An early autumn bite is in the air as a late, gold-tinged afternoon falls over the rolling countryside of northern France. Where the land dips between gentle rises, it is already in shadow. Dotting the fields are machine-packed rolls of the year’s final hay crop. Up a low hill, a grove of trees screens the evidence of another kind of harvest reaped on this spot nearly a century ago. Each gravestone in the small cemetery has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses and one has a Star of David. When known, a man’s age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 34, 21, 20. Ten of the graves simply say, “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.” Almost all the dead are from Britain’s Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the frontline trench they had climbed out of that morning. Some 21,000 British soldiers were killed or fatally wounded that summer day, the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country, before or since.
From a nearby hilltop, you can see a half dozen of the 400 cemeteries where British soldiers are buried in the Somme battlefield region, a rough crescent of territory less than 20 miles long, but graves are not the only mark the war has made on the land. More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, and many failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people. Dotted through the region are patches of uncleared forest or scrub surrounded by yellow danger signs in French and English warning visitors away. More than 630 bomb-disposal specialists have been killed in France since 1946. Like those shells, the First World War itself has remained in our lives, below the surface, because we live in a world so much formed by it.
The war’s destructiveness still seems beyond belief. In addition to the dead, another 36,000 British troops were wounded on the first day of the Somme offensive. But worse was yet in store. “No, we do not pardon,” Adolf Hitler fulminated soon after the war ended, “we demand—vengeance!” Germany’s defeat, and the vindictive, misbegotten peace settlement that followed, irrevocably nurtured the seeds of Nazism, of an even more destructive war 20 years later, and of the Holocaust as well. The war of 1914–1918 was, as Simon Schama has put it, the “original sin” of the 20th century. Even the victors were losers: how could France, for example, be considered victorious when half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when it was over?
Inaugurating industrialized slaughter on a scale previously unknown, the First World War remade the world for the worse in every conceivable way. It has few remembered moments of triumph or glory: no Waterloo, no Pickett’s Charge, no D-day landing. Those who took part are not celebrated as the greatest generation. Today we usually look on it as an object lesson in multiple follies, such as the illusion that winning a major war can be quick and easy—or the illusion that wars do not have enormous unintended consequences. But oddly, despite the flood of histories, novels, and films that will only increase as the centenary of 1914 approaches (at least one major TV series is already in the works), we pay little attention to the people at the time who knew this war was an unmitigated catastrophe—and acted on their convictions. Ignoring those who argued for peace while the battles raged seems all the more strange today, when we have a vast and rising military budget and two ongoing wars that have created far more problems than they have solved.
What kings, emperors, and prime ministers did not foresee, many others did. From 1914 on, tens of thousands of people in all the belligerent countries believed the war was not worth the horrendous cost in blood, and some anticipated with tragic clarity at least part of the nightmare that would engulf Europe as a result. Moreover, they spoke out at a time when to do so took great courage. In Germany, antiwar radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were sent to prison—as was the American socialist Eugene V. Debs after he left a sickbed to give a series of speeches when the United States entered the conflict. The judge told him he might get a lesser sentence if he repented. “Repent?” asked Debs. “Repent? Repent for standing like a man?” More than 500 American draft resisters went to prison.
Or consider a scene that unfolded a few weeks before that notorious first day on the Somme, not far away. In the spring of 1916, Britain had begun conscription, and some 50 men who were among the first to refuse it were forcibly inducted into the army and transported, some in handcuffs, across the English Channel to France. Family members and fellow pacifists were horrified. When questioned about the men, Lord Derby, director of military recruiting, declared that “if they disobey orders, of course they will be shot, and quite right too!”
There was no news of where the men were. Then one day in early June a clue reached England: an official Field Service Post Card, designed to save army censors the time it took to read mail. These cards had half-a-dozen printed messages that a soldier could either underline or cross out, and this particular one was signed by a 27-year-old schoolteacher named Bert Brocklesby, one of the resisters. All the messages were crossed out, except two. One was, “I am being sent down to the base.” The other was, “I have received no letter from you for a long time.” But Brocklesby had lightly crossed out many individual letters, so that the message read, “I am being sent. . . to. . . . b. . . . ou. . . . long.”
Supporters of the men immediately dispatched two clergymen to Boulogne.
