by New Worker correspondent
THE IMPERIAL War Museum in south London is currently staging an exhibition on the history of the peace movement in Britain, running from March until 28th August (£10 entry to the exhibition; £7 concessions).
One of the main purposes of the museum from its foundations has been never to allow the horrors of war to be forgotten, so promoting peace has always been part of its agenda. The exhibition on the history of the peace movement, starting from opposition to the First World War and the rise of conscientious objection, has therefore been long overdue.
The exhibition, on the third floor of the building that used to house a mental asylum, begins with the opposition to the First World War and a faded dark red banner hung from the ceiling with the image of a dove and the message: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18–41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependants, medically unfit, or “those who could show a conscientious objection”. This later clause was a significant British response that defused opposition to conscription.
Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions and raised the age limit to 50. There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as conscientious objectors to armed service during the First World War. This figure does not include men who may have had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations or who had joined the armed forces anyway.
There are many letters and documents from men who refused to be conscripted to fight at the front, even though they faced prison, where harsh as the physical conditions were, it was the harassment, jibes and being branded cowards that hurt the most.
Many of these objectors were either very religious or socialists who objected to being used as cannon fodder by an imperialist government.
Some objectors were offered a non-combatant role within the armed forces and others were offered essential war work at home to replace workers who had gone to the trenches.
Many went to the front line as ambulance workers, pulling wounded soldiers from the thick of battle. The exhibition has uniforms and identity documents from the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) – formed by the Society of Friends (Quakers), who are pacifists. Their passes had international recognition amongst the allies and the exhibition includes a Croix-de-Guerre medal awarded to one FAU worker. The FAU also operated in the Second World War.
The exhibition also includes a painting by Paul Nash and a poem from Siegfried Sassoon – two serving soldiers whose opposition to war developed from their experience of it and who used their talents to convey the horror of it to those at home.
In the inter-war period there was a strong peace movement – a reaction to the slaughter of the First World War. But this was put under pressure with the rise of the menace of fascism and particularly of Nazism in Germany.
The exhibition includes a letter from AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, agonising over the dilemma of opposing war yet recognising the need to stop Nazism.
It also includes an identity document from Paul Eddington, the actor made famous in the sitcoms The Good Life and Yes Minister. He was registered as a conscientious objector and ended up as a non-combatant with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), where he began his acting career.
The exhibition goes on to cover the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the origins of the CND symbol, the foundation of the Committee of 100, the Aldermaston marches and Greenham Common women’s encampment against cruise missiles being kept at the US military base there.
There is a screening of an excerpt of the 1960s film The War Game about the effect on the population of a nuclear bomb being dropped in Kent.
Opposition to the war in Vietnam is given a small space in the exhibition, mainly devoted to American youths refusing to be drafted.
Then it moves on to opposition to the wars in the Middle East and the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain when, in February 2003, between one to two million people marched through London to protest at the war against Iraq that was just about to be launched by George W Bush and Tony Blair.
There is the famous image of Tony Blair taking a selfie against a backdrop of burning Iraqi oil wells.
It finishes with a screening of the poignant ceremony last summer when three members of the British Veterans for Peace organisation marched in uniform to Downing Street and threw down their berets, badges and medals, renouncing these symbols of war and oppression and the roles they had been ordered to play in in the Middle East in oppressing the people there.
The symbolism of this is very powerful; when rank and file troops refuse to obey their imperialist masters and walk away from war en masse – as in Russia in 1917 and in Vietnam in the 1970s – the imperialists are rendered powerless.