In Socialism with a Northern Accent, which everyone should read whatever their linguistic persuasion, Paul Salveson includes an insert on “Robert Blatchford and the Contradictions of Englishness.” In it he notes that when war broke out in 1914 Blatchford was “stridently pro-war. Yet, he insists ”his failings should not blind us to his remarkable achievements – the man who more than any other to ‘make socialists’ and to make socialism fun.” The worrying question for us is whether there was any connection between Blatchford’s success as a socialist journalist and propagandist and his “progressive patriotism” and stance on the war.
I’ve been writing, on and off, about Blatchford and the Clarion for much of my adult life - and I’m a fully paid up member of the Clarion Cycling Club. I felt, and feel, very comfortable writing about the paper in the pre-1914 period. I felt comfortable around 25 years ago writing about Sylvia Pankhurst’s opposition to the conflict. I’ve just finished a book on the interwar ILP – a party led for most of those years first by Clifford Allen and then by Jimmy Maxton and Fenner Brockway, all of them” anti-war “conscientious objectors.
But we also have to remember that some who are generally still well respected on the left such as Clement Attlee and R H Tawney fought – and were badly wounded – in the war and that before the war was over the Labour Party would participate in Lloyd George’s coalition government. Contemplating those on the Left who, however reluctantly, supported the war is far from comfortable.
I think the question I’ve asked above is the most crucial one if we are to fully understand the war’s impact on the left. I can raise the question; but I have no clear or definite answer to suggest. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best contribution I can make is to look closely at what appeared in the Clarion between the Sarajevo assassination on 28th June 1914 and Blatchford’s declaration of support for the war on 14 August – a fortnight after the beginning of the conflict. Rather like one of my earlier pieces when I focused on the British Socialist Party paper Justice. I think this will at least help us understand a little better how and why Blatchford and others became “pro-war” in 1914.
Blatchford already had ‘form.” As Paul Salveson points out he had spent his early adult years in the British army and found it impossible not to support his former comrades when fighting broke out. He had been much criticised on the left over his support for the South African War although at the beginning of July 1914 one Clarion article dismissed its cause as ‘financial greed.” His position in 1914 and subsequently would lose him infinitely more support on the left.
Immediately after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife it still seemed like another episode in the tragic Balkan conflicts which had already seen vicious local wars in both 1912 and 1913. Blatchford’s editorial partner, Alex Thompson, writing the regular Clarion editorial piece ““Our Point of View “ on 3 July clearly saw the murder in this context. He blamed “the greedy intrigues of the Great: Powers“ for the thousands killed in the Balkan wars to which “two more victims have been added.” He concluded, “Austria's villainous annexation of Bosnia is the direct cause of the execution of Austria's heir,” and mused on “how different it would be” if a “United States of Europe” including democratised Great Powers could be established to resolve disputes peaceably.
Then, as we saw in the case of Justice, the issue seemed to recede from public consciousness until the end of the month. As late as 24 July Blatchford’s article “A Few Words on European Civilisation” had no mention of the escalating July Crisis. Only on 31 July did Thompson.s ““Our Point of View” begin “War!” He reported that the ”well-meant efforts” to avert war in the Balkans of Grey, the British foreign secretary “have, unhappily, failed.” The assumption of a third, localised, Balkan war was now giving way to fears of a wider conflict. Thompson wrote:
If Russia mobilises, Germany, we are told, will attack France; if France is attacked, we are pledged to her defence. To this position we have been brought by the cordial understandings and alliances of two great civilised nations, with the Muscovite Caliban -that our sons may have to die for the honour and glory of Servian assassins. The thought is maddening, yet the contingency may come; and though every man of us abhors the possibility, we are hopelessly impotent to prevent it. Socialists, Syndicalists and Trade Unionists will protest, but their just anger will rage in vain against the iron ring of the capitalistic big legions.
There was still hope that war might be avoided – but it was fading fast.