But would they be in time? While the ministers were still crossing the Channel, a smuggled letter arrived from France, reaching the mother of a Quaker named Stuart Beavis. “We have been warned today that we are now within the war zone,” he wrote to her stoically, “and the military authorities have absolute power, and disobedience may be followed by very severe penalties, and very possibly the death penalty. . . . Do not be downhearted if the worst comes to the worst; many have died cheerfully for a worse cause.” To a peace group, he sent a brief message on behalf of himself and his comrades, ending, “We regret nothing.” For a time, there was no more news of the men’s fate.
It was in Britain that significant numbers of war resisters first acted on their beliefs and paid the price. They did not even come close to stopping the bloodshed, but their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time. By the conflict’s end, more than 20,000 British men of military age would refuse the draft. Many, on principle, also refused the noncombatant alternative service offered to conscientious objectors, and more than 6,000 served prison terms under harsh conditions: hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a strict “rule of silence.” This was one of the largest groups ever jailed for political reasons in a Western democracy. War opponents behind bars also included older men—and a few women—as well. If we could time-travel our way into British prisons in late 1917 and early 1918 we would meet the nation’s leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize, more than half a dozen future members of Parliament, one future cabinet minister, and a former newspaper editor who was now publishing a clandestine journal for his fellow inmates on toilet paper. It would be rare to find a more distinguished array of people ever imprisoned together.
A major reason many Britons opposed the war was that their country had not been attacked. Unlike France and Belgium, Britain saw no steel-helmeted German troops pouring across its frontiers. In the first few days of war, the conflict seemed to be other countries’ business. It was only after Germany invaded Belgium—whose neutrality Britain was pledged by treaty to support—that opinion among the public and in the cabinet swung toward war.
For years, the most consistent, eloquent voice warning his fellow citizens against going to war was that of Keir Hardie. Born in great poverty in Glasgow, Hardie never went to school and by the time he was 21 had worked more than half his life underground, as a coal miner. Then he became a union leader, labor journalist, and member of Parliament. He was a believer in socialism with all the fervor, hope, and innocence that only the pre-1914 world knew: surely, surely, this was the best bulwark against the generals, because the workingmen of Europe, who cheered an advance for labor in one nation as an advance for all, would never fight each other on the battlefield. Right up to the last minute—a tumultuous peace rally in Trafalgar Square two days before Britain joined the war—Hardie called for a general strike in any country that took part. In portraits, his thick beard is dark red when he is young, white as a shroud when, in his fifties, he saw the bloodshed he had long feared shatter his dreams. His hauntingly sad, heavy-browed eyes seem to stare out at you so piercingly from any photograph that they might be staring beyond his own life, into an entire century of world wars and crushed hopes.
The war struck at Hardie’s very core. After it began, people jeered him on the street in London and mobs hooted and sang “Rule, Britannia” to try to drown out his speeches. Late in 1914 he suffered a stroke, and for a time his arm was useless, and he could write only by dictating. One of his last public appearances was in the spring of 1915. “The little hall was crowded to suffocation and the lights were dimmed,” a witness remembered. “Hardie’s bushy white hair and his white beard shone out in the darkness with almost phosphorescent radiance. His head was held high, defiantly; his voice was strong and deep. . . . His voice nearly broke when he spoke of the tragedy of Socialists murdering each other.” A newspaper printed a cartoon showing Kaiser Wilhelm II giving “Keir von Hardie” a bag of gold. Crushed and broken by the slaughter, he died of pneumonia later that year, at 59.
Unlike, for example, American opponents of our wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the Britons who opposed this war had no major newspapers and only a tiny handful of legislators on their side. For someone in a prominent position to advocate any compromise was considered close to treason. When Rev. Edward Lyttelton, the headmaster of Eton, proposed some possible peace terms, the resulting uproar forced him to resign. From Parliament to pulpit, ferocity reigned. “Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon, “ . . . not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. . . . Kill the good as well as the bad. . . . Kill the young men as well as the old. . . . I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican Bishop of London.
