Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why did workers flock to sign up for the First World War?

A serious topic but still time for a laugh: Prof Putkowski left

By New Worker correspondent

IN THE early years of the 20th century working class awareness and socialist ideas were growing. The leaders of the labour movement recognised the imperialist nature of war and opposed it.
And yet once the First World War was declared in August 1914 thousands of working class men flocked to join the army, most of them during the first three months of the war.
Professor Julian Putkowski last Monday evening delivered a very interesting account of his researches into the reason for this flood of volunteers at a well-attended meeting in Housmans Bookshop, organised by Veterans for Peace.
“How come so many working class people dutifully marched off to war?” he asked. “The scale of change in the national outlook was perplexing.”
He pointed out that Britain, unlike most European countries, did not have a conscript army at that stage. Britain’s defence investment had for centuries favoured the Royal Navy and, in peacetime, the army was effectively a mobile back-up police force.
When war broke out a massive recruitment campaign was necessary to get men to volunteer.
Julian Putkowski told the meeting that the education provision for the working classes, through compulsory board schools, was rudimentary, heavily loaded with religion, nationalism, racism and a culture of unquestioning obedience to authority.
But there was a stronger motive than that, which drove hundreds of thousands of men to the recruiting officers: hunger.
The start of the war coincided with an economic crisis. Official unemployment figures were not so high but millions were trapped in unskilled casual employment whose income was precarious and changed from day to day – never mind week to week.
Once the war had been declared the United States stopped sending cotton to Lancashire – they were afraid of losing valuable ships and cargoes to German submarine attacks.
This brought the cotton mills to a full stop and all the other peripheral industries and trades that went with them – throwing thousands of people into poverty.
It also brought ports to a standstill – merchant ships were afraid to set sail to and from the Channel and North Sea ports. Thousands of dockers were laid off.
In London and other big cities, service industries including domestic service that provided thousands of low-paid jobs were cutting back wining and dining and travelling. The earnings were low but vital to working class households where the women and children of any age were engaged informally in producing knick-knacks and decorations, or in street trading.
A big factor in the attraction of the army was the recent extension of dependants’ allowances for serving soldiers.
These economic pressures did not last; within months the demands for munitions and army uniforms had improved employment opportunities and women were welcomed into trades previously done only be men. And the Government had offered insurance to merchant shipping lines to get trade moving again. But for the first three months of the war, it was literally sign up or starve for hundreds of thousands.
And the recruiting doctors were passing almost anyone as fit to serve, they were not fussy and there was pressure on them to accept as many as possible. Many under-age boys were accepted after being advised to lie about their age.
Throughout the war a total of 2.5 million signed up and the first million of those joined between August and November 1914. The peak was in September.
Later, as employment prospects improved and accounts of the reality of fighting at the front filtered back to Britain, volunteering declined and the Government introduced conscription, sending another 2.5 million into the war.
Few socialist leaders opposed the war but they included Kier Hardy and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Professor Putkowski will be addressing more meetings on the topic of resistance to war in the near future – to be notified. And Veterans for Peace have organised a memorial meeting for Brian Haw, the peace campaigner who camped opposite Parliament for many years, this Sunday 18th June at 2pm in Parliament Square.

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