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Moral Panic in the First World War

John Simkin

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I thought I would create some resources on a moral panic that took place during the First World War.

I want to start with a photograph sold by Victor Morris, a 38 year old shopkeeper in East Grinstead.

(Source 1) London Rifle Brigade marching up London Road in East Grinstead on 10th September 1914

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Victor Morris was a pacifist who refused to join the army. The fact he was making money from selling photographs of soldiers upset the local Conservative Party. Morris was a member of the local Liberal Party and active in various progressive campaigns. The Tories arranged for Morris to appear before a Military Tribunal on 28th October, 1916. Morris was cross-examined by two Tories, Alexander Johnson, a tailor, and Wallace Hills, editor of the local newspaper.

(Source 2)

Victor Morris: I believe that God alone has the right to take life and that under no circumstances whatever has a man the right to kill another person. I believe that war is immoral.

Wallace Hills: You object to taking life; do you not think it is your duty to do all can to prevent our enemies from taking our lives?

Victor Morris: Not by organised murder, for that is what war is.

Alexander Johnson: Do you mean to say that my son, who has gone out to fight for such as you, is a murderer? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Wallace Hills: Do you say force is un-Christian? Do you object to force being applied to criminals.

Victor Morris: When a policeman goes to arrest a man he does not first knock him down with his truncheon.

Alexander Johnson: I always looked upon you as a particular pugnacious individual and one who I should not like to upset.

Victor Morris: That is a very false estimate of my character.

Wallace Hills: Was that not a little pugnacity about you when you publicly lectured that scoutmaster on Littlehampton Railway Station because of his "sin" of training boys in military work?

Victor Morris: Well it required some moral courage.

Wallace Hills: Application for exemption is refused.

Morris refused to fight and was sent off to work as a farm labourer. The Morris shop was forced to close.

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The soldiers seen in this photograph were camped just outside of East Grinstead. People in the town became very concerned about the activities of the soldiers. They were especially concerned about local women becoming too friendly with the soldiers. East Grinstead, like other towns in Britain, established Women's Patrols.

The War Office gave permission for these patrols to take place outside military camps. They were also very active in public parks and cinemas. After visiting 300 cinemas in three weeks, the Women's Patrol Committee recommended that lights were not dimmed between films.

Women's Patrols worked closely with the local police and the Women Police Volunteers. It is estimated that during the First World War over 2,000 patrols were established, including over 400 in London.

Despite the activities of these women's patrols an increasing number of single women in East Grinstead became pregnant. Between 1914 and 1918 the illegitimacy rate increased by 30%. Ronald McNeill, a Conservative M.P. advocated that the State should adopt these 'war babies'. McNeill argued that these children should be put into institutions and prevented from getting married.

(Source 3) Mrs. A. Godwin, letter in East Grinstead Observer (1st May, 1915)

Can we expect God's help to beat the Germans when we directly break the laws. How many men now lies stiff and stark upon the battlefield and has left a son to be born to disgrace. How can we expect a country peopled by illegitimate offspring to be able to conquer our enemies. Let a law be passed at once that all illegitimate children belong to the state and must be sent to a government institute at the age of one month, and be known henceforth as state children. These people should be forbidden to marry. This will prevent evil in the future and that the evil will come to an end with the death of the individual.

(Source 4) A. W. True, letter to the East Grinstead Observer (8th May, 1915)

In her letter Mrs. Godwin says a lot about breaking laws of God. We hear a lot about justice, but not much about mercy. I am not excusing them, both the men and the girls are to blame. They have done wrong and they will have to suffer. I cannot understand anyone who has been a mother writing such stuff. Fancy taking the children away from the mother at the age of a month just when a child needs a mother's love most. It is bad enough to deprive a child of one parent, it would be worse to deprive it of both. Why should children suffer for the sins of their parents.

(Source 5) Letter in The East Grinstead Observer from Charles Jenks of 34 Cantelupe Road (6th November, 1915)

I am writing to inform the council of the serious annoyance caused by inhabitants and visitors who use the public seats in the Mount Noddy Recreation Ground by the contemptible tactics of the Woman's Patrol. Having heard from various friends as well as from soldiers billeted at my house, of these women's actions, I went to the Mount Noddy Recreation Ground on Saturday evening from 9.30 pm to 10 pm. I saw two women make repeated journeys round the ground flashing electric torches on every seat as they passed. They also sat down on a seat adjacent to a couple who, as far as I could see were behaving in a perfectly correct manner. When this couple walked away the patrols directed a ray of light from a pocket torch on them, possibly with a view of finding out who they were. The council need to take steps to protect inhabitants and the exceedingly well-behaved troops quartered in the town from having this unjust slur cast upon their supposed behaviour.

(Source 6) Letter signed 'One of the Annoyed' that appeared in The East Grinstead Observer (13th November, 1915)

Something must be done to stop these so- called "Ladies" from interfering with respectable girls and their friends. I'm not ashamed to admit that I made friends with several soldiers and I have found them to be perfect gentlemen. On two or three occasions one or two of these ladies spoke to me about the behaviour of the girls and soldiers in the town. These women seem to know all the girls in East Grinstead and Forest Row and all their business. They mentioned several things that I had done. They seem to know the exact place and time so I suppose they were watching me. I trust they will soon find something more useful to occupy their time.

(Source 7) Unsigned letter in The East Grinstead Observer (13th November 1915)

It is about time something was done about ancient spinsters following soldiers about with their flash lights. I have seen a great deal of the soldiers who have been here and I consider that they have have been unfairly treated. Walking in the roads and fields accompanied by friends is no crime. What would these spinsters think if soldiers flashed a light upon them in their gardens or darkened drawing rooms?

(Source 8) Letter in The East Grinstead Observer from M. Conner, 7 St. John's Road (20th November 1915)

I am not a member of a woman's patrol but I know several of these women and I admire their spirit and sacrifice. These women have an earnest desire for the welfare and morality of the girls. Preventative work is better than rescue work.

(Source 9) Report by Women's Patrol during the war.

At a public house we watched three girls get into conversation with a sailor. Soon we beckoned to another and all five walked away. We followed until the girls, seeing us behind, turned sharply and left the men.

(Source 10) Interview with a member of a Women's Patrol.

A special duty from the very first was to turn girls and lads out of the deep doorways and shop entrances. This is a job the police constable did not care to do, owing to the amount of abuse he got. But we never have any difficulty. Indeed the rule now is that as soon as we appear, out they come of their own accord, some sheepishly touching their caps with the remark: "All right, Miss." And yet we have not said a word.

(Source 11) Helena Swanwick worked for the Women's International League during the First World War.

Sex before marriage was the natural female complement to the male frenzy of killing. If millions of men were to be killed in early manhood, or even boyhood, it behoved every young woman to secure a mate and replenish the population while there was yet time.

(Source 12) Stephen McKenna, While I Remember (1921)

Anyone who lived in London during those feverish months had forced upon his notice a spectacle of debauchery which would have swelled the record of scandal if it had been made public but which is mercifully forgotten because it is incredible.

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