Thursday, 31 August 2017

War on the Home Front (part one)

by Chris Draper
WHILST British workers concentrated on killing German workers at Passchendaele back home loyal servants of the State used every trick in the book to frighten and torture 16,000 conscientious objectors into uniform. The Church of England assisted as recruiting sergeant and despite their hallowed reputation, a third of Quakers signed up to exterminate their fellow man.

The organised labour movement colluded with the killing but rebel socialists and anarchists refused to bang the jingo drum and here in the North West thirteen brave anarchists confronted the rabid State and refused to bear arms.

Atheists go to Hell Conscription started in 1916 and the only individuals the State considered fit for ‘conscientious objection' (CO) were pacifists obeying orders from GOD. Political objections were derided and dismissed so anarchists were on a hiding to nothing appealing to the authorities.  Once conscription began everyone was deemed to have enlisted so if you didn’t turn yourself in you would be arrested, fined and handed over to the military.  Any refusal to follow orders then led to court martial and imprisonment with hard labour, usually for 112 days for a first offence.

On completion of this sentence you were handed back to the military and the whole cycle recommenced with subsequent sentences extended up to two years and continuing even after hostilities Workers’ Playtime Thirteen anarchists from the North -West of England defied the draft and refused to fight. This was a pretty good contribution, comprising more than a third of the total AC’s (Anarcho-Conchies) from the whole of England. This comparative strength
derived from the influence of the Stockport Workers Freedom Group (WFG)
The group started up in 1913 and the following February opened their own clubrooms at 18 Park Street, Hazel Grove, with funds provided by millionaire anarchist and Kodak director, George Davison.  WFG proved a powerhouse of anarchist propaganda and in September 1913 under the auspices of the group, Guy Aldred delivered a series of eight open-air lectures in Stockport’s ‘Armoury & Mersey Squares” on revolutionary topics from, ‘Capitalism and the Child’ to ‘Direct Action, Legislation and the Social War’ .

Once conscription started Aldred was himself imprisoned as a conchie but the Stockport comrades were ready primed to resist
Gone Fishing

Legislation enacting Conscription received Royal Assent on 27 January 1916 In Stockport magistrates Court, ‘Inspector Billinge said that on February 1 the Chief Constable took out a warrant under the Defence of the Realm Act to search the premises, 18 Park Street occupied by the Workers Freedom Group or Anarchist Club’. The police failed to arrest anyone on that occasion but seized, ‘a number of documents and pamphlets, many of which were of a revolutionary nature and, no doubt, cry prejudicial to recruiting’
The Chief Constable wanted to destroy everything but Herbert Holt , a leading member of WFG, argued their literature should be returned. Although magistrates agreed Holt could retain a few titles for some inexplicable reason they incinerated:  ‘Down With Conscription’, ‘The International Anarchist Manifesto on the War’ and ‘Apes and Patriotism!’ Patriotic Apes.

Hazel Grove police had already removed thousands of similar pamphlets from Langley Cottage, the Hazel Street home of another WFG club member, commercial traveller WilliamJackson. Jackson was grassed up by patriotic member of the local community, John James Warren after William gave him a publication entitled, ‘Unite Against the British Prussians’. Warren testified that in January he’d been a passenger on a train from Manchester to Hazel Grove when Jackson was handing out these pamphlets to passengers. Warren claimed he’d previously seen him giving them out in London Road, Hazel Grove. As a God-fearing jingo he obeyed his patriotic duty and took a copy down to Hazel Grove police station who’d responded with a raid on Jackson’s home. In court, William argued for return of the haul removedfrom his house, which included, “2,000 pamphlets headed, Unite Against the British Prussians–500 pamphlets headed, Fight Against Conscription–100 pamphlets headed, ‘An Appeal to Socialists–and 36 pamphlets headed, A General Strike’.

Unfortunately magistrates ordered the destruction of all these classics but on the plus side, they
did return, ‘Tariff Reform Monthly Notes’!

Hard Won Lessons
Anyone intending to claim “Conscientious Objection” was permitted until 24 June 1916 to appeal to a local ‘Military Service Tribunal (MST)’ but ten of our conchies just ignored their call-up papers and waited to be arrested as “absentees”. Of the remaining three, one lad was yet under-age and the two that applied to have their conscience adjudged by MST soon found their trust was misplaced.

