Cyril Pearce: Comrades in Conscience - The story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War
Published by Francis Boutle at £15.
The anti-war stand taken to the First World War by people in Huddersfield has been very powerfully captured in this updated copy of Cyril Pearce’s book Comrades in Conscience - the story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War.
It was people like Arthur Gardiner who earned Huddersfield the reputation of being ‘a hotbed of pacifism.’ Arthur sat on the local Trades Union Council as a representative of the Dyers’ and Fin-ishers’ Union, one of Unite’s predecessor unions. He was one of 117 anti-war resisters in Hudders-field who refused to be called up when conscription was introduced in 1916. It is estimated (*) that nationally there was as many as 20,000 Conscientious Objector’s. (COs) This compares to the five million who served in Britain’s armed forces and of which 662,000 were killed and 140,000 record-ed missing, presumably dead.
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. These included many women such as Gardiner’s future wife, Sis Timmins,
However, once the Military Service Act began operating on 10 February 1916 then 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 20 March 1916 attracted a crowd of over 300 people. He appealed, ultimately unsuccessfully, to be exempted from all forms of military ser-vice because “For years I have devoted my energies to the economic and moral upliftment of hu-manity. 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 were arrested. Drawing inspiration from the women’s suffrage movement, whereby women had been imprisoned and gone on hunger strike in the campaign for the vote, both men refused to be placed in work centres. They were sent to jail and placed in solitary dark cell punishment. Although Gardi-ner eventually cracked not so Ellis, who was clearly a strong man.
When the war ended both men returned home. Badly victimised for many years, Gardiner later be-came the Labour Party’s second full-time agent. He was a local councillor from 1927-1930 and 1933-1967 and also served as Mayor in 1941-42.
Comrades in Conscience, costing £15, is available online from the publishers, Francis Boutle at
* Work is still ongoing to establish the exact figures but it is becoming clear that there were other ‘Huddersfield’ communities across the UK whose stories are just as important as those who served in the First World War. The Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors is a digital platform set to be launched shortly with 17000 COs listed.
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