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Did the Peacemakers cause the Second World War?

John Simkin

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Part 1

The Second International was an organization of socialist and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. It was a time when socialism appeared to be the future. Unfortunately, at the time, working people did not have the vote and so their socialism could not become a reality. One of their concerns was that that over the centuries, working-men had been forced to fight in wars organized by the ruling class. It was therefore agreed that the Second International should organize a world general strike if their rulers ever tried to start a world war. The Second International campaigned for universal suffrage, including equal rights for women, and a 8-hour working day.

At the beginning of the 20th century the leading European nations were busy building up their empires. It seemed inevitable that this would result in war. The Second International decided that it would call on all its members to commit itself to a worldwide workers' strike against war. It was argued if the workers refused to fight, then there would be no war.

Most of the leaders of the socialist and labour parties were pacifists. This included Keir Hardie (UK), Jean Léon Jaurès (France), Camille Huysmans (Belgium) and Hugo Haase (Germany). Jaurès was assassinated on 31st July 1914, by Raoul Villain, a 29 years old French nationalist. (Villain was tried but acquitted).


The media successfully created a mood where the pacifists were forced from office. Hardie, Haase and Huysmans were all removed from power. They attempted to organize a world-wide strike but the workers were caught up in war fever and they were unable to bring a halt to the conflict.


The USA also had a fast growing socialist movement under the leadership of the pacifist Eugene Debs. However, this was not a factor as the USA intially kept out of the war. However, when the USA entered in 1917, Debs and his fellow pacifist leaders were imprisoned for making speeches against the war. It was claimed they were violating the Espionage Act. Debs himself was sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary.


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Part 2

The peace movement in Euope continued to try to bring the First World War to an end. In the UK, two pacifists, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred."



The group received support from figures such as Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, William Mellor and Arthur Ponsonby.







Other active members included Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Max Plowman, Cyril Joad, John S. Clarke and Arthur McManus.









Over 3,000,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces during the first two years of the war. Due to heavy losses at the Western Front the government decided to introduce conscription (compulsory enrollment) by passing the Military Service Act. At first only single men were called up but by 1918 married men of fifty were being conscripted into the army. After the passing of the Military Service Act, the No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. About 16,000 men refused to fight. Most of these men were pacifists, who believed that even during wartime it was wrong to kill another human being.

C. H. Norman, the treasurer of the Stop the War Committee and a member of the National Committee of the No-Conscription Fellowship, was arrested and on 27th June 1916, The Times reported that Norman had been confined to a straightjacket and was being forced-fed through a nasal tube. Norman was transferred to a detention centre in Dartmoor. On 8th February 1917 Norman was back in court charged with persuading other conscientious objectors detained at Dartmoor from carrying out their work. Found guilty of organizing a strike he was sentenced to a year with hard labour.


Martin Ceadel has argued that after the introduction of conscription the No-Conscription Fellowship changed "from being a small propaganda body it became a substantial movement - though never as substantial as implied by its grossly exaggerated boast of 15,000 members in the summer of 1916 - and the acknowledged voice of the whole conscientious objection movement."

About 7,000 pacifists agreed to perform non-combat service. This usually involved working as stretcher-bearers in the front-line, an occupation that had a very high casualty-rate. Over 1,500 men refused all compulsory service. These men were called absolutists and were usually drafted into military units and if they refused to obey the order of an officer, they were court-martialled.


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Part 3

By 1917 the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was a fast growing organization. David Lloyd George, the prime minister who had brought in conscription was in serious trouble. Working closely with MI5 Lloyd George developed a plan.

Alice Wheeldon, John S. Clarke and Arthur McManus had established a network in Derby to help those conscientious objectors on the run or in jail. This included Alice's son, William Wheeldon, who was secretly living with his sister, Winnie Mason, in Southampton.





On 27th December 1916, Alex Gordon arrived at Alice's house claiming to be a conscientious objectors on the run from the police. Alice arranged for him to spend the night at the home of Lydia Robinson. a couple of days later Gordon returned to Alice's home with Herbert Booth, another man who he said was a member of the anti-war movement. In fact, both Gordon and Booth were undercover agents working for MI5 via the Ministry of Munitions. According to Alice, Gordon and Booth both told her that dogs now guarded the camps in which conscientious objectors were held; and that they had suggested to her that poison would be necessary to eliminate the animals, in order that the men could escape.