Twenty-six year old lithographer Arthur Helsby applied to St Helen’s MST as soon as conscription began, requesting exemption but offering to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). Instead he was conscripted into the army’s ‘Non-Combat Corps (NCC)’ and on 25, March 1916carted off to Kinmel army camp in North Wales for military training.

Helsby soon learned ‘non-combatant’ didn’t exempt him from the war machine. The NCC were obliged to wear khaki, obey military orders, dig trenches, load munitions– ‘soldiers without guns' constantly the butt of insults and abuse from regular troops.  When Arthur objected, on Monday 29 May 1916 he was covertly ‘rendered’ over to the killing fields of France for the army’s cunning plan was to transport CO’s over to the battlefield and terrify them into submission..

Refusing orders under fire would then invite court -martial and death by firing squad . Thirty-four of Arthur’s fellow CO’s in France were formally condemned to death be fore their sentences were commuted to 10 years imprisonment after details of this army deception became public.  So Helsby wasn’t shot but for refusing to go on parade was subjected to 28 days of the notorious 'Field Punishment Number One', which involved being spread -eagled and chained to a field gun wheel, or fixed posts, and was routinely described as 'crucifixion'.

On 10 June Arthur was court martialled at Calais and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour, Initially incarcerated in a military prison at Rouen, on 4 July 1916 Helsby was conveyed, in irons, back to England to serve his time at Winchester civil prison. Public outcry over the army’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ prompted the authorities to commute Arthur’s sentence and he was released from Winchester on the 29 August 1916, having served barely two months of a two year sentence. He was bloodied but unbowed Manchester MST.

Thirty-two year old shipping clerk William Greaves made his application for absolute exemption to Manchester MST on 20 September 1916. Like Helsby, he was nevertheless conscripted into the NCC.  He avoided being sent to France but didn’t accept this NCC role and pressed his absolutist claim through both County and Central Tribunals to no good effect. Formally consigned to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he was first court-martialled at Oswestry and sentenced to serve 6 months in Shrewsbury Prison.   On his release from Shrewsbury he was returned to Oswestry, court-martialled again and then sentenced to a two-year stretch at Liverpool’s Walton Gaol.

I am an Anarchist!’

Oldham-born Walter Barlow, a twenty-one year old “hat leather cutter”, of 2 Stream Terrace, Victoria Road, Stockport put his call-up papers in the bin and was arrested as an absentee. 
Unintimidated, on Tuesday 13 June 1916 he told magistrates, ‘I am an anarchist and do not believe in the government of men by men’. Walter went on to expose the cynical function of MST’s in dividing and defusing the peace movement, explaining ‘tribunals were used to smash opposition to the Military Services Act’. Predictably, the magistrates were unpersuaded, fined him 40s. and decreed he be handed over to the military but the military never got their man.

For the duration of WWI Walter Barlow went AWOL.

Collar the Lot

With gaping holes apparent in the conscription net and the last opportunity past to appeal for exemption, the Stockport authorities planned a return to 18 Park Street and this time seize more than just pamphlets.

Anarchist Club Raid–Capture of Absentees at Stockport’ yelled the Manchester Evening News of 22 September 1916’.
Herbert Holt, William Hopkins, William Jackson and Charles Warwick arrested for dodging the draft.
These four were hauled up before magistrates along with a character the authorities couldn’t then identify but we already know as our recently returned hero from France and Winchester comrade Arthur Helsby!

The Stockport constabulary informed the press that this mysterious character was ‘evidently a man of foreign extraction’, which seems a harsh judgement on a man born in Liverpool.
During ongoing enquiries the other four anarchists were each fined 40s. and handed on to the military.
Once the police resolved Arthur’s identity he was carted of to Leeds Prison before being restored to the farcical conscription treadmill and returned to “his regiment” at Kinmel Camp. Four further anarchists were rapidly rounded up in raids in and in and around the WFG clubrooms but I’ll identify them (a long with the two further AC’s) and unravel the rest of this fascinating tale in part two (coming soon on the NV website).
Peace & Love
Christopher Draper

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