Blog 5: WRITING SOCIAL - DEMOCRACY
The main title for my Drums of Armageddon came from an article in the Clarion by its editor Robert Blatchford soon after the start of the the 1914 war. In a way the book was a piece of opportunism. The Sussex University library had the three longest established socialist papers of the period - Justice. The Clarion, and Labour Leader -on microfilm at least up to the end of the fateful year when war broke out. So the book was to some extent just taking advantage of this for a relatively straightforward bit of research which unlike my ILP book did not involve any travelling – apart from to the university. That's not to say that I don't think the book is a useful addition to our knowledge of attitudes on the Left to the outbreak of the war. I certainly do.
I decided to begin by writing about the final peacetime month –July 1914 - to bring out the way the war was a disaster that set everything back – especially for those on the Left - and then the remaining months of the fateful year of 1914. I set out to examine attitudes and actions it in some detail through the prism of the three papers.
When war broke out Justice, by that time the paper of the British Socialist Party, took the view that the invasion of Belgium and France meant that Britain had no alternative but to participate in the conflict, horrible and tragic though it undoubtedly was. But it soon was being challenged by those who disagreed which led to a 'split' in 1916. The ILP's Labour Leader took the opposite view opposing the war while The Clarion was unequivocal in its support for British participation and even carried the famous Kitchener, 'Your King and Country Needs you' advert in is second wartime edition.
So I had one unequivocal supporter of the war, (Clarion) one opposer (Labour Leader) and one trying to hold things together as the rival groups of the BSP fought it out (Justice)
But I began in July 1914, the final peacetime month' There were of course quite a few reports and articles following the Sarajevo assassinations. But the main preoccupations of our three papers were the arson campaign of the suffragettes, the threat, or promise, of major strikes come the autumn and -above all – the threat of protestant v catholic civil war in Ireland. But I was particularly pleased to be able to highlight in one of the two 'July' chapters what was described as 'A Challenging Article by a Feminist ' by Ellen Wilkinson. She was famous much later as a Labour MP, a leader of the 'Jarrow Crusade' and a Minister of Education in the Attlee government, dying in office in 1947. I believe the article might have been written, if not last week, at least a lot more recently than 1914..
Though there had been enough international crises and two wars in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913 the war still seems to have taken everyone by surprise. This is especially true of the Clarion's Hilda Thompson who went off for a walking tour in Germany just a few days before war broke out. The short period covered by the book – just six months – enabled me to look at reactions to the war in some considerable detail. I tried to bring out both the emerging disagreements about the proper socialist attitude to the war between and within parties and papers but also the considerable areas of agreement. Even those most opposed to the war thought that those at the front should be paid properly and provision made for their dependents.
I was also able to include an eyewitness account of the first war casualties on British soil when the German navy bombarded Scarborough and other East Coast ports that December. That was before Zeppelin bombing raids began in 1915. I included many explanatory notes and aimed the book more at the general reader than the academic specialist.
I knew I was going to have trouble finding a publisher. AU Press which had published by previous two books were sceptical and were certain to ask for more changes than I wanted to concede. So in the end I published it myself – just before the pandemic got really going in 2020. Since we've lived in Bonchurch Road in Brighton since the late '60s I gave the publisher as 'Bonchurch Press' One huge advantage of doing it this way was that -though it cost me quite a lot to get it published the price the book, especially the Kindle version, was available to readers was a mere fraction of what my other books costs.