Thursday, 31 August 2017

War on the Home Front (part two)

 by Christopher Draper

PART one of this story explained that 13 anarchists in the North-West region were active conscientious objectors to WWI.  As soon as conscription was introduced in February 1916 two comrades, Arthur Helsby and William Greaves, applied for absolute exemption but to no avail.  A third anarchist, Walter Barlow was arrested for ignoring the draft and fined before disappearing for the duration of hostilities.  Herbert Holt, William Hopkins, William Jackson and Charles Warwick were nabbed as “absentees” at Stockport anarchist club, along with Helsby (again!).  The police then rounded up and arrested a further 4 Stockport Anarcho-Conchies (A-C’s) and by the end of the year all but 2 of our 13 (one was still under age and the other elusive) had been collared but that didn’t end their protests.

Happy Christmas Conchies!
Christmas 1916 found 10 of our 13 anarchist conchies in captivity, 7 incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs, 1 in Leeds Prison and 2 (Greaves and Holt) teetering on the edge of imprisonment. William Greaves hadn’t yet exhausted his escalating appeals for absolute exemption after he’d been automatically enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers whilst Herbert Holt initially accepted alternative work on a Wakefield “Home Office Scheme” (HOS). Soon both attracted the wrath of the authorities and they were reunited with their imprisoned comrades.

Predictably Pointless Appeals
Herbert Holt was the man who’d argued in court for return of the pamphlets the police seized on their first raid on the Stockport anarchist club only to be arrested as an absentee on their second visit. Holt’s appeal ended with “alternative work” at a new HOS at Platt Hall Fields, Manchester. The scheme aimed to cultivate unused land to increase home food production. Twenty-five or so conchies were billeted in Platt Hall whilst they worked the adjacent fields. As usual, the authorities started taking liberties and when Herbert was ordered to maintain Manchester’s other parks and cemeteries he objected and spent the rest of the war in Strangeways. William Greaves’ sequence of appeals concluded with a court-martial at Oswestry followed by serial imprisonment; Shrewsbury, Wormwood Scrubs and finally Walton.

'Lion Taming'
Arrested at the Stockport 'Workers’ Freedom Group' (WFG) Club both William Jackson and William Hopkins were compulsorily enlisted in the Third Cheshire Regiment and posted to Birkenhead Barracks whose infamous unofficial motto was 'We tame lions here!'  The regiment systematically brutalised and humiliated conchies at their Birkenhead HQ but Jackson and Hopkins remained resolute even after the shit hit the fan.  Slapped, kicked and thrown over eight foot high walls in full public view at Birkenhead Park, along with 3 fellow conchies they were then court-martialled for non-compliance.  Their case became a cause celebre after the national press learned of their outrageous mistreatment.  Despite the officers’ brutality it was the conchies who were subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment (with Hard Labour) in Wormwood Scrubs.

Protest & Survive
Anarchist club comrades Robert Seaton and Charles Bradlaugh Warwick adopted a contrasting approach to conscientious objection. Seaton confronted conscription head-on whereas Warwick preferred ducking and diving. Initially arrested as an absentee and compulsorily enlisted in the Yorkshire Regiment, Charles Warwick refused to sign his army papers and immediately went AWOL. Posted as a deserter in the Police Gazette he was eventually captured, court-martialled at Blackpool and imprisoned. Subsequently sent to Dartmoor Work Camp he escaped and was again proscribed by the authorities. Arrested inSalford on 24 October 1917 Warwick was charged with forgery, having 'creatively amended' his call-up papers to facilitate his freedom.  Pronounced guilty he was sent back to prison.
Robert Seaton’s straightforward approach was to simply say no to everything, no conscription, no tribunal, no alternative work.  He was the absolutist’s absolutist.  Consequently Seaton is amongst the conchie elite (anarchists form a solid chunk of this group) who endured three courts-martial and three consequent prison sentences; in Wandsworth, Walton and Carlisle.  In July 1917, whilst imprisoned at Walton, Seaton engaged in a mass hunger strike along with around 20 other conchies and Irish Republicans in a solidarity protest against force feeding.  Subsequently transferred to Carlisle Prison, he was incarcerated long after the war ended.  On one occasion, when the authorities feared he might die in gaol, he was “temporarily” allowed out for 28 days under the 'cat and mouse act' but it wasn’t until August 1919 that Robert and the last of Britain’s imprisoned conchies were finally and officially released.
The conchie career of Samuel Brooks, another Stockport comrade, was remarkably similar to Seaton’s.  On occasions they even were court-martialled together and Samuel starved alongside Robert in the 1917 Walton mass hunger strike.
Stockport cotton piercer Alfred Toft endured an extra level of suffering when he went on hunger strike at Lincoln Prison August 1917 in protest against enduring arbitrary punishment.  Twice force-fed through a tube shoved down his throat into his stomach he spent the rest of the war inside Lincoln gaol.
In the inimitable words of Monty Python, 'he was lucky!' - Stockport iron moulder Robert Stuart Williams was force fed more than fifty times in Preston Prison.   Arrested as an absentee in 1916, routinely conscripted into a fighting unit, Robert refused to obey orders and so initiated the usual absurdist cycle of courts-martial, prison, disobedience and then round again.  After joining the A-C elite with 3 CM’s, 3 prison sentences and over 2 years inside to his credit he decided to hunger strike against his continued imprisonment after the 1918 armistice.  As the prison authorities recorded, he was systematically force fed 'to finish or release him'.

