2015 05 – Parliament and World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry

Military Service (No.2) Bill. First Reading.

The House of Commons returned to the subject of compulsory military service on 5 January 1916 with the introduction of the Military Service (No.2) Bill moved by Prime Minister Asquith.  Labour’s J.H. (Jimmy) Thomas once again spoke against compulsion.  And once again he raised the issue of how it would affect the workplace and the conditions therein. A short biography of Jimmy Thomas appeared in the December/January 2015 Labour Affairs. However, immediately before Thomas spoke, Conservative Backbencher Sir A. Griffith-Boscawen made the following comments.

Sir A. Griffith-Boscawen:

I am referring to what the Prime Minister said. I have not seen the terms of the Bill any more than the hon. Member, but I heard a description of the measures given by the Prime Minister, and I give credence to what he said. This Bill is really in the nature of a very modest measure, and I cannot understand how any patriotic Englishman, who really wishes that the War shall be brought to a successful conclusion, can refuse to vote for its First Reading. That is the sole test. Do you want to win the War, or do you not? It is no good whatever talking about liberties, our freedom, our voluntary system, if you are going to be defeated by Germany, which will rivet on you every sort of compulsion, and compulsion far greater than anything contemplated by any Minister in this House. If we care to win the War and to find the men necessary, compulsion of some sort or kind is necessary. The only criticism I can make of the Bill is this, that it ought to have been brought in a long time ago, in which case we should not find ourselves in the difficulty of recruiting as we do at present.

Mr Thomas:

I readily agree that the issue we are faced with today is not an issue that ought to be faced in any light or frivolous spirit. I realise that there are men on both sides of the House who take  opposite views on this question, but who are actuated by the highest and best of motives. I resent to the full the suggestion that has already been made, that those who are likely to oppose the Bill are not in favour of winning the War. Not only are they in favour of winning the War, but they genuinely and sincerely believe that the course they adopt is the best course in the interests of winning the War. Therefore, I do not think it will help matters to hurl charges of that kind, unless any Member has proof that those who are opposing any change in the present method of recruiting have not done all they possibly could to make the voluntary system a success. In other words, I do not take my stand with those who have done nothing for recruiting. I take my stand on the grounds that I have done the best I could to make the voluntary system a success. Therefore we start, or at least I hope so, on the assumption that we all realise the grave issue involved, and that we are all anxious to bring it to a successful conclusion. The last speaker clearly indicated the difficulty that many Members feel. He said we want a million men, and that we are going by this means to obtain a million men, and he wound up his speech by saying that his one objection to the Bill was that it did not go far enough.

Sir A. Griffith-Boscawen:

I said that it ought to have been brought in long before.

Mr Thomas:

Let us examine the position. Did the Prime Minister in his speech today indicate that there was any military value in this Bill? The exemptions were in my opinion necessary exemptions, and when those exemptions are taken advantage of, and when the tribunals are called upon to consider what is left, there is no military value gained, but you have Conscription on the Statute Book of this country. I do beg the House to realise, whatever Ministers may say, that there is a deep-rooted suspicion in the minds of the workers of this country, that this position has been forced on the Government today, not with a view of winning the War, and not because of any military value, but because a certain section of the Press—(HON. MEMBERS: “Oh, oh!”) I make it a point not to interrupt others, and anyone will have the right to reply to me, and I am going to state my case in my own way.

What was the first announcement? Last Tuesday morning, in the midst of the festive season we were informed that the Minister of Munitions had threatened his resignation unless conscription was forced. That was the announcement in the “Times.” The next day the placard had these words: “Conscription Nearer,” and the next day: “Conscription Now Sure.” There was no message of a military victory, no declaration of the gallant work of our men at the front, but merely a victory for the people that have been advocating Conscription. I put it to the House, can you conceive of large numbers of working men who, whatever may be the intention in this country, are satisfied that wherever Conscription has been introduced it has always been a means of retarding progress.

