Should Britain Go to War With Germany?

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Opposition to WW1 in Bristol in August 1914

War enthusiasm?

There is a perception in Britain that popular patriotic pressure drove politicians to declare war on Germany on August 4th 1914 and that the population somehow desired war. This so-called ‘war enthusiasm’ has been characterised in the popular memory as: “cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace, long lines outside recruiting offices and of soldiers marching away singing ‘Tipperary'”[1] . These images have been recently promoted by TV programmes and films such as Blackadder Goes Forth, War Horse and Downton Abbey.

But how true is this perception? Was the desire for war widespread? What actually happened in August 1914?

Over the first weekend of August 1914 there were numerous anti-war marches, protests and demonstrations across Britain. Similar protests involving hundreds of thousands had occurred a few days before in Germany and other European countries. In almost every city and major town in the country thousands of people met to voice their opposition to the impending conflict and to Britain’s potential entry into what became a disastrous world war.

In the preceding week, the dispute between Austria and Serbia which had begun at the end of June had begun to escalate towards a major conflict between the Imperial powers; Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Germany and Austria had declared war on Russia and the following day, Sunday 2nd August, Britain was being pressurised by its allies to declare war on Germany.

Fifteen thousand people attended a demonstration in Trafalgar square where a resolution calling for Britain to stay neutral and to prevent the spread of the conflict was unanimously passed. Similar resolutions were passed across the country by tens of thousands. Provincial media opinion, whether Liberal or Tory, “expressed a firm preference for neutrality” [2]. Non-conformist churches, along with most socialists and Trade Unionists were united in their opposition to war. The evidence suggests that the public, although sympathetic to the plight of ‘small nations’ such as Belgium, was certainly not convinced of the case for war.

Anti-war politician Kier Hardie addresses a protest in Trafalgar Square (Sunday August 2nd 1914)
Anti-war politician Kier Hardie addresses a protest in Trafalgar Square (Sunday August 2nd 1914)

As for pro-war demonstrations; these were, despite the perception of “cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace”, few and far between. One historian stated that “close examination of the ‘pro-war’ crowds in the metropolis during the war crisis causes them to dwindle almost to the point of disappearance”. He estimated that the traditional Bank Holiday crowd at Buckingham Palace on 3rd August 1914 to be in the region of 8,000, “little over one in a thousand of the metropolitan population”[3] .

And in Bristol?

What was happening on the streets of Bristol in those critical August days?

On Sunday 2nd August an anti-war protest on Durdham Down was addressed by the Trade Union leader Ernest Bevin. Somerset born Bevin, originally a farm labourer was by 1914 a committed socialist and national organiser of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union. Trade Unionists such as Bevin had worked hard for years to build an international movement whose primary aim was to stop any conflict breaking out between the Imperial powers. Now they were faced with the predicted but unthinkable…a world war. Would their nerve hold?

On the Downs, a young Bevin, steadfastly called for action by workers in all countries to prevent war [4]. In the preceding months Bevin had supported a resolution at the International Federation of Trade Unions to call an international general strike if a conflict looked likely to break out. However the speed with which the Austrian-Serbian crisis had escalated in July had caught Trade Unionists and Socialists on the hop. The possibility of international action by workers against the war seemed to be receding in the first few days of August, despite protests across Europe.

Earlier that day Bevin had been speaking at a well-attended a mass meeting of Dockers on the Grove in the city centre to discuss the worrying situation on the Continent. Bevin, addressing the Dockers, pointed out prophetically that “‘the South African war would be a mere fleabite compared with a great war in Europe” and added: “English Trade Unionists are on the most friendly terms with Trade Unionists across the Continent. It would be insane to fight them simply because there is a dispute between Austria and Serbia”[5] . He railed against the machinations of the British Government with its secret alliances and diplomatic manoeuvres, all of which he argued were undemocratic and hidden from the population.

Bevin proposed a resolution which called upon the:

Government to immediately declare its neutrality in connection with the European war and…upon the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Labour and the Labour Party to call a national conference to discuss way and means of preventing this country from being involved in ‘hostilities’ [6].