A West End theater put on a play mocking pacifists, called The Man Who Stayed at Home. Women stood on street corners handing out white feathers, an ancient symbol of cowardice, to young men not in uniform. Recruiting posters appealed to shame: one showed two children asking a frowning, guilty-looking father in civilian clothes, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” (Keir Hardie’s friend Bob Smillie, leader of the Scottish mineworkers, said his reply would be: “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”)
One dissenter was the 42-year-old Bertrand Russell, the Cambridge logician and mathematician. Not only was the pipe-smoking Russell his country’s best-known philosopher, but his broad forehead, aquiline nose, piercing blue eyes, ramrod posture, and arresting shock of hair made him one of the most striking-looking philosophers of all time. A young woman who fell in love with him recalled that Russell’s hair “seemed almost to give off sparks like a heath fire.”
Russell explored the most abstruse heights of theory—his greatest work, the coauthored Principia Mathematica, takes 347 pages before reaching a definition of the number 1—but he also wrote fluently for the general public. He denounced conventional marriage but attracted women like a magnet, hated organized religion but felt moments of spiritual ecstasy, and, during this greatest crisis of his generation, loved his country deeply but believed from the very first moments that the war was an appalling mistake.
Part of Russell’s intellectual bravery lay in his willingness to confront that last set of conflicting loyalties. He described himself poignantly in the autumn of 1914 as being “tortured by patriotism. . . . I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel. Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess, and in appearing to set it aside at such a moment, I was making a very difficult renunciation.” What left him even more anguished was realizing that “anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population. . . . As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me. As a man of thwarted parental feeling, the massacre of the young wrung my heart.” Over the four years to come, he never yielded in his belief that “this war is trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side. . . . The English and French say they are fighting in defence of democracy, but they do not wish their words to be heard in Petrograd or Calcutta.”
Antiwar beliefs were tested most severely by the mass patriotic hysteria of the war’s first months. “One by one, the people with whom one had been in the habit of agreeing politically went over to the side of the war.” How hard it was, Russell wrote, to resist being swept away “when the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement. As much effort was required to avoid sharing this excitement as would have been needed to stand out against the extreme of hunger or sexual passion, and there was the same feeling of going against instinct.” One night Russell heard a “shout of bestial triumph in the street. I leapt out of bed and saw a Zeppelin falling in flames. The thought of brave men dying in agony was what caused the triumph in the street.”
By the beginning of 1916, in response to recruiting drives, posters (“Don’t Lag! Follow Your Flag!”), and music-hall songs (“Oh, we don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go”), 2.5 million volunteers had enlisted in the British military. But as battles on the Western Front devoured men by the hundreds of thousands, compounded by similarly bloody operations like the disastrous Gallipoli landing in Turkey, the army’s appetite for bodies was such that Britain finally began a draft.
The authorities started raiding soccer games, movie theaters, and railway stations to round up military-age men who were not in uniform. A pamphlet by “A Little Mother” typically declared that “we women . . . will tolerate no such cry as ‘Peace! Peace!’ . . . There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. . . . We women pass on the human ammunition of ‘only sons’ to fill up the gaps.” It sold 75,000 copies in a few days. “The conscientious objector is a fungus growth—a human toadstool—which should be uprooted without further delay,” screamed the tabloid John Bull. In April 1916 the major group backing resisters, the No-Conscription Fellowship, or NCF, drew some 2,000 supporters to a London meeting hall while an angry crowd milled about in the street outside. The organization’s chairman, wrote one delegate, “did not wish to incite further attack by the noise of our cheering. He therefore asked that enthusiasm should be expressed silently, and with absolute discipline the crowded audience responded.” When Bertrand Russell addressed the gathering, he was “received with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the low sound of rising and falling wind, but with no other sound whatsoever.”
Russell continued to write articles, books, and letters to newspapers in prose that rang with moral clarity. The longer the war went on, he said, the more it was militarizing Britain in Germany’s image, while making certain an embittered and dangerous postwar world. He lent his enormous prestige to the NCF, and for much of the war his thick mass of graying hair was a familiar sight at its headquarters, for when the group’s chairman went to prison, Russell took his place. He attended the courts-martial of conscientious objectors, visited COs in jail, and devoted hours to the most mundane office tasks, writing “Dear Comrade” letters to branches around the country signed “Fraternally Yours, Bertrand Russell.”
