Expert Comment: Women, peace and commemoration of World War OneFriday 1 May 2015
Dr Sonja Tiernan, Senior Lecturer in History and Politics, explains why the way World War One is being commemorated is different on both sides of the Irish Sea.
While we are currently in the midst of centenary commemorations relating to World War One in both Ireland and Britain, it is worth reflecting on how and why certain events are remembered. The way World War One is being commemorated is vastly different on both sides of the Irish Sea. The remembrance of British activities during the Great War is, at times, in danger of becoming a patriotic celebration.
At his recent speech on Commonwealth Day, the British Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, addressed a large crowd at Memorial Gates, on Constitution Hill in London. Pickles’s speech overtly celebrated the actions of commonwealth soldiers, actions which he maintained show an ‘enduring relevance to modern Britain’ and to the strength of a united commonwealth. He proclaimed how, ‘in both world wars millions of soldiers from across the Commonwealth fought side-by-side, defending the values of freedom and liberty, and defeating the dark forces of tyranny and oppression.’ There is little room in such commemorations to celebrate those who campaigned against World War One.
One year into the Great War there was an enormous loss of life at the front. British soldiers, killed or maimed, were not being replaced quickly enough. Various Bills went through the House of Commons from November 1915 and a proposed conscription bill did not exclude the possibility of the death penalty for men who did not comply. Conscription came into effect in Britain in March 1916 and the process for gaining an exemption on conscientious grounds would prove to be particularly challenging. The high level of arrests depleted the male membership of the main protest group, the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF.) Women began to play an increasingly important role in opposition to conscription and finally took over operations of the NCF. Catherine Marshall was appointed as Secretary when her then partner, Clifford Allen, was imprisoned. The women oversaw a highly organised press department to expose the injustice and brutality of how Conscientious Objectors were treated. They produced a weekly newspaper, The Tribunal, from March 1916 which included details of military tribunals. Authorities regularly raided their offices and dismantled the printing presses. The editor of the Tribunal, Joan Beauchamp, was arrested in one such raid. The General Secretary, Violet Tillard, was sentenced to 61 days in prison for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the printing equipment. Edith Smith was sentenced to six months in prison for printing an anti-conscription leaflet.
Undeterred by criminal prosecutions, Eva Gore-Booth dramatized a day in her role as a ‘watcher’ at military tribunals. Describing a day spent in an ‘ugly airless room . . . haunted with memories of vain appeals and helpless protest.’ Her account provides a rare glimpse into the oppressive process involved in seeking an exemption from war service. The pamphlet was a blatant condemnation of the government’s war policy. It is not clear how Gore-Booth escaped arrest for her publications. As an Irish woman connected with the nationalist movement, she was at risk of receiving a more severe sentence than her female colleagues. Significantly this pamphlet was published only months after the Easter Rising in Dublin. Gore-Booth’s sister, Countess Markievicz, was a member of the Irish Citizen Army and took up arms, acting as second in command of a battalion, during the Irish rebellion. The British public were horrified that Irish people would plan a rebellion at a time when tens of thousands of British soldiers were being killed at the front. In the midst of campaigns for Irish independence the recruitment of Irish men into the British army was a contentious issue. The Military Service Act 1916 excluded Ireland.
Over 200,000 Irishmen voluntarily joined the British army during World War One. In March 1918, the Irish Convention established to resolve the Irish Home Rule issue, recommended the enactment of the Bill under condition that conscription be extended to Ireland. On 16 April 1918 the extension of the Military Service Bill, enforcing conscription in Ireland, was announced. The Irish Anti-Conscription Committee was formed; they produced a pledge resisting conscription. The pledge was taken at the door of every church around the country on 21 April. A generals workers’ strike took place on 23 April. Again women would prove to be the main instigators behind the anti-conscription movement. The suffragette organisation, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, examined the situation in England. Enforced military service there meant that women had to take the place of male workers. Women across Ireland pledged that, if conscription was enforced, they would not fill the jobs of men.
Gore-Booth launched a propaganda attack at the heart of the British war effort. She opened a debate in the pages of British newspapers. ‘The ruin preparing in Ireland,’ was published in the Manchester Guardian testifying that in Dublin ‘a resistance to the death is being undertaken in a spirit of passionate revolt and religious faith which may turn Ireland into a nation of rebels and martyrs, but never into an army of conscripts.’ Days later a man from Surrey replied to the paper exclaiming how ‘the striking letter of Miss Gore-Booth . . . compels all thoughtful men and women to pause. We English people want above all things to win the war, and we ask ourselves whether the conscription of Ireland against her will is not the way to lose it. We may deplore Ireland’s action, but we cannot ignore it.’ Despite British efforts, forced conscription of Irish men into the British army was never legally introduced.
A version of this article was originally published on the University of Hertfordshire blog ‘Everyday Lives in War.’