In this blog post, Ian Aitch looks at how doctoral research, led by PhD student David Swift, is overturning assumptions about the patriotism of the working class.
The centenary of the start of World War I has brought with it a fair amount of debate about the reasons for war and the treatment of those who fought in the trenches. Some have questioned the war poets’ view, while others have sought to protest what they see as the glorifying of the ‘war to end all wars’.
Away from the controversies, research into some of the untold stories around World War One has been taking place. But this was not the usual collection of tales of derring-do or unexpected moments of humanity. Instead, the work that came out of an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) between the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and the Manchester-based People’s History Museum explored a major piece of working class and labour history that had almost been forgotten about.
PhD student David Swift’s research on Patriotic labour in the era of the Great War revealed surprising results that showed how history can be re-written over time with the attitudes of a more modern era. Swift used the resources of the People’s History Museum to dust off the story of an almost wholesale support for the war from the trades unions and the burgeoning labour movement of the day.
“It was something that was led by the larger unions that represented navvies, railway workers and dockers,” says Swift of the union support for the war effort, which helped to shape the battalions based around workplaces. “It is interesting that, at that time, the unions were considered to be a conservative element of the labour movement in terms of social economic policies. The Socialist Society complained about the power of their block vote then, which saw radical socialist ideas voted down by the unions.”
“the labour movement’s enthusiasm for the war effort in 1914 was almost unanimous”
Swift believes that a modern view of the labour movement and war, especially coloured by the Falklands War, has painted it as a largely anti-war body. But its enthusiasm for the war effort in 1914 was almost unanimous. “The idea that if you are going to be on the left then you should be internationalist in scope and a pacifist is a rather recent convention,” says Swift. “Labour leaders made speeches about internationalists, but it was not something that they took seriously. It is a very racist period, so even the anti-war left are showing how degrading the war was by saying that allowing West Indian or West African solders to kill Germans show how terrible it all is. Being left wing economically and believing in social justice sat far easier with nationalism, patriotism and even racism than it does today, when it obviously does not do so at all.”
Sorting through around 16,000 documents from the Workers’ War Emergency National Committee at the museum, Swift found a complex picture emerging. Although he did find a left united in the war effort, even when some were critical of the reasons for it and the Government of the day. He also found sizeable pockets of working class conservatism in the East End of London, the south and places like Liverpool.
“The labour movement said ‘we cannot abandon our country, no matter how much we hate the ruling classes’,” says Swift. “This was a general agreement across the left wing that was really important. There was talk of the unions breaking from the Labour Party at the time, as Labour was seen as being too contaminated with middle class socialists and radicals who were too soft on Germany. But Labour’s support of the war meant this did not happen. So they survived the war intact and emerged rather united.”
This broad unity helped the Labour Party to establish itself as a major party, taking the unions, the co-operative movement and many feminists with them. By 1922 they were the second party and in 1929 emerged with most seats in the Commons under Ramsay MacDonald.
Nick Mansfield, who is Swift’s PhD supervisor at UCLAN, was director of the People’s History Museum for 21 years, so knows its archives well. However, even he was surprised by the scale of some of Swift’s findings, as well as how the consensus had been blurred by time. “There were a quarter-of-a-million trade unionists volunteered by December 2014,” says Mansfield. “Local and regional trade union leaders actually did the recruiting. 200,000 miners and 200,000 farm workers joined up. Labour historians tend to look at things such as conscientious objectors, but there were only 16,500, with only about a quarter of those objecting on political grounds. They had to stop the miners volunteering, as they needed some to keep the coal going.”
Mansfield is pleased that the collection held by the museum was such an important resource in Swift’s research and that the PhD student has been able to interpret that for wider public use, with work from the pair forming a large part of the basis for an exhibition. A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918, opened in May 2014 and will continue until February 2015.
“This actually gives students experience in the nitty gritty of putting on an exhibition,” says Mansfield. “The show is achieving very high academic standards. This shows the huge change in the role of women, trade unions and the Labour Party, with profound consequences. I think it moves this on from the lowest common denominator you sometimes get with a lot of commemoration, about how all these poor people from a particular part of society had a terrible time. The fact that 95% of the trade union members were patriotic meant that they achieved a place in the political system they would not have done otherwise.”
“The fact that 95% of the trade union members were patriotic meant that they achieved a place in the political system they would not have done otherwise”
Both Mansfield and People’s History Museum curator Chris Burgess point to the importance of papers belonging to Navvies Union leader John Ward in the story of this period of patriotic left wingers. Ward worked closely with Lord Kitchener and raised numerous battalions from his membership. “It would have been impossible for the museum to go through all of these boxes of papers,” says Burgess. “So we got a really good historical depth from this CDA. We didn’t want to do the classic trenches and battles for our exhibition. We wanted to talk about how the war really was popular and we wanted to show the agency of working class people who, at least at the start of the war, believed in what they were fighting for.”
David Swift says that his research findings have shocked many of those in the Labour Party and the trade union movement, who largely believed that their forebears were against the war. Although this period of labour movement patriotism could provide inspiration for those in the Labour Party looking for ‘blue Labour’ and other conservative demographics they wish to appeal to.
“There is a real surfeit of left wing Nigel Farages and Boris Johnsons during the war period,” says Swift. “You get a lot of bombastic left-wing equivalents who also love a pint. So you get London dock strike leader Ben Tillett who loved to gamble, drink and smoke. The opposite of the Methodist and Baptist, liberal teetotallers who were Labour Party leaders at the time. He was just one of many working class men who were great speakers, were left wing but also loved the football.”
A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918 continues until February 2015.