Walter Roberts and 100 years of British militarism

Today is the anniversary of Walter Roberts’ death: 1895-1916.

Roberts studied architecture and was a Christian pacifist and socialist; his brother Alfred was also a conscientious objector. He refused to fight in World War One, but was not granted conscientious objector status by the British state. He was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs before being sent to a labour camp in Aberdeenshire where he was forced to work in a quarry in Dyce, breaking rocks for 10 hours a day. Camp conditions were terrible and inmates were not looked after properly: exposure to incessant rain in inadequate clothing and living under leaky canvas (probably left over from the South African War of 1899-1902) meant a cold rapidly developed into pneumonia and Roberts died within five days of arrival. The Dyce camp was closed as a result of his death; it is now a car park for Aberdeen airport.

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News - click image to read it)

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News – click image to read it)

Many courageous men and women resisted the drive to war alongside Roberts: another notable campaigner was Catherine Marshall, who developed her campaigning skills in the suffragette movement. In World War One she became the Honorary Secretary for the No-Conscription Fellowship as a result of her campaigning talents (though we might reasonably assume that she was in part also appointed to this role because the male leaders of the NCF were constantly being imprisoned by the British state). Amongst other things, Marshall successfully campaigned to save the lives of numerous conscientious objectors in France that the British state had intended to execute. She argued: ‘… all the horrors of war … do violence to the whole spirit of civilisation, the whole teaching of Christianity…’ (PPU, p4).

These conscientious objectors were tremendously courageous individuals – opposing the public mood of the time, which was overwhelmingly pro-war, would have been very difficult. The public mood in Britain has long continued to be broadly pro-war, no doubt arising from continual military engagement overseas for over 100 years. No other country in recent times has been at war for this long, and it is only possible because the public mood allows politicians to get away with pursuing continual war. In other words, the public needs to be either ignorant of what is being done in their name, or seduced into accepting militarism as a viable tool of international diplomacy (which recent British governments have all clearly believed to be the case). I was reminded of this by an article published today by Ian Cobain entitled Britain’s Secret Wars. He begins with an account of British soldiers fighting in Vietnam immediately after World War Two (26,000 men with 2,500 vehicles and air support committing horrific acts of brutality – but hardly discussed in public):

Back in the UK, parliament and the public knew next to nothing about this war, the manner in which it was being waged, or Britain’s role in it. And it appears that the cabinet and the War Office wished their state of ignorance be preserved.

Regarding Britain’s long-standing military engagement, Cobain goes on to say (my emphasis):

For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.

Only the British are perpetually at war.

It is hardly a surprise that much of Britain is completely desensitised to the militarism that the state propagates (nor is it a surprise many people argued the British state’s militarism was a key motivation in seeking Scottish independence in 2014). Britain is one of the world’s most militarily aggressive states – a rogue state, by many definitions.

We do well, therefore, to recall with gratitude the courage and commitment of those who resist this militarism, whether this be people in the past such as Walter Roberts and Catherine Marshall, or those today who resist the relentless drive to war and the state’s dedication to illegal weapons of mass destruction, such as:

The most appropriate way to honour Roberts, Marshall, and all who suffered as a result of their pacifist convictions is undoubtedly to support those opposing war today.


Postscript: a few hours after posting this blog, I read an excellent piece by Louis Allday in the Monthly Review: The Imperial War Museum in London: A Lesson in British state propaganda. I would have included this in the main text had I read it sooner. If you want to better understand how the British state encourages its militarism, this is a good place to start.

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