British pro-social justice campaigns during World War I

This video from Britain says about itself:

17 December 2011

At 106 Hetty Bower told Jon Snow, “What sane person could be pro-war? As long as my legs can take me, I will partricipate in anti-war activity.” (Channel 4 News 13/11/11)

The range of Hetty’s political activity in 2011 was astonishing, for which she was named by The Guardian as Woman of the Year.

On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, in March 2011, she was guest of honour at a wreath-laying ceremony at Emmeline Pankhurst‘s statue.

She was a founding member of CND in 1957 and has spoke in 2011 at a ­Hiroshima Day commemoration. She spoke at protests against ­hospital ­closures, tuition fees and cuts in services for ­disabled people.

Hetty has been an ever-present at Stop the War Coalition demonstrations over the past 10 years, always marching every step, at a speed that puts other protesters a fraction of her age to shame. She took part in Stop the War’s anti-war mass assembly in Traflagar Square on 8 October.

Hetty’s indominatable commitment to the fight for justice and peace is an inspiration to all who have had the privilege of campaigning beside her.

By David Swift in Britain:

The struggle for social justice during WWI

Monday 4th August 2014

Throughout the war, socialists were campaigning on disablement pensions, coal prices, rent control and more, says DAVID SWIFT

WHILE most of the coverage of the WWI centenary will understandably focus on the carnage of the battlefield, there is a positive tale among all the wreckage, a narrative where the left did not remain incompetent but mobilised to prevent the worst ravages of the war from affecting the most vulnerable people.

It fought for greater pensions, state control of food and fuel and against encroachments on civil liberties.

This was achieved through the auspices of the Workers’ National Committee (WNC), composed of representatives from the trade unions, the co-operative movement, the Parliamentary Labour party, the Independent Labour Party and other smaller socialist societies.

The WNC was held together by its secretary Jim Middleton. He was a vehement critic of the war and many of his friends were conscientious objectors who were persecuted and imprisoned by the British state.

Middleton laboured tirelessly throughout the war, falling ill several times over the course of the conflict and finally suffering a nervous breakdown in early 1918.

The committee led mass action campaigns on disablement pensions, coal prices, rent control and the treatment of German and Austrian citizens within Britain.

Spurred by reports of lewd and drunken behaviour, the Home Office felt obliged to order surveillance of the wives of soldiers serving at the front.

One of the WNC’s earliest campaigns was against this practice, noting that no such snooping was sanctioned for middle-class women.

Another key priority was the cost of food. Under WNC sponsorship, dozens of food conferences were held in cities and towns across Britain, mobilising the local population to call for state control of the food supply.

The committee demanded the purchase of all imported foodstuffs and home-grown products, the commandeering of ships, control of supply and regulation and the fixing of the price of bread and flour for the rest of the war.

Although rationing was finally introduced in 1918, the government exhausted every avenue before it finally broke with the sacred shibboleths of laissez-faire.

This included a plan to sterilise the meat of cattle infected with tuberculosis and sell it cheaply to the poor.

When the WNC learned of this scheme its howls of protest prevented the policy’s execution in England and Wales, but not in Scotland, where the plan went ahead.

In addition to campaigns over food, pensions, coal and rent, the committee also dealt with hundreds of individual cases on injustice and iniquity.

For example, a Sgt Andrew Stoddart, who had his left leg amputated, was informed that he had subsequently been demoted to corporal and so could expect a lesser disablement pension.

Another man was discharged from the army after 12 months with a tuberculosis ulceration of the neck. The medical examination claimed this was due to service in the military, yet upon the discovery he had recently spent six months in Wormwood Scrubs he was refused an army pension on the grounds of “character.”

Another function of the WNC was as a conduit for people to inform on cynical and illegal practices.

The Warehouse Workers’ Union reported that 1,450 cases of Canadian corned beef had been docked in Liverpool around the time of the outbreak of the war, stored for two years, and then returned to Canada so that they could be sold to the government at a higher price.

Of particular concern for the WNC and local labour bodies was the awarding and completion of government contracts. Within the first few months of the war it began to receive reports of firms producing shoddy materiel and short-changing the government.

In addition to poor-quality hats and boots, one of the biggest scandals of the war was the provision of faulty hosiery to the army.

As a local trade union official informed Middleton: “There is, I am told by one of the workmen, a firm in our trade that is robbing the government on contracts. There is no doubt about it.”

The WNC compiled a dossier of evidence that the government was being short-changed, but remarkably this fell on deaf ears, with the War Office insisting that the union man must be mistaken.

The obtuseness of the government over this issue suggests the absurd situation that the government was less concerned with the quality of its hosiery than were the men employed to make it, and that the state may even have been complicit in its own deception, an impression confirmed when Middleton was told by an employer: “Yes, we all water government hosiery. I have to add water on the instructions of the manufacturers to bring them all to the required weight. We all do it, and the government knows we do it … I know it’s a fraud, I know it’s dishonest, but it’s done throughout the trade; and as I know the government are aware of it my conscience does not prick me, but it’s wrong all the same.”

The activities of the WNC were not confined to matters relating to the war effort.

There was the case of Thomas Young, a boy of 12, charged with stealing three pence-worth of apples from an orchard while under probation for stealing one pence of bottled lemonade. The boy was convicted and sent to an industrial school for four years.

The child’s father was a munition worker, unable to leave the factory to give evidence on behalf of his son.

Middleton wrote to Sir John Simon, the home secretary, on the boy’s behalf, but to no avail.

Simon regretted that “despite all the circumstances of this case, I am not able to find any grounds for interfering with the order.”

While the cruelty and obduracy of the government often frustrated the committee and limited its effectiveness, through its successes over rent control, rationing and pensions, and many individual cases it fought on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable, it provided a much needed safety net and ally for the working class during the war, and its good work should not be forgotten.

David Swift is completing a PhD on the British left and the first world war. A Land Fit for Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918 runs at the People’s History Museum until February 1 2015.

Sommer 14 – A Dance Of Death by controversial German playwright Rolf Hochhuth offers theatre audiences a rare opportunity to see a play about WWI from a German perspective, says Tommo Fowler: here.

1 thought on “British pro-social justice campaigns during World War I

  1. Pingback: Ireland, World War I, and capitalism and democracy today | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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