Alice Wheeldon agreed to ask her son-in-law, Alfred Mason, who was a chemist in Southampton, to obtain the poison, as long as Gordon helped her with her plan to get her son to the United States: "Being a businesswoman I made a bargain with him (Gordon) that if I could assist him in getting his friends from a concentration camp by getting rid of the dogs, he would, in his turn, see to the three boys, my son, Mason and a young man named MacDonald, whom I have kept, get away."

On 31st January 1917, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason were arrested and charged with plotting to murder the David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labour Party.

At Alice's home they found Alexander Macdonald of the Sherwood Foresters who had been absent without leave since December 1916. When arrested Alice claimed: "I think it is a such a trumped-up charge to punish me for my lad being a conscientious objector... you punished him through me while you had him in prison... you brought up an unfounded charge that he went to prison for and now he has gone out of the way you think you will punish him through me and you will do it."

Sir Frederick Smith, the Attorney-General, was appointed as prosecutor of Alice Wheeldon. Smith, the MP for Liverpool Walton, had previously been in charge of the government's War Office Press Bureau, which had been responsible for newspaper censorship and the pro-war propaganda campaign.

The case was tried at the Old Bailey instead of in Derby. According to friends of the accused, the change of venue took advantage of the recent Zeppelin attacks on London. As Nicola Rippon pointed out in her book, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009): "It made for a prospective jury that was likely to be both frightened of the enemy and sound in their determination to win the war."

The trial began on 6th March 1917. Alice Wheeldon selected Saiyid Haidan Riza as her defence counsel. He had only recently qualified as a lawyer and it would seem that he was chosen because of his involvement in the socialist movement.

In his opening statement Sir Frederick Smith argued that the "Wheeldon women were in the habit of employing, habitually, language which would be disgusting and obscene in the mouth of the lowest class of criminal." He went on to claim that the main evidence against the defendants was from the testimony of the two undercover agents. However, it was disclosed that Alex Gordon would not be appearing in court to give his evidence.

Herbert Booth said in court that Alice Wheeldon had confessed to him that she and her daughters had taken part in the arson campaign when they were members of the Women's Social and Political Union. According to Booth, Alice claimed that she used petrol to set fire to the 900-year-old church of All Saints at Breadsall on 5th June 1914. She added: "You know the Breadsall job? We were nearly copped but we bloody well beat them!"

Booth also claimed on another occasion, when speaking about David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson she remarked: "I hope the buggers will soon be dead." Alice added that Lloyd George had been "the cause of millions of innocent lives being sacrificed, the bugger shall be killed to stop it... and as for that other bugger Henderson, he is a traitor to his people." Booth also claimed that Alice made a death-threat to Herbert Asquith who she described as "the bloody brains of the business."

Herbert Booth testified that he asked Alice what the best method was to kill David Lloyd George. She replied: "We (the WSPU) had a plan before when we spent £300 in trying to poison him... to get a position in a hotel where he stayed and to drive a nail through his boot that had been dipped in the poison, but he went to France, the bugger."



Sir Frederick Smith argued that the plan was to use this method to kill the prime minister. He then produced letters in court that showed that Alice had contacted Alfred Mason and obtained four glass phials of poison that she gave to Booth. They were marked A, B, C and D. Later scientific evidence revealed the contents of two phials to be forms of strychnine, the others types of curare. However, the leading expert in poisons, Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, under cross-examination, admitted that he did not know of a single example "in scientific literature" of curate being administered by a dart.

Alice turned the jury against her when she refused to swear on the Bible. The judge responded by commenting: "You say that an affirmation will be the only power binding upon your conscience?" The implication being that the witness, by refusing to swear to God, would be more likely to be untruthful in their testimony." This was a common assumption held at the time. However, to Alice, by openly stating that she was an atheist, was her way of expressing her commitment to the truth.

Alice admitted that she had asked Alfred Mason to obtain poison to use on dogs guarding the camps in which conscientious objectors were held. This was supported by the letter sent by Mason that had been intercepted by the police. It included the following: "All four (glass phials) will probably leave a trace but if the bloke who owns it does suspect it will be a job to prove it. As long as you have a chance to get at the dog I pity it. Dead in 20 sec. Powder A on meat or bread is ok."

She insisted that Gordon's plan involved the killing of the guard dogs. He had told her that he knew of at least thirty COs who had escaped to America and that he was particularly interested in "five Yiddish still in the concentration camp." Gordon also claimed he had helped two other Jewish COs escape from imprisonment.

