#whitefeather diaries

A war for civilisation?

Howard combined opposition to war with a rejection of the state's power over him. The two issues went together even more strongly for anti-war activists in British colonies, many of whom were also campaigning for national independence.

John Chilembwe was a Baptist minister in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Around 19,000 people from Nyasaland fought in the war, mostly against troops from the German colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Chilembwe opposed both British rule and the war. He mocked the idea that Britain was fighting for “civilisation” and addressed the British government in sarcastic tones after war broke out. Here's an extract.

We ask the honourable government of our country, will there be any good prospects for the natives after the end of the war? Shall we be recognised as anybody in the best interests of civilisation and Christianity after the great struggle is ended? In time of peace, the government failed to help the underdog. In time of peace, everything for Europeans only. And instead of honour, we suffer humiliation.

The poor Africans who have nothing to own in this present world are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs.

In Ireland (all of which was then part of the United Kingdom), campaigners for independence mocked the British government's rhetoric about fighting for the rights of “small nations” such as Belgium. James Connolly, a leading Irish socialist republican, wrote:

We here in Ireland, particularly those who follow the example of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, have been battling to preserve those rights which others have surrendered; we have fought to keep up our standards of life, to force up our wages, to better our conditions. To that extent we have been truly engaged in a war for civilisation.

Every victory we have gained has gone to increase the security of life amongst our class, has gone to put bread on the tables, coal in the fires, clothes on the backs of those to whom food and warmth and clothing are things of ever pressing moment. Some of our class have fought in Flanders and the Dardanelles; the greatest achievement of them all combined will weigh but a feather in the balance for good compared with the achievements of those who stayed at home and fought to secure the rights of the working class against invasion.

The carnival of murder on the continent will be remembered as a nightmare in the future, will not have the slightest effect in deciding for good the fate of our homes, our wages, our hours, our conditions. But the victories of labour in Ireland will be as footholds, secure and firm, in the upward climb of our class to fullness and enjoyment of all that labour creates, and organised society can provide. Truly labour alone in these days is fighting the real war for civilisation.

Both extracts are quoted in Not Our War: Writings against the First World War, edited by A.W. Zurbrugg (Merlin Press, 2014).

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Thursday 21 August 2014

In this week's extract from Howard's later conversations about the war, he links both principle and personality in describing the formation of his views.

For Howard, objecting to war went alongside standing up for individual liberty. During World War I, the National Council for Civil Liberties was set up to defend freedoms that the government was curtailing during wartime.