Knutsford Welcomes Burnley’s Bakunin
Arthur Riley was a Burnley cotton weaver living at home and supporting his crippled brother and aged mother, who was afflicted with chronic rheumatism. Arthur’s father was already dead, as were four of Arthur’s siblings. It was an impoverished family and the local tribunal initially cut him some slack but in 1917 they demanded his enlistment so Arthur tried to avoid them by sleeping at different addresses. Riley’s opinions on the war were already well known around town as he was an activist who, the previous year, had a long letter published in the local paper defending conchies.  Arrested and tried in September 1917 Arthur informed the court, 'Politically he was an anarchist absolutely and he was an atheist in religious matters. He believed it was morally wrong to take human life or assist in doing so.'  After a spell of imprisonment in Preston Gaol, just before Xmas 1917 Riley was sent to Knutsford Work Camp where, along with 800 other conchies he was housed in the disused prison.  As if that wasn’t bad enough the good townsfolk of Knutsford conducted an unrelenting campaign of violent hostility to the conchies billeted on their doorstep.  An endless stream of stories published in the local press stoked up resentment; 'Milk for Objectors but Not Enough for Babies', 'Proposed Exclusion from Library', 'Freeholders Ban Conchies from Playing Football on Heath' and the cruellest blow of all, 'The Ladies tennis club at Knutsford have decided that any member who associates with a Conchie must resign at once!'
From 7am until 5.30pm Arthur and his comrades were set to work repairing the dilapidated prison building but were then allowed into town as long as they returned by 9pm.  This wasn’t as attractive as it might appear as townsfolk generally refused to serve the conchies in shops and even the local medic, Dr Fennell, boasted, 'He hated them and would like to drown every last one of them…  One was brought to his surgery and he had shown him the door.'   Most nights a hostile reception committee was gathered at the gates awaiting any conchie brave enough to leave the camp.  Violence erupted on numerous occasions and whilst Arthur was at Knutsford one attack was so outrageous that the local authorities were obliged to intervene and prosecute 10 local jingoes.
In Court Superintendant Sutherland explained, 'The attack on the conchies began in Canute Place and ended in front of the prison in something which approached a riot.” Despite damning evidence the culprits were merely bound over and the magistrates expressed their hope that their victims (the conchies) would be removed from the town as soon as possible, and so they were. In the New Year (1918) Arthur and the rest of the Knutsford conchies were transferred to Dartmoor Work camp and as the local paper reported, “There were great rejoicings in the town on their leaving.'

Cheeky Boy!
Conscription continued into 1918 and in March, as the Manchester papers reported, 'An impudent and very empty appeal was made by an 18-year-old conscientious objector at the Salford Appeals Tribunal…the youth said in his application that the British war aims were all wrong.  He did not believe in war'.  The Tribunal merely expressed amusement when the young man, 'admitted he was an anarchist' and most reasonably argued, 'that he did not think it was right that Mesopotamia when captured by the British should go to Lever Bros. the soap manufacturers, as one Cabinet Minister had intimated in a recent speech.'  Our anonymous comrade was ordered to report when called upon but appears to have evaded conscription.

As our comrades claimed, this was no war to end wars, on the contrary. Sadly the war’s deadly toll included the British anarchist movement which never regained its pre-war working class vitality. None of our 13 North-Western anarcho-conchies were anything above skilled workers.  Lithographer Arthur Helsby was probably the most elevated and none typified the middle class intellectuals that now characterise our vestigial movement.  Many of the most politically active workers that survived the war fell under the spell of Bolshevism and joined the Communist Party. Burnley’s Arthur Riley was a founder member but now Communism’s also collapsed.  The lessons of history aren’t obvious but our local anarcho-conchies were motivated by an anarchism that hadn’t yet grown world weary, cynical and sectarian.  Their stories are an inspiration.
(Llandudno, August 2017

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