the men who said no


Emily Hobhouse

Emily Hobhouse is famous for exposing the appalling conditions of Boer families, herded by the British into concentration camps during the Boer War in South Africa. It is less well known that she actively opposed the First World War. She is the only known British civilian to have visited Germany and talked to the German Foreign Minister in the middle of the war, trying to find a way to negotiate peace.

She was born on 9 April 1860 in St. Ive in Cornwall, the daughter of Caroline and Reginald Hobhouse, her father being the first Archdeacon of Bodmin. Her mother died when she was 20 so she spent the next 15 years looking after her father until his death. She then went out to Minnesota to organise welfare work among Cornish miners. Losing most of her money after a failed romance that had taken her to Mexico, she returned to England in 1898. Her uncle, Baron Hobhouse, and his wife supported her in her campaigning and welfare work. She became interested in the campaign for women’s suffrage, becoming Chair of the People’s Suffrage Federation which believed in all men and women achieving the vote, not just those with property. She was elected to the executive of the Women’s Industrial Council, investigating child labour for them.

In October 1899 when the second Boer war broke out she was invited by a Liberal MP, Leonard Courtney, President of the South African Conciliation Committee, to become secretary of its women’s branch. She organised a number of protests against the war. As anger and concern grew at reports of the treatment of the Boers by the British, she set up the South African Women and Children Distress Fund to raise funds for their relief. In December 1900 she travelled to South Africa to distribute the funds, and to investigate conditions for herself. Lord Kitchener had instituted a systematic ‘scorched earth’ policy which involved destroying livestock and crops, burning farms and homesteads, poisoning wells and putting salt on fields; Boer women and children were moved into concentration camps. She had military permission to visit some of the camps and saw the hunger and disease arising from the overcrowding and lack of food and medical facilities. There is a description of her courage when visiting one of the camps, ‘a puff adder slithered into the tent. As everyone else fled, Hobhouse, no more intimidated by a poisonous snake than by a viceroy, tried to kill it with her parasol.’ She saw corpses being carried to mass graves: ‘My heart wept within me when I saw the misery.’ She demanded milk, clothing, medicines, soap from the startled British officers: ‘None of the camp commandants were quite sure who this well-dressed, well-connected woman was, but they knew she was angry and they were not about to say no to her.’

It is estimated that 27,927 Boers died in the camps, mostly children under 16 - from starvation, disease and exposure, though this may be an underestimate. She worked with local women to help improve the situation, and returned to England in May 1901, her report to the South Africa Distress Fund being published in June. She and others worked hard to publicise her findings. She lectured the Secretary of State for War for two hours. Thanks to her stream of letters to newspapers, the camps had become an international scandal. MPs as a whole were unsympathetic to Emily’s reports. The government set up a committee of inquiry under Millicent Fawcett, which reported back the following year confirming many of the same facts that Emily had reported, though conditions had improved. Emily was not allowed to be a member of the committee as she had upset officialdom, receiving widespread criticism from the government and the media - Lord Kitchener called her ‘that bloody woman’. When she tried to return to South Africa in November 1901, she was refused permission to land, and transferred to another ship to go home - when she wouldn’t move, soldiers picked her up and as she struggled, tied her arms ‘like a lunatic’, the colonel in charge said. She replied ‘Sir, the lunacy is on your side and with those whose commands you obey’.

In 1903 after the war she was able to go back, where she set up rehabilitation projects such as schools to teach lace-making, spinning and weaving. She returned home to Europe in late 1908. Her health had been permanently damaged, with a heart condition, so she spent winters in Rome. While in South Africa in 1913 for the unveiling of the monument at Bloemfontein to the Boer women and children who had died, she met Gandhi, who appealed for her help with the suffering Indian community. She helped him to meet Prime Minister Botha and resolve the situation. Gandhi said in her obituary: ‘Miss Hobhouse was one of the noblest and bravest of women. She worked without thinking of any reward….She loved her country and because she loved it she could not tolerate any injustice caused by it. She realised the atrocity of war. She thought Britain was wholly in the wrong….She had a soul that could defy the might of kings and emperors with their armies.’

The weekend WW1 began, she desperately tried to stop it, writing to all her contacts including Lloyd George who had supported her over the Boer war camps, and sending a letter to the Manchester Guardian: ‘Few English people have seen war in its nakedness….they know nothing of the poverty, destruction, disease, pain, misery and mortality which follow in its train….I have seen all of this and more.’ Soon afterwards she was helping Belgian refugees and interested in the work her cousin Stephen was doing for the relief of interned enemy aliens. She organised an open Christmas letter from 100 British women to German and Austrian women, in 1914: ‘Do not let us forget our very anguish unites us….we must all urge that peace be made. We are yours in this sisterhood of sorrow.’ By next March a matching open letter was published from a similar number of German and Austrian women, with warm greetings.

