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Peace Protests with Haringey First World War Peace Forum

When war was declared in August 1914 there was discontent and unrest around much of London. One of the many anti-war rallies held soon after the beginning of the war was in what is now Haringey outside the Salisbury Pub on Green Lanes. Suffragettes, Trade Unions and the North London Herald League all sent speakers to spread a message of resistance to war to a packed crowd. This rally was a focal point for a much wider issue - the disgust that the government had happily stepped into an avoidable and pointless war.

Exactly 100 years on, with the previous day’s centenary commemorations still featuring in the news all around the country (complete with soldiers, guns and airplanes), a group of local pacifists - the Hornsey First World War Peace Forum - brought the protest back to life.

In full costume, in front of a crowd of around 150 people several speakers told the stories of local Haringey residents and their struggle to work for peace in the First World War. Accompanied by anti-war music from the period by Patricia Hammond and Matt Redman, each of the speakers told the audience of their convictions, experiences and work towards peace. Richard Roberts, one of the founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, “spoke” of his horror at seeing his Hornsey congregation torn apart by war. Kate Hudson as a suffragette told the story of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom and their tireless work for peace during and since the First World War. Jennifer Bell gave a rousing and firey speech on the International Brotherhood of all Workers - starting off “Dear Comrades!” to a cheer from the crowd.

I put on flat cap, waistcoat and collarless shirt to speak as Charles Walker; one of five Walker brothers who became absolutist Conscientious Objectors in the First World War, and one of the around 200 COs from the borough. Charles and his brothers refused to do anything to support the war effort after their conscription in 1916. For their stand they experienced some of the worst direct brutality that any COs experienced during the war. The letters Charles wrote to his sister from Mill Hill barracks make brutal and uncomfortable reading, but also contain inspiring notes from a man who no matter the treatment inflicted upon him, would not give in and become a soldier.

My speech quoted Charles’ brother, Frank, who made a statement at a court martial in 1917 that I feel is especially relevant to conflicts around the world today:

The war has now been going on for over 2 years and over 8 million men have been killed. Millions more have been maimed and mutilated. Women an children have been starved; and atrocities have been committed. These are the fruits of war. A war we have been told is to bring a permanent peace. War has not yet brought peace, and is not likely to; because war breeds hatred and the desire for vengeance, which are the seeds of another war.

Each of the speakers were asked to pose a question from their character to the people of the world today. Why is war still a way of settle a conflict? How can religion become a more active force for peace in the world? What can we do to prevent war?

I had a lot of things I wanted to ask people, but the more I thought about Charles and his brothers, beaten and abused and neglected in Mill Hill barracks, 1916, I thought about what he might want to ask. I thought a lot about what a CO might be surprised about in the world today - the seemingly ever-present nature of violent conflicts? The fact that the first world war is, in many senses, still being fought today? I realised what they might well be shocked about was Conscription. I closed by asking the audience this - and it’s something I’d ask to anyone who reads this as well:

What do I want to say to you today?

Conscription doesn’t happen in this country any more. It ended in 1963. But there are many countries around the world that still force young men and women into the army, where they fight and die without any choice. There are still Conscientious Objectors in prison who are having the same experiences we had. They’re beaten and ridiculed. Some are facing torture and execution.

Even in Britain there are many ways we are forced to support war - forced to pay for it, encouraged to believe in it and celebrate it. My message to you is this - don’t let governments use you to support war by staying silent. Conscription must end around the world. War must end around the world. Tell the people in charge what you think. We can stop forcing young people to die in the armies of the world. We can end war.

Thank you to the Hornsey First World War Peace Forum and everyone involved in organising the event, both for making it a great success and for giving us at the Objecting to War project the opportunity to get involved.

Ben Copsey | more