The Liberal government declared war on Germany on 4 August. The first wartime edition of the Clarion was published three days later. Some articles had clearly been written before the war began. Fred Jowett, the Labour MP and persistent critic of Grey’s secret diplomacy who would oppose the war like most of the ILP, began his contribution:
Secret Diplomacy has done its work. Nothing short of a miracle will save us now. Before the words I now write appear in print Great Britain will, if there is no miracle, be at war.
The most surprising, and in an odd way the most shocking, article in this edition was a front-page piece, “A Spoilt Holiday” by Hilda Thompson. It demonstrates once again how unprepared for the outbreak of war people in Britain were. Even associates of Blatchford who had been warning of the “German menace” for the previous four years. The Thompson family had planned a holiday in Germany – in the Harz mountains. They had left late on Thursday 30 July but got no further than Hanover before realising that war really was about to begin “There were rumours of war, as everyone knew,” Hilda Thompson wrote, “but no one in England had taken the matter seriously, and we felt that the excitement would add to the pleasure of our trip.”
It is sometimes assumed that as well as being taken by surprised by war, people had no idea of how hideously bloody the conflict would turn out to be. This is definitely not true of Blatchford. His article on 7 August on The Drums of Armageddon,” begins “I have lived a whole week in a kind of waking nightmare.” He had seen, he wrote, sentries posted on Newhaven Quay but “the few English women and men we met seemed so marvellously unconscious of the gathering storm.” More were interested in the regatta in Rye than the threat of war. He ended the piece by asking “How many of the Russians and Germans and Austrians now marching off with cheers and music to Armageddon know why they are to slay or to die?”
But seven days later he had no hesitation in supporting the war as a grim necessity. The Clarion’s front page carried the now famous government advert “Your King and Country Need You” ending “God Save the King” Blatchford’s article was this time entitled “”The Strain of Armageddon”
He recalled how he had warned of the “plans of the German War Lords” but added “I hasten to say my little word in favour of justice towards the people whom an evil influence has made our enemy.” He asked for “justice for a kindly and admirable people whom these criminals have misled and dragooned and perverted.” But “Kaiserism,” autocracy and desire for domination had to go. “They must go at the point of the bayonet; in no other way can they be driven back to the hell from which they came.”
He was, he said, “writing under a heavy sense of responsibility. No man at an awful hour like this can willingly throw his weight, how insignificant soever into the scale of war.” But he was convinced “in every stem of my brain” that this was the only way that the “Prussian dream of European domination” could be “shattered.” More was at stake than the defence of Britain and France. ”It is a war of the democracies of a continent against the tyranny of the sceptre and the sword.”
How long would it be before peace was restored? Given the nature of modern war Blatchford didn’t see a quick victory for either side. It might last a year “if fought to a finish. But can we believe that the women and other non-combatants will endure the unthinkable slaughter such a struggle must entail?” He ended with the hope that “Never, we may hope, will Europe forget the bitter lesson, never again will her people allow a handful of ‘red and yellow clothes-screens,’ drunk with a lust to for power, to drive the good Germans and the good French and the peace-loving British into an 'inevitable' war.”
Writing in the Guardian in June 2013, Gary Sheffield, professor of war studies at Wolverhampton University, argued that “Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany; to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security.” It was, he goes on to say, “just as much a war of national survival for the British as the second world war” While the “Kaiser’s regime was not consciously genocidal” it was “aggressive and brutal.”
You don’t have to buy this view as the final historical judgement to see that this is exactly how Blatchford and other “pro-war” British socialists saw it at the time. They weren’t thinking about preserving the British Empire. That other prominent reluctant supporter of the war on the left, Hyndman, had been advocating Indian self-determination since the 1880s.
That’s not to say we should forget that rival imperialisms were a key part of the war. Sheffield concludes that “By 1918 the British army was fighting a war of liberation.” He clearly has in mind the German occupation of Belgium and northern France. We might wonder what there was to liberate after the heavy artillery of both sides had pounded much of the area into dust. And what if you were an Indian, many of whose soldiers fought in that liberating army?