Alice Wheeldon admitted that she had told Alex Gordon that she hoped David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson would soon be dead as she regarded them as "a traitor to the labouring classes?" However, she was certain that she had not said this when she handed over the poison to Gordon.

When Hettie Wheeldon gave evidence she claimed that It was Gordon and Booth who suggested that they assassinate the prime minister. She replied: "I said I thought assassination was ridiculous. The only thing to be done was to organise the men in the work-shops against compulsory military service. I said assassination was ridiculous because if you killed one you would have to kill another and so it would go on."

Hettie said that she was immediately suspicious of her mother's new friends: "I thought Gordon and Booth were police spies. I told my mother of my suspicions on 28 December. By the following Monday I was satisfied they were spies. I said to my mother: "You can do what you like, but I am having nothing to do with it."

In court Winnie Mason admitted having helped her mother to obtain poison, but insisted that it was for "some dogs" and was "part of the scheme for liberating prisoners for internment". Her husband, Alfred Mason, explained why he would not have supplied strychnine to kill a man as it was "too bitter and easily detected by any intended victim". He added that curare would not kill anything bigger than a dog.

Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women's Social and Political Union, told the court: "We (the WSPU) declare that there is no life more valuable to the nation than that of Mr Lloyd George. We would endanger our own lives rather than his should suffer."

Saiyid Haidan Riza argued that this was the first trial in English legal history to rely on the evidence of a secret agent. As Nicola Rippon pointed out in her book, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009): "Riza declared that much of the weight of evidence against his clients was based on the words and actions of a man who had not even stood before the court to face examination." Riza argued: "I challenge the prosecution to produce Gordon. I demand that the prosecution shall produce him, so that he may be subjected to cross-examination. It is only in those parts of the world where secret agents are introduced that the most atrocious crimes are committed. I say that Gordon ought to be produced in the interest of public safety. If this method of the prosecution goes unchallenged, it augurs ill for England."

The judge disagreed with the objection to the use of secret agents. "Without them it would be impossible to detect crimes of this kind." However, he admitted that if the jury did not believe the evidence of Herbert Booth, then the case "to a large extent fails". Apparently, the jury did believe the testimony of Booth and after less than half-an-hour of deliberation, they found Alice Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason guilty of conspiracy to murder. Alice was sentenced to ten years in prison. Alfred got seven years whereas Winnie received "five years' penal servitude."

Alice was sent to Aylesbury Prison where she began a campaign of non-cooperation with intermittent hunger strikes. One of the doctors at the prison reported that many prisoners were genuinely frightened of Alice who seemed to "have a devil" within her. However, the same doctor reported that she also had many admirers and had converted several prisoners to her revolutionary political ideas.

Some members of the public objected to Alice Weeldon being forced to eat. Mary Bullar wrote to Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary and argued: "Could you not bring in a Bill at once simply to say that forcible feeding was to be abandoned - that all prisoners alike would be given their meals regularly and that it rested with them to eat them or not as they chose - it was the forcible feeding that made the outcry so there could hardly be one at giving it up!"

Alice was moved to Holloway Prison. As she was now separated from her daughter, Winnie Mason, she decided to go on another hunger strike. On 27th December 1917, Dr Wilfred Sass, the deputy medical officer at Holloway, reported that Alice's condition was rapidly declining: "Her pulse is becoming rather more rapid... of poor volume and rather collapsing... the heart sounds are rapid... at the apex of the heart." It was also reported that she said she was "going to die and that there would be a great row and a revolution as the result."

Winnie Mason wrote to her mother asking her to give up the hunger strike: "Oh Mam, please don't die - that's all that matters... you were always a fighter but this fight isn't worth your death... Oh Mam, for one kiss from you! Oh do get better please do, live for us all again."

On 29th December David Lloyd George sent a message to the Home Office that he had "received several applications on behalf of Mrs Wheeldon, and that he thought on no account should she be allowed to die in prison." Herbert Samuel was reluctant to take action but according to the official papers: "He (Lloyd George) evidently felt that, from the point of view of the government, and in view especially of the fact that he was the person whom she conspired to murder, it was very undesirable that she should die in prison."

Alice was told she was to be released from prison because of the intervention of the prime minister. She replied: "It was very magnanimous of him... he has proven himself to be a man." On 31st December, Hettie Wheeldon took her mother back to Derby.