The workers of this country believe that militarism is the real cause of this War, and they believe that the same people who are responsible for the German mind, with its military forms, would not hesitate to use the same means to crush liberty in this country. You may say that that is not intended, and you may point out that this is for the duration of the War. You may answer me by saying that the fact that it applies to single men only is the best guarantee of that. My answer to that is this: that the people responsible for this proposal started out first with single men, and what guarantee is there that immediately they have got the single men, it is not followed with a cry of married men? What is the logic of it?  They have already indicated that from the point of view of military value the single man of forty is not nearly as efficient as the married man of twenty three. We all agree to that, but it only proves that once they have got the thin end of the wedge in they will develop it, and the next cry will be Conscription in the workshops. Therefore we have got to realise that we are face to face today with this problem:

First, we have got a measure introduced that places on the Statute Book of this country something which is repugnant to the working classes of this country, and which, wherever it has been in operation, has always been used against them. Accompanying this scheme was a threat of a General Election. It is just as well to speak plainly and frankly about this matter. I am going to agree straight away, whatever the other House may do, or whatever the threat of a General Election may do—I am going to frankly say that it has been so manoeuvred that I believe you would win it. I believe it could be won on this cry of the single men. I do not want to be unfair, and I frankly admit that you could do it. (An HON. MEMBER: “NO!”) But at what cost? I ask whether it would be advantageous to the War or not? In the first place, is a General Election to be forced with a view to persuade the workers that in spending a few million pounds economy is necessary for them? Is a General Election to be forced to allow the brewers and others to ask whether the Control Board is doing its work well? Is a General Election to be forced to enable the workers to raise the question as to whether wealth ought to be conscripted as well as labour? Do not get out of your minds the fact that those are issues that will be raised, and when they are raised there is no knowing the consequences.

Supposing the issue is won, so far as the election is concerned, there is then a strong, fixed and determined minority. That minority having been broken, will not do as they are doing today. Do you think men with the feelings and passions that have been aroused will work thirty-six hours on the engine, and that their trade officials will refuse to complain to the Board of Trade? Do you think we will have men working from ninety to ninety-six hours per week, week after week, and month after month, because we say to them we are at war and we want everybody to give of their best? Do you think when you are going to enter on trade negotiations with employers of labour that you will be able on both sides to approach the question at issue, not with sectional interests, and not with the desire to drive a hard bargain, but with the supreme desire to keep the national interests supreme? That is what is happening today in all trade negotiations, with the result that with our own union, with 600,000 railwaymen employed, there has not been a stoppage for an hour since the War broke out. A Noble Lord says, “What about the bonus?” I am sorry for the interruption. The bonus is 5s. per week, but the men have hung up their national programme for an eight hours’ day and the 5s. per week. If they had adopted the policy of those people who always fight for their own hand they would have said, “Now is our chance to get an eight hours’ day, and we will not move troops until we do.” (An HON. MEMBER: “They would not say it!”) Exactly; it is because they would not say it that I am appealing to this House to realise the matter, and because they would not be encouraged to say it by me or those associated with me. (An HON. MEMBER: “Question!”)

What I am putting to the House is this, that that is the spirit which animates all sections of the people today, and that is the only spirit in which we can win this War, and I do not want to see that spirit broken. I do not want you to let loose the feelings and tempers that would be engendered, because, do not misunderstand, there are people who would go to the stake and lay down their lives and feel that their lives were given for liberty equally as much as men give their lives in the trenches of France or Flanders. On the other hand, the Minister of Munitions, I think it was, said last week that courage was the great test at this time is it?

Can Members of this House put themselves in the position that we are in today? Any form of compulsory service could be killed in an hour by the trade unions of this country. Today twenty-four executive members, drawn from all parts of the country, eight of them newly-elected men, working railwaymen from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales straight from the feeling of their constituents, men working on their engines, in the signal boxes and goods yards yesterday, came together in council this morning. They were told what a mild Bill this was—that is to say, the Press reports indicated that it would apply only to single men. They unanimously, without a dissentient voice, in the name of 300,000 railwaymen, said, “We will use all our power, all our influence, and go to any length, to see that Conscription is not placed on the Statute Book.”