Emily was on the British Organising Committee for the International Women’s Congress in the Hague in 1915, though unable to attend for health reasons and her inability to get a permit to travel from Rome through Germany. By June 1915 the British Ambassador in Rome was already complaining about her pacifist activities to the Foreign Office. Later on when the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom based its office in Amsterdam, she stood in as Secretary for three months while the main organisers were in the States. (She only just got to Amsterdam in time - the British Government had asked their embassies in France, Italy and Switzerland to send her back to England.) She wrote the foreword to the Congress report saying ‘From the moment of the declaration of War….the germ of the idea, nameless and unformed, that the women of the world must come to the world’s aid, was silently and spontaneously conceived….In several countries, even belligerent - the work of peace and international fraternity received extraordinary impetus from the early days of the war.’ She said the International Suffrage Alliance had been training women for years to work with each other: ‘Thus the Women’s Congress unfurled the white flag of Peace and - despite ridicule, disdain, opposition and disbelief - held it aloft before a blood-stained world.

In her journal she describes her view of the war:
‘Holding as I do, that a War is not only wrong in itself but a crude mistake I stand wholly outside its passions and feel, while it lasts, a spectator of a scene which I deplore, but with which I am in no sense a part. I give, have given and will give nothing to any fund to aid war or warriors. My small means are devoted entirely to helping non-combatants who suffer in consequence of war and in supporting every movement making for peace. I believe it useless to soften or civilize war, that there is no such thing as ‘Civilized War’; there is war between civilized peoples certainly but as we now see that becomes more barbarous than war between barbarians. I believe the only thing is to strike at the root of the Evil and demolish War itself as the great and impossible Barbarity.

From the beginning of the war Emily had wanted to go to Germany to seek ways of making peace. En route to Amsterdam she had made contact in Switzerland with the German ambassador, Baron von Romberg. ‘I wanted from the first to find means to tell the peoples (Germans, Austrians and Turks etc) that amongst us there were many who did not hate them but held the principle of internationalism politically, and brotherly love religiously. I wanted, as far as one individual may, to begin laying the foundations of international life, even while the war was in progress - to say ‘Here I come alone of my own free will into your country to bear you, even while our Governments are at war, a message of peace and Goodwill.

Returning to Italy eventually after first getting permission from London, she knew she was under surveillance. She was made to sign an oath that she wouldn’t undertake any peace propaganda while in Italy, where she stayed till April 1916 sorting out her affairs. In spite of these difficulties she attended, as an observer, the radical socialist Second Zimmerwald Conference, where Lenin was too. Socialists from warring and neutral states attended but none could come from Britain. They discussed such subjects as ‘The Attitude of the Proletariat to the Question of Peace’ and their compromise manifesto said ‘Down with the war!’. While in Switzerland she attended a rally of the Berne International Movement for Permanent Peace and the Foreign Office reacted badly to reports of this, revoking her passport on 27 May. But the Swiss police were forbidden from giving out addresses of foreigners so the Foreign Office took some time to track her down. When they politely asked her to call at the Legation she knew it was time to carry out her plan to visit Belgium to see the condition of non-combatants. She also hoped to visit Germany to go to the internment camp at Ruhleben for British civilians. Her contact with Baron von Romberg enabled her to get a humanitarian passport. Much as she wanted to go, she admits in her journal to being physically terrified of what might await her in Germany. (She politely told the Embassy she would be glad to call on her return from her trip, which she did, meeting the very angry Consul.)

In June 1916 she spent ten days in Belgium, always accompanied by German escorts, and forbidden from talking to any Belgians, which made it difficult for her to appreciate the full effects of life in an occupied country. She went to cities like Brussels and Antwerp, and places where atrocities had been reported but was not allowed near the current war zones. She discovered later on that the Political department, under whose auspices she was travelling, hadn’t told the Military authorities she was there. She found that there had been exaggeration about the scale of destruction in places, and that, for example, the destruction of the library at Louvain had apparently been accidental, arising from local resistance to the occupation. Her German escort were defensive about suggestions they had destroyed cathedrals or looted artwork, saying Germans didn’t do that. She saw that the population were not getting enough food, and heard about an outbreak of tuberculosis. After her interrogation by Scotland Yard back in England, it was commented that she had come to the conclusions the Germans wanted her to. She may have been naive but she observed as closely as she could within the limits allowed.

