysis of more general ones, for example the First World War overall.  I feel I have gained skills in this project which will greatly help me with future historical study. Regrettably, this project has not been able to touch upon one of the most blaring issues with the historiography of war-resisters during the First World War, which is that it almost entirely ignores the role of women.  The marginalisation of Sylvia Pankhurst's role in the socialist anti-war movement is the most shameful.  Gender historians such as Jo Vellacott [14] and Sheila Rowbotham [15] have attempted to address this, but due to length constraints I have not been able to, and I have had to focus on examining and questioning the existing strands of historiography rather than forging new ones.  I hope that I have done an adequate job of portraying the relevance of the First World War anti-conscriptionists.  


  1. C. Pearce, Comrades in conscience : the story of an English community's opposition to the Great War, (London: Francis Boutle, 2001) / N. Ferguson, The Pity of War (London: Allen Lane, 1998)
  2. T. Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War, (Cambridge: Polity, 1986)
  3. C. Moorehead,  Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-86, (1987), p. 19
  4. C. Gilchrist, Socialist Opposition to World War I, Dictionary of Sydney 2014, p. 106
  5. C. Pearce, Comrades in conscience : the story of an English community's opposition to the Great War, (London: Francis Boutle, 2001) p. 141
  6. M. Davies, 


  7. N. Ferguson, The Pity of War (London: Allen Lane, 1998), pg. 278
  8. A. Sykes, The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism (Harlow: Longman, 1997)
  9. Freedom, 1915, Warwick Modern Records Centre: MSS.15X/1/95/16
  10. D. Martin, Pacifism: An Historical and Sociological Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965) p. 37
  11. Ibid, p. 44
  12. G. Robb, British Culture and the First World War (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pg. 117
  13. J.M. Bourne, Britain and the Great War 1914-1918, (London : Edward Arnold, 1989) pg. 212
  14. J. Vellacott, Pacifists, patriots and the vote The erosion of democratic suffragism in Britain during the First World War (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
  15. S. Rowbotham, Women in movement : feminism and social action, (New York ; London : Routledge, 1992)


Primary Sources

  • 'The Perils of Conscription', Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.15X/2/209/13


  • 'Freedom', Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.15X/1/95/16


  • 'The Secret!' By Herbert W. Whatley, Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.83/3/PR/7


Secondary Sources

Bourne, J.M. Britain and the Great War 1914-1918, (London : Edward Arnold, 1989)

Davies, Mary, http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/the-call

Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War (London: Allen Lane, 1998)

Gilchrist, Catie, Socialist Opposition to World War I, Dictionary of Sydney 2014

Graham, John W., Conscription and Conscience: A History, 1916-1919 (New York : Kelley, 1969)

Martin, David, Pacifism: An Historical and Sociological Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965)

Moorehead, Caroline, Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-86, (1987)

Pearce, Cyril, Comrades in conscience : the story of an English community's opposition to the Great War, (London: Francis Boutle, 2001)

Robb, George, British Culture and the First World War (New York: Palgrave, 2002)

Rowbotham, Sheila, Women in movement : feminism and social action, (New York ; London : Routledge, 1992)

Sykes, Alan, The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism (Harlow: Longman, 1997)

Vellacott, Jo, Pacifists, patriots and the vote The erosion of democratic suffragism in Britain during the First World War (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Wilson, Trevor, The Myriad Faces of War, (Cambridge: Polity, 1986)