#whitefeather diaries

On the campaign trail in Wales

Friday 11 March 2016

Peace activists found that attitudes to the war varied considerably in different parts of the country. In July 1916, pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell went on a speaking tour in Wales, where he was delighted to find much opposition to the war. Here is part of a letter he wrote from Port Talbot to his friend, lover and fellow peace activist Ottoline Morrell, dated 4 July 1916.

He begins by describing an encounter with steel workers in Port Talbot, who were “starred” – that is, exempt from conscription because of their work. He refers to the recent “great offensive”, meaning the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, which had started three days earlier.

My Darling,

I have just got back from here and found your letter, which was a great joy to get. It is the first letter of any sort of kind that has reached me since I left London.

The state of feeling here is quite astonishing. This town subsides on one enormous steel works, the largest in South Wales; the men are starred, and earning very good wages; they are not suffering the war in any way. Yet they seem all to be against it. On Sunday afternoon I had an open-air meeting on a green: there were two chapels on the green, and the congregations came out just before I began. They stayed to listen. A crowd of about 400 came – not like open-air meetings in the South, when people stay a few minutes out of curiosity, and then go away – they all stayed the whole time, listened with the closest attention, and seemed unanimously sympathetic. The man who has been organising for me here works 12 hours every day except Sunday in the steel works. Their energy is wonderful.

Sunday evening I spoke at Briton Ferry – a really wonderful meeting – the hall was packed, they were all at the highest point of enthusiasm – they inspired me, and I spoke as I have never spoken before. We put a resolution in favour of immediate peace negotiations, which was carried unanimously. (I did not notice any abstentions, though presumably the two plain-clothes men who had come to take notes must have abstained.) Those who had not already signed the peace petition signed it in large numbers. One needs no prudent reticences – no humbug of any sort – one can just speak out one's whole mind. I thought the great offensive would have excited them, but it hasn't.

Yesterday evening I spoke at Ystradgynlais, a mining town of 16,000 inhabitants. The meeting was smaller, and my impression was that a good many people at it were undecided in their minds – that sort of meeting is really more useful than an enthusiastic one. The audience were almost all miners. They seemed intelligent and thoughtful.

I enclose a little leaflet which is distributed at my meetings. If you don't burn it at once, you are liable to imprisonment.

Source: Letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline Morrell, dated 4 July 1916; found in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Volume 2: The Public Years, 1914-1970, edited by Nicholas Griffin (Routledge, 2002).

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COs engaged in alternative work
Friday 11 March 2016

John was conscripted later the year than Howard or Bert. By this time the Home Office had come up with a scheme to offer some COs the option of doing alternative work of “national importance”. Pacifists were split over whether to accept it.