What’s on : Lectures

Communities of Resistance: New thoughts on Britain’s 1914-18 War Resisters

26 Apr 2016
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Cyril Pearce
Communities of Resistance: New thoughts on Britain's 1914-18 War Resisters

Event Information

A lecture by Cyril Pearce, retired Senior Lecturer; Honorary Research Fellow, School of History, University of Leeds

My interest in the people who refused to support Britain’s part in the First World War began some years ago with conversations with conscientious objectors (COs) from Huddersfield, my home town. The outcome of those conversations was a book, Comrades in Conscience: An English community’s opposition to the Great War. Originally published in 2001 it was re-issued in a completely revised form in 2014.

The book describes not just individual war resisters but a whole ‘community’ of them, men and women, socialists, Liberals, feminists and Quakers who made common cause in opposing the war and, after 1916 in supporting COs.  My local war resisters said that Huddersfield had been ‘special’ in the strength of its anti-war activity. The book demonstrates the extent to which this might be said to be true.

The question then arose, ‘If Huddersfield was special, were there other Huddersfields?’ The work of the last twenty years has been to find ways of answering this question. To that end I have gathered together a database – the Pearce Register – containing 17,800 CO stories. It can be used to create maps and to discover other anti-war hot-spots like Huddersfield. It can also be used to discover other CO and war resister stories which have not been told before.

*The Pearce Register of British World War 1 Conscientious Objectors is currently incorporated in the Imperial War Museum’s on-line platform ‘Lives of the First World War’.

Member’s report

From 1916, all males aged 18-41 were deemed to have been conscripted. Those who resisted, such as conscientious objectors or COs, had to face a tribunal, and were frequently imprisoned for the rest of the war. Although Government propaganda unfairly characterised COs as effeminate, round shouldered  and thin, anecdotal evidence suggests that in some places, notably Huddersfield, they were largely tolerated by the general population. Cyril Pearce has recently extended his detailed research on COs in Huddersfield to cover the whole country. About 17,900 COs have now been identified, out of possibly 20,000. Although most COs lived in the major population centres,  detailed comparison with the 1911 census demonstrates that the highest ratios relative to the local population were often in small communities strongly influenced by such groups as Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Plymouth Brethren, trades unions, and early socialists- and were often supported by powerful local people.

Rod Leonard