Finally permission was secured for her to go to Berlin, where she spent five days. As her great-niece points out, in that time she managed to see the Foreign Secretary, discovering his willingness to discuss peace, worked out a way talks could begin, visited the camp for civilian internees and devised a plan for their exchange with German internees in England, saw leading pacifist and socialist opponents of the war, and visited those in charge of social welfare and feeding. This was an exhausting schedule for anyone, let alone someone with her health problems. She discovered that Baron Falkenhausen, her escort, had been given orders by the War Office that she shouldn’t see anyone, but she persuaded him (after the event, as she had gone off on her own) that she needed to be free to see all kinds of groups.

The German Foreign Minister at the time was Gottlieb von Jagow. She described it as ‘A strangely moving experience to be sitting with the Foreign Minister of the country with which we are at death grips and having a heart to heart talk with what I believe was mutual confidence and respect.’ She came away believing that he wanted peace but that the German government’s previous overtures to Britain had been rebuffed with insults, as he saw it. She believed, possibly naively, that he wanted her to act as an intermediary with the British government. Whether she was right or not the British government showed no interest when she got home and tried to contact them. The policeman who interviewed her at Scotland Yard did believe that the Germans might regard her as an unofficial peace envoy. But it was difficult for her to convey what she had learnt except in person as it had to be top secret. A civilian acting as intermediary, let alone a woman, and especially one regarded as a traitor, was anathema to the Foreign Office. Unfortunately Sir Edward Grey wasn’t well, and later that year changes of government in both countries led to new Foreign Secretaries.

There is a feeling in her journal of a polite aristocratic world with some of her German escorts, which seems to belong to a time before the war and to have little relation to the military realities of what each country was actually doing to the other on the Western Front, let alone the wider context of the war on other fronts such as with Russia. But she wasn’t unaware of the real war, however much they tried to keep her away from the sight of troop trains bound for the front. In the end in October 1916 she published an account of her visit, not mentioning von Jagow by name, but the Foreign Office carefully deflected questions in the House away from the question of peace negotiations, on to whether or not civilians were permitted to travel to enemy countries during wartime. Her passport was withdrawn and a regulation was made to prevent such visits in future, but they refrained from interning her as some wanted. On 12 December 1916 Germany made a formal offer of peace which was clumsily worded and made no mention of concessions, though Emily had been told they would make them. It was rejected. Two years later, when Lord Newton, who had listened to Emily, was in Holland negotiating some exchanges of internees, he found that the Germans did want peace and were willing to make exactly the concessions Emily had indicated.

Visiting the camp for British civilian internees, she found they were largely well looked after but under great mental stress with the strain of being locked up. On return she lobbied hard for her scheme to exchange these civilians for the much larger number of Germans interned in Britain. The government did take up aspects of her scheme, though naturally it wouldn’t credit her with this, insisting it was negotiating with Germany in any case. Agreement was apparently reached months later. She also campaigned to get better food and raw materials into Belgium, suffering from the allied blockade.

She saw the results of that blockade on Germany too, with the shortage of food supplies. The German activists she met were hungry and exhausted. A German pastor told her that he estimated 5000 children had died during 1915-16 because of it, and he considered they had been deliberately murdered by the British Government. She agreed but said the German Zeppelins and submarines had murdered a large number of children on the British side too. Startled, he agreed and they shook hands.

She was part of the Peace Negotiations Committee and continued after her return campaigning with them, lecturing about a proposed League of Nations, producing leaflets. She did get support, for example the Midland Convention of the No Conscription Fellowship passed a resolution expressing ‘its profound gratitude to Miss Emily Hobhouse for her courageous action in the cause of peace, and its sympathy with her in the hostility and misrepresentation now directed against her.’

After WW1, she helped set up a fund to help ‘enemy’ children, the Fund to Aid Swiss Relief, whose work was incorporated into the Save the Children Fund, and she chaired the Russian Babies Fund. In September 1919 she represented the Save the Children Fund on a visit to Austria, setting up and overseeing a local relief fund. She was honoured by the City of Leipzig and the German Red Cross for this work.
Later a fund was raised in South Africa to buy her a small house in St. Ives. In South Africa she continues to be revered- ironically at one point under the apartheid government having a submarine named after her, in a total misunderstanding of her work. She died of pleurisy on 8 October 1926. Her ashes are buried at the National Women’s monument at the Bloemfontein war memorial.




Guardian Report
Manchester Guardian report

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