The campaign continued to get Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason released from prison. On 26th January 1919 it was announced that the pair had be allowed out on licence at the request of Premier Lloyd George."

Alice Wheeldon's health never recovered from her time in prison. She died of influenza on 21st February 1919. At Alice's funeral, her friend John S. Clarke, made a speech that included the following: "She was a socialist and was enemy, particularly, of the deepest incarnation of inhumanity at present in Great Britain - that spirit which is incarnated in the person whose name I shall not insult the dead by mentioning. He was the one, who in the midst of high affairs of State, stepped out of his way to pursue a poor obscure family into the dungeon and into the grave... We are giving to the eternal keeping of Mother Earth, the mortal dust of a poor and innocent victim of a judicial murder."


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John, of course this is an interesting question (a little akin to JJAngletons postulation at one time that the ''fall of the Soviet Union'' was actually a carefully thought out ploy).

I think it's partly relevant to look at the formation and abandonment of the First International (in dates/years as well. why how who) and the founding of the Second International and where it is today.

And, then, the formation of the Third International, the struggle between the Mencheviks and the BolcheviKs and consider the question of what ended the First World War. (then of course the whole evolutionary steps leading to the formation of the Fourth International and where it is today (and was in 63' for that matter, and at other times in various places)).

My contribution at this time is that you give the parties concerned too much power and neglect the power of Capital.


Edited by John Dolva
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Part 4

During the 1920s and 1930s former soldiers wrote about their experiences of the First World War. As a result, there was a significant growth in the pacifist movement. This included the philosopher, Cyril Joad. On 9th February 1933 he persuaded the Oxford Union to resolve by 275 votes to 153 "That this house will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country". It has been argued that this decision was noted by Adolf Hitler.


This idea was reinforced by the refusual of the British government to help the elected Spanish government in its fight against fascism. Hitler, therefore to test out the resolve of democratic governments by sending his army and airforce to help the fascists in Spain. Some members of the left now lost their faith in pacifism. Some even joined the International Brigades who were willing to fight to prevent the spread of fascism.

As Fenner Brockway, the co-founder of No-Conscription Fellowship in 1914, pointed out: "There is no doubt that the society resulting from an anarchist victory (during the Spanish Civil War) would have far greater liberty and equality than the society resulting from a fascist victory. Thus I came to see that it is not the amount of violence used which determines good or evil results, but the ideas, the sense of human values, and above all the social forces behind its use. With this realisation, although my nature revolted against the killing of human beings just as did the nature of those Catalonian peasants, the fundamental basis of my old philosophy disappeared."


However, the anti-war movement continued to grow. Richard Sheppard, a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, had been an army chaplain during the First World War and was a committed pacifist. He was concerned by the failure of the major nations to agree to international disarmament and on 16th October 1934, he had a letter published in the Manchester Guardian inviting men to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to "renounce war and never again to support another." Within two days 2,500 men responded and over the next few weeks around 30,000 pledged their support for Sheppard's campaign.

In July 1935 Sheppard chaired a meeting of 7,000 members of his new organization at the Albert Hall in London. Eventually named the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), it had 100,000 members by the time Sheppard died in October 1937. The organization now included other prominent religious, political and literary figures including Arthur Ponsonby, George Lansbury, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Wellock, Max Plowman, Maude Royden, Frank P. Crozier, Siegfried Sassoon, Donald Soper, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Housman and Bertrand Russell.

John Middleton Murry purchased a farm in Langham, Essex. Murry and Max Plowman established a pacifist community centre they called Adelphi Centre on the land. Murry argued he was attempting to create "a community for the study and practice of the new socialism". Plowman organised summer schools where people such as George Orwell, John Strachey, Jack Common, Herbert Read and Reinhold Niebuhr lectured on politics, philosophy and literature. During the Spanish Civil War the farm was handed over to the Peace Pledge Union. They used it to house some 60 Basque refugee children.

From 1937 the PPU organized alternative Remembrance Day commemorations, including the wearing of white rather than red poppies on 11th November. In 1938 the Peace Pledge Union campaigned against legislation introduced by Parliament for air raid precautions, and the following year against legislation for military conscription.

Some people have argued that it was the strength of the pacifist movement in the 1930s encouraged the British government to develop its appeasement policy. Therefore, it was the population's reaction to the horrors of the First World War, that made it possible for Hitler to bully Neville Chamberlain into submission. However, this in itself caused a reaction that eventually ended in the start of the Second World War.


