by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
“Conscription? Why would we need that? Who wouldn’t volunteer for a free trip to Europe and the chance to shoot foreigners?”
This was the comforting assurance given to Labour leaders, by prime minister Asquith as they trooped into the coalition government in May 1915. Surely a Liberal leader wouldn’t make a pledge and then do the absolute, exact opposite?
To be fair to Asquith, whatever he personally believed was largely irrelevant. Losses were outstripping recruitment at a staggering rate thanks to the British army’s patented “run through that withering hail of bullets and bombs would you old chap?” technique for conducting modern warfare.
At the start of the war, Britain was the only major European power to not have conscription in place. Having to compel your army to maintain an empire seemed a trifle arriviste, un-British and, frankly, the sort of thing the French would do.
Then again, as the war dragged on, it was clear more men were needed, and losing a major European war was definitely un-British too, and most certainly the sort of thing the French would do.
In the press, calls for conscription were growing in volume, with the Times leading the charge condemning Britain’s “great army of shirkers,” identifying, even then, the mortal threat to national well-being from a fifth column of skivers undermining the strivers.
At the end of September 1915, worries across the Labour movement that conscription might become reality prompted the party’s national executive committee (NEC) to summon a special meeting. Labour Parliamentarians and union officials were addressed by prime minister Asquith along with Lord Kitchener, the chief of staff and, quite literally the poster boy for World War One.
The charm of a nice chap in uniform with a comfortingly bushy moustache was too much for Labour’s leaders. They listened to the speeches, nodded and passed a resolution affirming that actually everything was fine, volunteering would definitely be enough and committing to a flurry of recruitment activity in order to make it so.
Arch-war sceptic, Ramsay Macdonald noted afterwards ,”the leaders of Labour are hopeless…they are just pliable putty in other peoples’ hands.”
But for all of the anti-war Macdonald’s despair, events vividly demonstrated how he was part of an increasingly isolated minority.
The grand old man of the Labour party and committed critic of the war, Keir Hardie had died in September, triggering a by-election in his constituency of Merthyr Tydfil.
Normally, the wartime electoral truce would have meant a new Labour candidate was returned unopposed. But things were different this time.
The south Wales miners proposed as candidate James Winstone. He was an independent Labour party (ILP) man with an anti-war stance.
This did not sit well with another miners’ official, CB Staunton. As it happens, he was also the man who had finished second to Winstone in the union selection.
Staunton resigned his union office to fight the seat from a violently pro-war platform. Well if you’re going to be pro-war, you might as well do it violently.
Staunton won, taking 10,286 votes to Winstone’s 6,080. It seemed that sour grapes made a great wine to serve at a victory party. Also, it showed the national mood to be very much in favour of a fight to the finish and doing everything possible to show the Hun who’s boss.
Lucky really, as “everything possible” was about to happen.
In December, as a Christmas present to Labour and the nation, Asquith gave the gift that keeps on taking. He finally declared that the government was going to introduce conscription after all.
In response, Labour’s leaders, understanding the inevitability of conscription, wanting to stay in government but not sure how to convince the rest of the party that this was a good idea, huddled, disagreed and dawdled before kicking the whole question of conscription over to a special conference. If in doubt, hold a conference, as the motto of the early Labour party might have read.
On January 16th, 1916 the great, the good and the enthusiastic of the Labour movement came together at the Westminster Central Hall.
The problem for Labour’s leaders was that the delegates to conference weren’t exactly the most representative voice of the nation, or even of ordinary Labour folk. While most of the country seemed sanguine, even enthusiastic to see the continent in khaki, the activists at Labour’s conference were rather keener on the Ramsay Macdonald, anti-conscription, “give peace a chance” perspective.
Labour’s leadership proposed a carefully worded motion affirming the movement’s opposition to conscription in general terms but allowing individual MPs to vote as they saw fit. This would of course have let Henderson and most of the PLP vote with the government in support of conscription.
A swing. And a miss. The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) submitted an amendment to the leadership motion recommending the entire parliamentary party vote to oppose the government’s conscription bill.
Arthur Henderson gave a passionate speech opposing the NUR amendment, preaching national responsibility and telling the assembled delegates he was going to ignore their views and do what he saw necessary in parliament regardless.
Unsurprisingly, the audience weren’t pleased by being told their views didn’t matter (for more information ask your local Lib Dem). But then Henderson wasn’t really speaking to them. His audience was the press, who were waiting eagerly for Labour to reject conscription so that they could write their articles blaming the party for crippling the war effort.
After Henderson finished, Macdonald rose to support the amendment with an equally emotional address. He captured the mood of delegates, swelled by cheers throughout his speech, warning, “You can win the war and in winning it pay such a price the nation will have lost…”
The amendment was carried in uproar, 1,715,000 to 934,000. Papers were waved, delegates cheered and the hall echoed to a spontaneous rendition of the “red flag”. Proceedings broke down and as a result of chaos the agenda had to be abandoned.
Apparently, the first casualty of class war is sound administration.
Faced with this result, the NEC had little choice but to vote to leave the government in order to oppose conscription.
When he found out, Asquith was worried. He was well aware of the importance of keeping Labour, as the representatives of the British working man, on side. He immediately embarked on a series of last minute promises.
The prime minister committed that no married men would be called up nor would there be any industrial conscription, a key concern for Labour. Also he promised to be more thoughtful, spend less time in the pub with his mates, and make sure they had a proper date night every Friday.
Unable to resist his cheeky charm, Labour’s leaders called a joint meeting of the NEC and PLP on January 12th 1916. They reversed the decision of the NEC.
By 25 votes to 8 they decided to change their minds, withdraw their resignations and give the coalition relationship another try for the sake of the kids, or at least the working classes. The one condition was that the annual party conference had to ratify the decision. Of course.
In the last week of January 1916, Labour conference met at Bristol. As usual, a resolution generally opposing conscription was passed. More importantly though, a proposal that Labour should fight for a repeal if the conscription bill became law was defeated.
It was all Henderson needed to keep Labour in the coalition. On 27th January 1916, the government passed the Military Service act with Labour ministers and the majority of the parliamentary party having voted in favour.
Unmarried men under the age of 41 were to be called up and, for possibly the first time in history, men all over Britain were glad to be neither young nor single.
Conscription had become a reality.
Pete and Atul are not historians