April 1917

In many ways April 1917 was a watershed moment for the war, but the fate of British Conscientious Objectors did not see significant change. Many of the articles published in April 1917 issues of The Tribunal are concerned with world issues - Russia, the USA and pacifism abroad.

5th April 1917 - The New Hope
As seen in the March 1917 review, the February Revolution in Russia seemed to offer a great deal of promise for Conscientious Objectors and their supporters in Britain. The enthusiasm of The Tribunal for the Russian revolution is clear, with Russia securing “all the liberties that we have lost, and others that we have never had”. It was not only the comparison between the rights New Hopepromised by the Russian Provisional government and those taken away by the wartime British government that The Tribunal pushed, but also the promise of further, widespread and world-wide reform brought about by socialist revolution. The article declares that anti-war activists and socialists should be “no longer uttering despairing and protest and giving vent to dim aspirations for a better world at some future date”. Reform, peace and release for COs seemed an active and immanent possibility.

It’s interesting to note why the February revolution was so important to the NCF. By April of 1917, peace seemed further away than ever. Since the introduction of the Home Office Scheme, no new developments in the CO situation had improved their conditions, and the deadlock on the western front promised nothing but more slaughter. It must have been a dark time, with no prospect of change. For the NCF, as it would be for socialists and communists around the world with the October Revolution, Russia would become the “positive news” of the year.

19th April - America’s entry into the War
Updates on war news in The Tribunal tend to be accounts of the horror and pointlessness of the war, but this article presents a rather more involved and interesting update. The entry of the USA into the war on the side of the Entente was in many circles heralded as an opportunity for a quick and victorious resolution to the conflict. It forms an interesting study of pacifism directly engaging with the military aspects of the war.

The article, written by Bertrand Russell, poses an interesting question: how exactly do pacifists want the war to end? The entry of America poses no easy answers. The position of President Wilson appeared to be moderate - after an anti-intervention platform in 1916, it appeared he was committed to a more balanced peace, perhaps even with terms that may have been acceptable to both Entente and Allied nations. Russell argues that Wilson could potentially act as a stabilising influence on any peace negotiations arising from the war - does another country entering the war have a positive outcome in the long term?

A second issue was that the entry of a new, fresh nation into the war - especially one with such manpower and materiel reserves - could act as a significant factor in bringing the war to a swift end. This poses a difficult question for pacifists as if the war is won by the application of overwhelming military force quickly and effectively instead of through negotiated settlement or discussion, can it be morally supported? Russell sees the practical rather than the theoretical issue as most important - the war must end “whatever might be said against such a view from the standpoint of theoretical pacifism”.
To further complicate the issue, Russell proposes that the US entry into the war could even contribute to lengthening it. It appeared in 1917 that both Britain and France were nearing exhaustion and increasingly struggling to fill their ranks. Without the boost to the Entente war machine offered by the USA, it is not impossible that mutual exhaustion could have led to a balanced peace. Again, is this an acceptable pacifist standpoint? Is it better to hope for the belligerent nations to slump into war exhaustion with millions dead if it leads to a balanced, lasting peace?

In early 1917, this issue would have been of great importance to the pacifist movement. Britain and France had categorically ruled out any negotiated peace and an increasingly vociferous press (especially in France and Italy) argued for nothing less than the complete and final defeat of Germany and Austria. The war seemed set to continue until all participants were ground down, with millions more casualties. So what price, then, for the end of the war? An admission that military means alone could solve the deadlock, or hold out hope for an increasingly impossible negotiated peace? Articles such as this one, frequently written by Russell, pose challenging and difficult questions that show pacifism was (and is) no knee-jerk reaction to war but a changeable and complex philosophy.

19th April - Singers WantedSingers
While the status quo of the war was being rapidly disturbed by events in Russia and America, the imprisonment and punishment of Conscientious Objectors went on. Though campaigns to shorten CO sentences were carrying on behind the scenes, the everyday efforts of the NCF and it’s supporters to make prison life more bearable continued. This small advert calls for singers to start a Wandsworth Prison choir, to emulate the success of the Wormwood Scrubs choir that had been singing for COs for several months. These small prison choirs were largely comprised of women and children and provided a vital link between COs and the outside world. A small, but effective act of kindness that made the harsh confines of prison more bearable. CO letters from both Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs often mention the choirs, and for men undertaking long sentences with hard labour, these short musical interludes were very welcome.

Prison and prison conditions would return to prominent positions in The Tribunal’s reportage in May of 1917.