Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Great War conscientious objectors’ tales dramatised

Written for on Monday, October 27th, 2014 

The anti-war stand taken by a Huddersfield member of one of Unite’s predecessor unions has been powerfully captured in a dramatic new theatre play.

England arise is the story of the socialist conscientious objectors (COs) of the Great War and the women who supported them.

The five-man play, which is written by Mick Martin and directed by Jude Wright, is touring northern England over the next three weeks. It is based on Cyril Pearce’s book Comrades in conscience – the story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War.

Socialist Arthur Gardiner was a representative of the Dyers’ and Finishers Union on the Trades Council in Huddersfield, a town that had 117 anti-war resisters who refused to be called up when conscription was introduced in 1916.

It is estimated that nationally there was as many as 20,000 COs. This compares to the five million who served in Britain’s armed forces.

Many COs were religious and did not believe in killing people. For firebrand Gardiner his opposition was “based on the theory of class struggle in that the 1914-18 war was merely a fight for foreign markets and not worth giving your life for.”
As Pearce’s book demonstrates lots of local people agreed with Gardiner. These included many women such as Gardiner’s future wife, Sis Timmins.

But once the military service act began operating on February 10, 1916, being a war opponent became a state matter.

There was now a straight choice between fighting or refusing and accepting the alternative of beatings and imprisonment – often in solitary confinement – for the rest of the war. War resisters were brought before local military service tribunals where socialist COs in particular could expect injustice.

Gardiner’s appearance at the Huddersfield Tribunal on March 20, 1916 attracted a crowd of over 300 people. He appealed, ultimately unsuccessfully, to be exempted from all forms of military service because, “For years I have devoted my energies to the economic and moral upliftment of humanity. I am opposed to all forms of militarism as it is detrimental to the welfare of all nations.”

Fellow socialist and good friend, Percy Ellis, took a similar stance. In October 1916 the pair was arrested. Drawing inspiration from the women’s suffrage movement, whereby women had been imprisoned and gone on hunger strike, both men refused to be placed in work centres.

They were sent to jail and placed in solitary dark cell punishment – which is one of the most dramatic parts of the play.

When the war ended both men returned home. Gardiner later became the Labour Party’s second full-time agent and was a local councillor from 1927-1930 and 1933-1967 and also served as mayor in 1941-42.

His son, Don, aged 88, was present at the opening performance of England arise at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

Afterwards he said, “It was marvellous seeing my parents portrayed on stage. It is a serious subject but it was great entertainment with some really amusing moments throughout.”

•    Comrades in conscience, costing £15, is available online from the publishers, Francis Boutle.

•    England arise is on in Hull, Leeds, Doncaster, Sunderland, Halifax, Wakefield, Manchester and Rochdale over the next month. For more information click here.

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