This resolution was carried unanimously by the assembled Dockers. The following day, in emergency meetings, the Bristol No.1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (representing 1,400 workers) and their sister organisation the NUR Women’s Guild both voted against British intervention in the conflict and for neutrality.[7].

These expressions of mass popular dissent against the war in Bristol were matched by the reactions of local newspapers such as the Western Daily Press were initially reticent to support Britain entering the conflict warning its readers of: “the grim shadow of war over the Near East” and harangued the foreign politicians for “the sheer madness of it” [8]. That first weekend of August churches prayed for peace and in most quarters there was widespread gloom, dread and uncertainty rather than enthusiasm.

War is declared…

The British government declared war on Germany at 11pm on Tuesday August 4th 1914. During the evening crowds gathered in Bristol city centre to be near the newspaper offices where the news would break. When it did there were mixed reactions in the crowd; some were stunned whilst others took part in impromptu marches through the streets singing the national anthem.[9]. The debate as to the righteousness of the decision continued; but now the die was cast and the full force of patriotic propaganda was unleashed on the populace.

An important aspect of supposed ‘war enthusiasm’ is the idea that the moment war was declared there was an immediate rush of patriotic volunteers to enlist in the armed forces. In fact, although there was significant recruitment in the first weeks of August, the majority of enlistees joined much later, between 25th August and 15th September 1914. Why was this?

On 25th August 1914 two important events occurred which caused an unprecedented burst of recruitment. First the Government published exaggerated details of shocking atrocities by German troops in Belgium. The same day The Times published the ‘Mons dispatch’ which gave distressing reports of the defeat and retreat of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and appealed directly for men to join up. Despite our perception of widespread naiveté amongst patriotic recruits, who supposedly thought it would be ‘over by Christmas’, one historian noted that: “Men did not join the British Army expecting a picnic stroll to Berlin but in the expectation of a desperate fight for national defence”[10].

The myth of ‘war enthusiasm’ in the days prior to the declaration of war and supposed immediate, massive and naïve voluntary enlistment in the days after, abound in films and TV programmes. The historical evidence suggests these perceptions are dubious to say the least. On this centenary of the start of World War 1 the time has come to dismiss these tired clichés about widespread popular jingoism.

A lively crowd gathered on Narrow Quay
A lively crowd gathered on Narrow Quay

Dockers Debate Recreated

On Saturday 26th July the Dockers Debate of August 1914 was recreated on Narrow Quay on the water front in the city centre. The historical drama featured Somerset and Bristol-born Trade Union leaders Ernest Bevin and Ben Tillett, both of whom made passionate speeches arguing for Britain to stay neutral in August 1914. A lively crowd of a hundred or more included many in period dress with anti-war Independent Labour Party members, a contingent of Irish Dockers and some lively ‘patriots’ all having their say. The resolution for Britain to stay neutral was passed unanimously by the crowd, as it was in 1914. The drama concluded with the Red Notes choir leading the crowd with the ‘Internationale’ and a women’s choir singing the popular anti-war song “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”.

Independent Labour Party anti-war protestors
Independent Labour Party anti-war protestors

Author and actors in the play, Roger Ball (Ernest Bevin) and John Bassett (Ben Tillett) both commented on the importance of highlighting the dissent against what became World War 1. Roger said ‘It is great to see the number of people who turned up today in period dress to participate in this drama. This was a key historical event in Bristol’s vibrant history of anti-war protest which has been obscured for too long’.

Anti-war Womens’ choir
Anti-war Womens’ choir

The Remembering the Real World War 1 Group who organised the event aims to highlight hidden histories of the ‘Great War’ and to dispel some of its myths.

They meet regularly and can be contacted at: Website: E-mail:

Dr Roger Ball (30-07-14)


Ernie Bevin – Ben Tillett Debate: The Grove, Sunday 2nd August 1914

(Outside Arnolfini, Narrow Quay, 2.00pm Saturday 26th July 2014)


Ernest Bevin (National Organiser of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union) [Roger]

Ben Tillett (Secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Federation) [John]

Chairman (Bristol Branch: Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union) [Johnny]

Mr. G. Clark [?]