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Richard Sheppard, the head of the Peace Pledge Union, became very depressed by the international situation. Alfred Salter claimed that Sheppard "admitted that love, as the main motive of his life, had failed - that it had played him false." Another friend, Fenner Brockway said: "He had had one blow after another. He realised that he had failed to create a movement of conscientious objectors sufficient to deter the nation from engaging in war. He had been subject to the limitations which the Church of England had imposed on him. He had struggled against increasing bodily weakness. Then came the final personal tragedy. His wife left him." Richard Sheppard died of a broken heart on 31st October 1937.

Alfred Salter became the new head of the Peace Pledge Union. He argued that "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children." Salter and George Lansbury went on a peace-tour of the United States. He estimated that he "spoke in the presence of two hundred thousand people, and over the wireless his voice reached tens of millions more." They also had meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State.

The outbreak the Second World War greatly distressed Salter. As his friend Fenner Brockway pointed out: "For the first time during his life he was in utter despair. He had not believed the disaster would come; until the very last moment, publicly and privately, he had declared confidently that the final fatal step would not be taken. Despite the increasing threats and mounting war preparations, he believed that Hitler would shrink from the last move and that Europe's statesmen would agree to the world conference which he and his pacifist colleagues had urged with extending and influential support. Salter's friends had never before seen him broken in this way. He, had exhausted himself in efforts to save the peace and was physically ill; the realisation that he had failed now crushed his mind and spirit as well."

His wife, Ada Salter, had similar feelings. As young people they had both read Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. They decided to turn Bermondsey into a Garden City. They were both elected to the Bermondsey Borough Council. By 1922 the Labour Party achieved a majority on the council. Ada now became London's first Mayor. As a socialist she declined to wear Mayoral robes or the chain of office.

With a Labour majority on the council, Ada Salter could now push on with her plans to improve the look of Bermondsey. A Borough Gardens Superintendent was employed and ordered to plant elms, populars, planes and acacias in the streets of Bermondsey. Later he added birch, ash, yew and wild cherry.

The new Labour council also launched a campaign to improve public health in Bermondsey. Special films were prepared and were shown to large crowds in the open air and pamphlets were distributed throughout the borough. A systematic house-to-house inspection was conducted to seek out conditions dangerous to health. Premises where food was sold were constantly examined and samples of foods were taken away for analysis.

When the Labour Party took office in 1922 the death-rate was 16.7 per 1,000. By 1927 it had fallen to 12.9. In 1922 the number of new cases of tuberculosis was 413. In 1927 it was 294. Deaths from the disease fell from 206 to 175. Alfred Salter claimed " Though Bermondsey is an overcrowded industrial area, with few amenities and a poor population living under great residential and economic disadvantages, yet if the death rate continues to diminish at the present rate, the borough will be entitled in a few years to be regarded as one of Britain's health resorts. Day in, day out, year in, year out, this wonderful preventive work, scientifically organised and directed by trained brains, is going on like clockwork. The Labour majority in the Council intend to employ any and every means to stamp out preventable illness."

Alfred Salter resigned from Bermondsey Borough Council in 1931, but she remained and continued her struggle to turn Bermondsey into a Garden City. The journalist, Fenner Brockway, wrote about the progress that had been made by 1937: "By this time Bermondsey's trees and flowers were famous. Travelling on the Southern Railway by the long viaduct which crosses the borough passengers noted with wonder the avenues of green between the crowded buildings, the beds of tulips or dahlias in the gaps between the houses, the climbing roses on the balconies of the tenements. Films of the streets, gardens and churchyards were shown all over the world and some American visitors included them with Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London in the sights of London." An article in The Observer commented that "outside the Royal Parks it would be, difficult to find anywhere such masses of colour."

Alfred and Ada Salter knew that the Second World War would destroy their Garden City. They both died in the war. Their friends said they died of broken-hearts.



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  • 10 months later...

Vera Brittain, who lost the four men she loved during the First World War: Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, was a leading figure in the Peace Pledge Union. From September 1939 she began publishing Letters to Peace Lovers, a small journal that expressed her views on the war. This made her extremely unpopular as the journal criticised the government for bombing urban areas in Nazi Germany. In her books, England's Hour: an Autobiography (1941) and Humiliation with Honour (1943), Brittain attempted to explain her pacifism in her book Humiliation with Honour. This was followed by Seeds of Chaos, an attack on the government's policy of area bombing.


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