The activists of the NCF scored a rhetorical point when, in the course of one legal case, a lawyer on the government side, Sir Archibald Bodkin (later notorious as the man who would get James Joyce’s Ulysses banned from publication in postwar England) protested angrily that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong.” Delighted, the NCF issued a poster with exactly those words on it, credited to Bodkin. The government then convicted an NCF member for putting up this subversive poster. In response, the NCF’s lawyer demanded the arrest of Bodkin himself, as author of the offending words. The organization’s newspaper called for Bodkin to prosecute himself, and declared that the group would provide relief payments to his wife and children if he sent himself to jail.
In the late spring of 1916, Boulogne, where the group of COs who had dropped from sight were apparently being held, was one of the ports through which supplies flowed to the British army in preparation for its great offensive near the point where the River Somme meandered its weed-choked way across the Western Front. The decisive assault, scheduled for July 1, 1916, was supposed to burst through German lines like a flood breaking open a dam. After an unprecedented weeklong artillery bombardment of more than a million shells, 120,000 men would attack on the first day alone. The plans even included a map with the British names to be given to German trenches scheduled for capture. Such thorough planning was hard to conceal. When one unit slated to take part moved into position, it found a sign held up from the German trench opposite: WELCOME TO THE 29TH DIVISION.
Preparations for the offensive were at high pitch when the first group of British COs forcibly transported to France were taken to an army camp parade ground with other soldiers and given the order, “Right turn! Quick march!” The other troops did as told; the COs remained in place, unmoving. The army fined them five days’ wages, something that amused them since they were already refusing to accept any military pay. There was little else to laugh about. Periodically they were summoned to hear announcements of soldiers sentenced to death for desertion or disobedience.
They refused to do any work. Angry sergeants punished them by administering what was known as Field Punishment Number One, which meant being trussed to a fixed object for two hours at a time, arms held open in crucifixion position. “We were placed with our faces to the barbed wire of the inner fence,” recalled one CO, Cornelius Barritt. “I found myself drawn so closely into the fence that when I wished to turn my head I had to do so very slowly and cautiously to avoid my face being torn by the barbs. To make matters less comfortable, it came on to rain and the cold wind blew straight across the top of the hill.” But the men’s spirits held, for when officers weren’t looking, ordinary soldiers showed them unexpected kindness. One gave his dinner to CO Alfred Evans, and when his superiors were gone for the evening, a sergeant of the Irish Guards spent his own money buying cake, fruit, and chocolate for the whole group at the post canteen. Worried that the men’s pacifism might influence the troops, the army moved them off base, to a fish market on the docks of Boulogne that had been turned into a punishment barracks. There, they were locked in group cells with no sustenance but water and four biscuits a day.
The men in one cell could talk to those in others only through knot holes in the wooden walls. As best they could, they held debates: on Marxism, Tolstoyan pacifism, and the merits of Esperanto. The Quakers among them held a Quaker meeting. For some, the convictions that had put them behind bars were religious; for others, political; for many, both. They sang both Christian hymns and labor songs.
Unable to comprehend so many people acting according to conscience, the military decided that Barritt and three other COs were ringleaders responsible for the larger group’s mass disobedience. They were court-martialed and found guilty. No one knew whether the messages they had tried to send had reached their families and supporters in England—or would have any effect. On June 15, 1916, two weeks before the Somme offensive, the four “ringleaders” were taken out of their cells for sentencing.
They were brought to a large parade ground, and several hundred soldiers were assembled on three sides. The rumble of artillery sounded in the distance. “I cast many a glance in the direction of the white cliffs of Dover,” remembered one, “for this might be our last opportunity.” A command rang out for silence. “I caught a glimpse of my paper as it was handed to the Adjutant. Printed at the top in large red letters, and doubly underlined, was the word ‘Death.’”
As each man stepped forward, the adjutant read out his name and serial number and the charge, and intoned, “Sentenced to death by being shot.” Then there was a pause, “Confirmed by General Sir Douglas Haig.” Then a longer pause, “And commuted to 10 years’ penal servitude.”
What the men did not know was that their supporters in England had been working feverishly. Russell had led a delegation to see Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and, as he put it, “I made him a speech of denunciation in an almost Biblical style, telling him his name would go down in history with infamy” if the men were brought before the firing squad. Asquith then sent a secret order to Haig, the British commander-in-chief in France, saying that no conscientious objectors were to be shot.
