February 1918

February 1918 saw the Tribunal temporarily at bay, as the ever-tightening noose of censorship closed in on it’s writers and editors. Slowly but surely, the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 had been expanding, and new powers granted by extensions and amendments allowed the government to go on the attack against the Tribunal once more. By the end of the month, the NCF, COs in prison, their sympathisers and even opponents in government must have been asking the same question - how long can we last?

7th February issue - DO YOU KNOW?
The February 7th issue of the Tribunal contains, for the first time, no new material. It is entirely composed of propaganda material; lists of the numbers of COs in prison, their conditions, motivations and experiences. Perhaps rallying after the dismal December-January, the issue sees the NCF reach out to the public, using the hard-earned experience of the previous years to produce effective and powerful propaganda.

The articles in the issue make sure to “name-check” groups that were already CO-aligned, if not outright supportive. “British Prussianism”, the page 2 article, mentions “1,000 Trade Unionists” being punished for their principles, 4,000 religious COs from “Church of England, Baptist, Congregational, Primitive Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Society of Friends, etc”, following up with “Some Opinions”, reprinting sympathetic editorials from the President of the Miner’s Federation, Aberdeen Free Press, the Times and the Solicitors Journal.

FiguresThe issue ends with the court martial statements of two well-known and politically prominent COs - Fenner Brockway, here credited as “Editor, Labour Leader” and James Hudson, presented as the “Labour Candidate for the Eccles Division”. Both men make powerful speeches - Fenner on the prospect of Peace to come, and Hudson on the Capitalist’s war. The message of both the speeches and the issue as a whole is clear: COs are reasonable men, just like you, and their punishment is for nothing more than acting for peace.

While the issue is a well produced propaganda effort, it would also have been very quick to put together. Every word is a reprint from previous issues, and no news, editorials or updates feature. It was written, published and distributed in a hurry, as only three days later, the Tribunal would face the most stern legal test in its history of publication.

14th February - “Our Prosecution”
On Saturday 9th, the staff of the Tribunal faced two prosecutions for material printed in the January 3rd issue. Bertrand Russell was prosecuted for his inflammatory statement on the German Peace Proposal, and Joan Beauchamp for “false statements” made in printing the “Guard Room Message” of the week.

Russell’s prosecution was technically not for the explicit call for a labour-led revolution he had made, but for insinuating that the inbound US soldiers would be put to sinister work:

“The American Garrison... will no doubt be capable of intimidating strikers, an occupation to which the American Army is accustomed to when at home”.

Prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for the “diabolical effect this passage would have if published without contradiction”, Russell was tried, found guilty and sentenced perfunctorily, and in a court room set up to provide no possible escape from prosecution. Brigadier-General Childs, the perennial foe of the Conscientious Objector, gave evidence to a court room predisposed to believe anything stated by a representative of the War Office. As in the 1916 case of “Repeal the Act”, the prosecution was assured, despite the spirited defence of opinion, freedom of the press and the rights of the individual in British law.

Aside from the right of Russell to lecture, write and publish his own opinions, any understanding of US labour history must acknowledge that at least to some extent, he was right. The US army and the National Guard were quite adept at strikebreaking, having been called in on numerous occasions between 1880 and 1918 to crush peaceful, legal industrial action. Only three years later, the army was the weapon of last resort (following intimidation, assassination, poison gas and aerial bombardment) against striking miners in West Virginia. Conscription and the Army has been consistently posed as a threat to organised labour in Britain, but of all the Entente nations, only the US had used it extensively.

Russell’s sentence was set at six months, which he served in Brixton prison, finding it, by his own account “in many ways quite agreeable”, and served as time enough to write his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.

Joan Beauchamp’s trial was held up by a technicality. In order to prove that the statements made in the “Guard Room Message” were false, the author of the letter reprinted would have to be found, extracted from prison, transferred to London and put to testify. In the author’s absence, no trial could take place. The prosecution, surprised, realised they had been caught out and adjourned the case.

