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Not everyone welcomed war

The History Column

The received image of the British public’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War is usually that of jubilant, flag-waving crowds, assembling in front of Buckingham palace to cheer the royals and sing the national anthem. On 5 August 1914, an editorial in The Times described the previous evening, saying that: ‘the streets were packed with cheering masses.… Flags were waved from cabs, omnibuses and private cars.’

Less-well-recorded is the fact that just two days earlier, an estimated 15,000 people gathered in and around London’s Trafalgar Square in a last-ditch attempt to stop the war.

In the crowd was a young man, Harold Bing, who would, when he reached the age of 18, take his stand as a conscientious objector. According to his own account, hearing that a big anti-war demonstration was to be held in Trafalgar Square, he walked 11 miles from his home to hear Scottish socialist and pacifist Keir Hardie speak, then walked the same distance home again.

The demonstration in London was not the only one of its kind, nor was Harold Bing the only person who hoped war would not come. Following the end of the Napoleonic wars, a number of European peace societies had sprung up, many of them closely allied to reforming movements such as the anti-slavery movement.

In Britain, the tiny Society for the Promotion of Permanent Peace (later the Peace Society), formed in 1816, advocated disarmament, arbitration and the creation of an international mediating body. A similar society was set up in the USA as well.

Issues of war and militarism were debated at various international socialist congresses, following the formation of the First International in 1864.

By the time the Second International was formed in Paris in 1899, an escalating arms race and shifting European alliances made the question of war even more pressing. In 1891, delegates meeting in Brussels urged workers and labour organisations to ‘resist vigorously’ but without agreeing an anti-war strategy. At the 1907 congress, French socialist Jean Jaures advocated the use of a general strike should war break out.

In the event, the final resolution agreed by the congress stated only that if war threatened to break out, it was the duty of the working class and its parliamentary representatives to ‘exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective’.

International protests

As war came closer, there were demonstrations in Britain and across Europe. On 25 July 1914, the same day Austria delivered its ultimatum to Serbia, Austrian socialist MPs published an anti-war manifesto. German socialists held anti-war demonstrations in Berlin, and the French and Socialist sections of the International protested against war. In Brussels, Keir Hardie and Jean Jaures addressed a crowd of some 6,000 Belgian socialists declaring a ‘war on war’, and, during the latter part of July, socialists in France, Germany and Belgium organised anti-war demonstrations.

In Britain, socialists called for mass demonstrations against war, and, on 30 July 1914, the Labour Leader, journal of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), included an editorial by Fenner Brockway, headed ‘The War Must be Stopped – and We Must Stop It.’

Brockway, who would be a major activist in the no-conscription and conscientious objector movement, argued that if the European labour movement acted together, war could be stopped. He called for socialists to demonstrate in such numbers that governments ‘will be made to realise and fear the strength of the anti-war party.’

On 2 August, an estimated 100,000 anti-war activists demonstrated across Britain; the largest rally being the one in London’s Trafalgar Square. In Scotland, James Maxton, chairman of the Scottish ILP, estimated that more than 100 anti-war meetings had taken place.

In the end, though, the anti-war activists were in a very small minority. French socialist and pacifist Edouard Vaillant, who had consistently argued for a general strike in the event of war, threw his weight behind his government, as did many other European socialists.

Neither pacifists nor socialists were able to prevent the outbreak of the First World War. Ironically though, in Britain anyway, the coming of war, and of conscription in particular, launched a completely new anti-war expression, that of the conscientious objectors’ movement.


This is the first in a series of First World War-themed pieces by Ann Kramer, author of Conscientious Objectors of the Second World War (reviewed here).

Topics: Anti-militarism | WW1