Talk about courage, what is our difficulty? My difficulty is that, so keenly do I feel, so bitterly do I resent the Bill, so satisfied am I that it is wrong, that you might say to me, “Stop it by calling a strike.” I am to answer, am I, that I am a coward? Why? Because the calling of a strike would not end in stopping Conscription; it would affect the poor fellows who are fighting our battles. That is the kind of feeling that tears men like me at this moment. On the one hand I know that it is wrong; I believe it is a huge conspiracy. I am the more convinced of that when we find, as we have found today, that no military man can defend the proposal for two minutes. If it cannot be defended on military grounds, if it cannot be defended on the ground that it gives you men to win the War, does that not justify the suspicion of these people? Therefore I repeat, it is not that I want to be a coward; because when you order men out it is not simply a question of ordering them out; all kinds of issues will be involved in getting them back. The one supreme thing of which I am thinking all the time is the affect on the men who are fighting our battles.

I put it to the House, is the actual value of this Bill such that could justify its passing? I come back again to the talk of going to the country. That would be ten thousand times worse. No one in this House has yet dared to assert that our failure, if you can call it such, has been due to shortage of men. No one on either side has declared that any period during the last fifteen months shortage of men has been responsible for the mistakes. If that is so, the question will be asked, and it will have to be answered: who, then, is responsible? Is that the kind of thing that is going to maintain national unity? Is that the kind of thing that is going to help us win the War? It is because I want to avoid that I am pointing out to the House the dangers ahead. I believe with other Members that the mere sacrifice of our individual lives would be a detail. Probably they would not be so valuable as those of the many gallant fellows who have already made the sacrifice. But do not make the fatal mistake of assuming that there is unity in the country. Do not mistake the deep-rooted resentment that is in the minds of the workers. Do not mistake: In this great issue voluntaryism has not failed.

Where are you going to get your 80,000 skilled men and your 200,000 unskilled workers whom it is clearly indicated you want to deal with the Army that you have? Therefore, I face these problems trying to arrive at a decision in the best interests of the nation, and I say that I would be false to myself, and any member of our party would be false to himself, if we expressed opinions and could not carry the men with us. If my union and my men said they would take a certain course, it might be palatable to get up in this House and say, “I think so and so will be all right,” but it would mislead the House, and it would be valueless so far as an honest contribution is concerned. It is much better for us to express the difficulties, it is much better to let the House and the country know exactly what is taking place. Therefore, I have felt it my duty to say what I have said this afternoon.

In conclusion I will make a suggestion. I know the difficulties of Lord Derby’s scheme. It will not be challenged, in the first place, that there has been no systematic canvass, and, in the second place, that there has been difficulty in creating the tribunal and in connection with the starring to which Lord Derby refers. I was on the Lansdowne Committee responsible for the starring. The remarkable fact is that the starring was done not by any civil member of that Committee, not by a Member of this House, but wholly and solely by the highest experts of every Government Department—precisely the same people who would do it under Conscription—and it was done because of the influence and pressure that was being brought to bear by every Department, more especially the Board of Agriculture, with a view to dealing with that difficulty. These difficulties were well known. No one assumed that Lord Derby could have done in six weeks more than had been done in any previous six months of the War.

The figures clearly show that you have got by direct enlistment and attestation as many men in six weeks as you did in the previous six months. Are we not justified in saying, “Throw open the Derby scheme at once, as it is by the Bill, but do not bother with your Bill.” In other words, prove your case before you call men “slackers” have some confidence in your fellow countrymen; pay some tribute to the manner in which they have already responded by continuing to appeal to the free men of this country, by pointing out to them, as it has been pointed out to us, that militarism is the cause of the War. Above all, if these men are such slackers as is alleged, what will be their military value? If they are such slackers are they the kind of men that you are going to take with a view to creating a healthy environment for the other men? If they are that type of men, you are going to have the whole trouble about blacklegs in the trade unions over again. Therefore, because I believe there are difficulties ahead, because I believe you can get all the men you want, because I believe we have got to look at this question from a broad standpoint, and above all, because our one important object should be unity of the nation, I beg the House and the Government to realise the dangers ahead and let us go on as we have been, doing our best with free men to achieve, I hope, a lasting victory.