Both Russell and Beauchamp were supported by a “hearty crowd” which set the Tribunal writers to reminisce about the “prosecutions in the early days of the Fellowship”. Perhaps the crowd and the enthusiasm of the prisoners convinced them that the lodged appeals would succeed, and produce a “red letter day in the history of the movement”. They would find out in April, but for now the NCF held it’s breath.

21st February Issue: Henry Firth and Clement Miles
While the NCF was embroiled in legal troubles, the experiences of Conscientious Objectors in prison and work camps continued to worsen. The 21st February issue reports on the death of two comrades - Henry Firth, a CO in Dartmoor Work Centre, and Clement Miles, an NCF organiser.

Henry Firth’s death was accompanied by the now sadly usual medical malpractice, neglect and official coverup at inquest that characterised so many CO deaths throughout the war. For COs in the Princetown Settlement at Dartmoor, it was also a catalyst for determined action. The Tribunal reports:

“The death of H. W Firth on February 6th aroused such feeling in Princetown Settlement that a general meeting was convened on the night of his death to consider the course to be adopted... it was agreed that a ballot should be taken on a cessation of work”

The work-strike that followed included the entire population of COs at Dartmoor, who issued a statement of intent:

“This general meeting of members of the Dartmoor Settlement beg to inform the home secretary that they are ceasing work between 6am and 10pm on Friday, February 8th, to mark their respect to their deceased comrade, H. W. Firth, and their indignation at the treatment by the doctors in the settlement hospital. They further desire the cessation of work to be regarded as a protest agains the general maltreatment of conscientious objectors.”

The strike concluded on the 9th of February with H. W. Firth’s funeral procession. The whole Settlement turned out to escort the coffin bearing Firth to the rail station, with songs and quiet contemplation as they bid farewell to “another victim of government persecution and tyranny”.

The Inquest that followed returned it’s inevitable verdict; death by natural causes. The jurors and coroner expressed their sympathy with Firth’s widow, and nothing changed for COs at Dartmoor.

C.H.Norman, writing for the Tribunal, ended his account of Firth’s inquest with the perennial theme of February’s coverage: how long could this go on?

21st February: IMPORTANT
The day after the Russell and Beauchamp prosecution, the NCF and Labour Press offices, the writers and printers of the Tribunal, were raided by the Police, acting without warrant, on the instructions of the Home Secretary. Issues of the Tribunal were seized, lists of subscribers, distributors and sympathisers were taken and the Labour Press was stripped of it’s printing machinery.

With no warrant, no written instructions and only an apparent telephone call from the Home Secretary to guide them, the legality of the seizure was in doubt. When questions were asked in Parliament, George Cave, simply ignored the issue - “appropriate action has been taken”.

The raids were not just an attempt to censor the printing of the Tribunal, but a clear attempt to intimidate subscribers, distributors and staff. Without warning, without a warrant and any form of legal backing, the Home Secretary was telling the NCF quite plainly that despite the adjournment of the Joan Beauchamp case, they could rely on the protection of the law. Censorship and repression were tools at his command, no matter the letter of the law. It was a clear and despotic attempt to silence any dissent.

But the Tribunal could not be so easily silenced. The 21st February issue was printed as normal, on time and distributed widely. It looks remarkably different from the standard issues, using an Raidsamalgam of different fonts and typeface styles and omitting the full names of authors, publisher and editors. It is an issue written under duress and extreme time pressure, printed with the aid of sympathetic publishing houses using any type blocks they could lend. That it was printed at all was a remarkable achievement, and a testimony to the dedication of the NCF staff.

By the end of February 1918, the anti-Conscription movement was reeling. Suffering in court, in prisons and work camps and in the press, the situation was unsustainable. Though the Tribunal printed “Apologies for our reduced and pressured circumstances”, the end seemed to loom for the movement. March 1918 would be make-or-break.

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Pacifists and Protesters
the lost story of resistance
to World War One