Lyn Smith, 'Voices Against War: A Century of Protest'

IssueFebruary 2010
Review by Ian Sinclair

Based on over 200 personal testimonies from the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collection, Voices Against War is a fascinating and lively survey of anti-war protest in the UK from 1914 to the present day.

A university lecturer and author of the bestselling Young Voices, Lyn Smith is keen to stress the complexity and range of anti-war positions held by those who have resisted their Government’s call to go to war. For example, in the first world war conscientious objectors (COs) fell into two broad categories – “absolutists” who refused to cooperate with the state in any way whatsoever, and “alternativists” who were willing to do alterative forms of service to military service.

With COs often enduring solitary imprisonment, beatings, verbal abuse, discrimination and even threats of execution, actress Cathleen Nesbitt turns dominant thinking on its head, arguing that “it took more courage to be a pacifist than a solider” during this period.

Despite the peace movement being relatively strong immediately prior to the outbreak of the second world war, many pacifists and anti-war activists (Bertrand Russell and AA Milne to name but two) eventually decided to support the military campaign against Nazi Germany. Even so, contrary to the wartime propaganda that continues to hold a powerful grip on the national psyche today, it is worth remembering 60,000 men successfully claimed conscientious objection between 1939 and 1945 – four times as many as in the first world war.

With the introduction of a volunteer military after the second world war, Smith focuses on the work of “professional” peace and anti-war activists, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s, to the women of Greenham Common, and finally to those active against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Due to its wide historical sweep the book occasionally feels like it is skimming the surface of events and issues. Anti-war protest during the Falklands War, Northern Ireland and Muslim participation in the current anti-war movement are all overlooked.

Elsewhere, the Committee of 100, the needless bombing of thousands of civilians in Le Havree in 1944, and the first anti-nuclear demonstration in Britain (Hull on VJ Day) are all given tantalisingly brief mentions. However, Smith’s extensive bibliography and interview index means those that wish to explore these topics in more depth can travel to the Imperial War Museum’s sound archive to conduct further research themselves.

Rich with insightful and moving firsthand testimony, Voices Against War is a landmark study. In effect a hidden history of those who were out of step with the jingoism and militarism of their time, the book is an essential read for

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