In the days that followed, while ships, trains, and truck convoys all around them sped last-minute supplies to the front, the men were returned to England and sent to civilian prisons—as would happen with all COs from now on. In an act of great collective courage that echoes down over the years, they had stuck to their beliefs even when threatened with death. “As I stood listening to the sentences of the rest of our party,” one CO said later of that day on the parade ground, “the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of . . . testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance.”
It was only days after these COs learned they would live that thousands of British soldiers on the Somme realized they were doomed. The German machine gun emplacements facing them were built of concrete, steel, and sometimes even stone, and proved largely impervious to all but a direct hit by a high-explosive shell, something which seldom happened. Their crews waited out the British bombardment in reinforced bunkers as deep as 40 feet below ground, and when the shelling stopped and British soldiers advanced across no man’s land, bugle calls brought the Germans racing up stairways and ladders to man their machine guns. It was these that took the bulk of the toll of British troops on that first disastrous day.
Not only soldiers perished in this war, for the conflict erased the traditional distinction between soldiers and civilians. Total war among industrialized economies meant that everybody was fair game, and each side tried to starve the other into submission. German U-boats torpedoed Allied and eventually neutral ships (which brought the United States into the war) carrying food and supplies to France and Britain. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy threw a tight blockade around Germany and its allies, sealing them off from all imports of food and fertilizer. Bad harvests in central Europe compounded the food shortages, and often the only meat on sale in Germany was that of dogs and cats. A foreign visitor described what happened when a horse collapsed and died on a Berlin street one morning: “Women rushed towards the cadaver as if they had been poised for this moment, knives in their hands. Everyone was shouting, fighting for the best pieces. Blood spattered their faces and their clothes. . . . When nothing more was left of the horse beyond a bare skeleton, the people vanished, carefully guarding their pieces of bloody meat tight against their chests.”
If there were ever a war that should have had an early, negotiated peace, it was this one. After all, before it began the major powers had been exchanging royal visits and getting along reasonably well. In public, at least, none of them claimed a piece of another’s territory. Germany was Britain’s biggest trading partner. But once the conflict was on, neither side was willing to consider anything but total victory. From the beginning, Bertrand Russell had ceaselessly proposed peace terms. He suggested that a future “International Council” resolve disputes before they turned into war. In 1916, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson, urging him to use his influence to start peace talks, but with no result. Sometimes, however, encouragement came from unexpected sources. In December of that year, Russell received a letter that began, “To-night here on the Somme I have just finished your Principles of Social Reconstruction. . . . It is only on account of such thoughts as yours, on account of the existence of men and women like yourself that it seems worth while surviving the war. . . . You cannot mind knowing that you are understood and admired and that those exist who would be glad to work with you.” The writer, 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Graeme West of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was killed by a sniper’s bullet three months later, at the age of 25.
As the war went on, the number of resisters in British prisons grew. Fenner Brockway, editor of a socialist newspaper, was now, in Liverpool’s Walton Gaol, editor of the Walton Leader, one of at least nine clandestine CO prison papers. It was written with pencil lead that Brockway and other resisters had smuggled into prison attached to the bottoms of their feet with adhesive tape; each issue was published on 40 squares of brown toilet paper. The subscription price was extra sheets of toilet paper from each prisoner’s supply. Twice a week, until guards finally discovered it after a year, a new issue—only one copy could be “published”—was left in a toilet cubicle the CO prisoners shared.
It was not only draft refusers who were locked up. In the spring of 1918, Russell himself was sentenced to six months for writings the authorities deemed subversive. When he arrived to begin serving his sentence, the warder taking down his particulars “asked my religion and I replied ‘agnostic.’ He asked how to spell it, and then remarked with a sigh: ‘Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.’”
Officials were so awed by Russell’s fame and aristocratic ancestry (his grandfather had been prime minister and his older brother was an earl) that, alone among war resisters, he was allowed to be a “First Division” prisoner—an ancient, privileged status that permitted inmates to keep the tools of their trade, which for him meant books and paper. Russell had a lively and unconventional love life, and, evading the strict limits on prisoners’ correspondence, was able to smuggle out letters to two women he was involved with, all the while still nominally married to a third. A set of letters to one lover, a young actress, were in French, which he knew his guards would not be able to read; Russell persuaded them that these were historical documents copied from his research materials. A letter to another woman he slipped inside the uncut pages of the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, telling her the volume was more interesting than it appeared. Always self-disciplined, Russell wrote four hours a day, producing, among other work, 70,000 words of his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
After the bloodshed had continued without respite for three years, dissenters like these were joined by an unexpected voice that rang out from the very highest reaches of the country’s hierarchy. Lord Lansdowne was a great landowner and former viceroy of India, minister for war, and foreign secretary. His doubts about battling to an unconditional victory began after the Somme. Very much a man of his class, he was particularly appalled by the number of British officers slain. “We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands . . . ” he wrote. “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss.”
When the shocked London Times refused to publish it, an open letter from him appeared in the Daily Telegraph on November 29, 1917, laying out some proposals for a negotiated peace. “We are not going to lose this War,” Lansdowne wrote, “but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. . . . Just as this war has been more dreadful than any war in history, so, we may be sure, would the next war be even more dreadful than this.” Nearly three decades before Hiroshima, he prophetically sensed something about the future: “The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short.” Lansdowne was attacked by many former colleagues, and in their confidential reports on the public mood, undercover intelligence agents began speaking darkly of “Lansdownism.” Many soldiers, however, wrote to congratulate him on his bravery.
Government harassment of the antiwar movement grew steadily worse. The police raided the printer that produced the No-Conscription Fellowship’s newspaper and dismantled the press. The paper quickly switched to a new printer, who soon also found his presses wrecked. Produced next on a small hand press, the paper promptly reappeared as a single page with the triumphant headline “Here We Are Again!!” When the two men who operated this press ran out of type for the large capital letters used for headlines, they borrowed them from friendly fellow printers on Lord Northcliffe’s rabidly pro-war Daily Mail. For months to come, moving once or twice because of suspicious neighbors, this secret press continued to print the paper. Scotland Yard detectives never found it. Violet Tillard, an NCF activist, served two months in prison for refusing to reveal its location. Trying to figure this out, agents kept the organization’s office under surveillance, but an impoverished-looking woman with a baby, who visited the building every few days apparently hoping for a handout, never attracted their attention. She was smuggling proof sheets beneath the blankets of her baby carriage.
The former editor Fenner Brockway was in his prison cell when he heard the news that an armistice was to take effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Allowed no watch, he had learned to tell time by the position of a sunbeam on the wall.
I remember sitting on the shelf-table in the denuded cell, my feet on the stool, watching the sun creep along the wall towards eleven o’clock. I cannot reproduce the chaos and intensity of my thoughts.
“Was the slaughter of four years to end? . . . Was I to see my family and children? . . . Was I to see the fields and woods and hills and sea?
“The line of the sun on the wall approached eleven.
When horns all over the city suddenly sounded, Brockway wept.
Bertrand Russell, who had recently completed his prison term, walked up Tottenham Court Road and watched Londoners pour out of shops and offices into the street to cheer. The public jubilation made him think of the similar mood he had witnessed when war was declared more than four years earlier. “The crowd was frivolous still, and had learned nothing during the period of horror. . . . I felt strangely solitary amid the rejoicings, like a ghost dropped by accident from some other planet.”
Over the years, as the war’s toll sank in, they and others who had gone to jail for their beliefs began to win considerable respect from a public that had once scorned them. Brockway and several others became members of Parliament. Russell continued to write; in 1950, his top-heavy thatch of hair now completely white but as thick as ever, he would appear in Stockholm as one of the few writers of nonfiction ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. A trade unionist named Arthur Creech Jones spent two and a half years in prison as a CO; 30 years later, he was in the British cabinet. Ramsay MacDonald, an antiwar Labour MP, had not gone to prison during the war but had been under police surveillance and was repeatedly stoned when he spoke at peace meetings. Angry patriots had even voted to expel him from his golf club. In 1924, he became prime minister.
“I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be,” wrote Russell, decades later. “I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm.” And stand firm and honor the best of human nature they did. Their battle was not won, but it remains an example for our own time, a time increasingly shadowed by conflict, a time when we still, as General Omar Bradley once said, “know more about war than we know about peace.” As the 100th anniversary of 1914 approaches, who now seem the heroes—Russell and those like him, or those who dutifully marched off to be slaughtered at the Somme?
This article is drawn from To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918, published in May 2011.