An Irish Docker [Ruari]

Independent Labour Party members [Woodsy, Di, Mel, Zoey, Helen]

Some ‘patriots’ in boaters [Rich, Mike, other troublemakers]

A large crowd of dockers (members of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union)


[A restless crowd of Bristol Dockers and bystanders surround a simple podium, a small group of ILP supporters hold anti-war placards, others in boaters are waving Union Jacks]

Chairman: [stands on podium] Brothers, Brothers…..Order, Order….Can we have some quiet…[crowd quietens]

Brothers, this emergency meeting of the Bristol branch of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union has been called in response to the distressing news from the Continent.

The dispute between Austria and Serbia which began at the end of June threatens to become a major conflict between the imperial powers, including Britain. Last Tuesday the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. On Thursday Austrian Ironclads on the Danube began bombarding Belgrade in Serbia. Russian and German armies began mobilising during the week and then yesterday, as you know, we received the dreadful news that Germany had declared war on Russia.

Brothers, this is an extremely dangeous situation as Britain is currently in an alliance with Russia and France. Pressure will be applied to the British Government by our allies, who are now at war with Germany, to join the conflict. Brothers, I am sad to say, we maybe days from an all-out war in Europe.

Crowd: [heckles and groans] Bring it on….the Hun won’t stop us… down with bosses wars…no war but the class war etc.

Chairman: Brothers, Brothers…..Order, Order….this meeting is a chance for us to discuss this disturbing situation and to make some resolutions.

We are lucky to have a two west-country Union men here today, who don’t need an introduction…

…a Bristolian [points to Tillett], Ben Tillett, founder and secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Federation to whom we are now affiliated [crowd cheers]…

…and a sturdy Somerset lad [points to Bevin, laughter in crowd], Ernie Bevin, national organiser for our Union [crowd cheers].

Both would like to speak on this worrying news, I give you Ben Tillett….

Tillett: [stands on podium to applause] Fellow workers, it is a pleasure to be back in Bristol, the city of my birth and always close to my heart. I see some comrades from Easton…. [waves]

However, it is a shame that I have to speak to you in these difficult times. I am here to bring a warning to you all. We stand on the brink of war, a war created by the intrigues and manoeuvres of Kaiser Wilhelm, Emperor Franz and their allies. At this very moment German armies are marshalling on the borders of Russia and France, their Dreadnoughts are getting up steam ready to foray into the North Sea and the German people are charged up with propaganda.

Brothers, I have only recently returned from Germany and I assure you that all that can be done is being done to prevent a war amongst the European nations.

As you know since the Agadir crisis three years ago and the conflict in the Balkans the year before last, we have been facing the danger of an all out war between the major powers. It was on that basis that the Manifesto of the International Socialist Congress at Basel was passed two years ago. This manifesto states that:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective

It is my belief that Basel Resolution calls for a European-wide strike of organised labour, which, if adhered to, will make this militarist adventure impossible.

However, while I in no way make any compromises, that fact is that events are moving very rapidly. In Germany I put the Basel Manifesto to our comrades. Any action they take in support of that resolution we will reciprocate with our own action.

ILP heckler: Why do we need to wait for the Germans?

Tillett: I am sad to say, without the Germans, comrade, there is no international strike…

ILP heckler: But hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Germany against war on Wednesday and Thursday last week….

Tillett: They may have marched, my love…. but Germany declared war on Friday in case you didn’t know… [a few laughs in the crowd]

Patriotic Hecklers: [Start singing God Save the King]

Tillett: [shuts them up] We don’t want to sing ‘Rule Britannia’ nor ‘God Save the King’, what we want is to sing ‘God Save the People’….

[Addressing hecklers] England is the freest country in the world and I hope I have been one of its biggest rebels. This is because I always wanted it to be better than the best. I have fought in more strikes than any man living; I may have advised against a strike, but when it had been agreed on I have never let down my class. As I stand by my class in a strike; so I stand by my country.

Crowd: [Some cheers and applause, some heckling] Hear hear…. etc.

Irish docker: You didn’t stand by the Irish working class, you didn’t stand by the Dublin strikers last year, you sold Jim Larkin out ….

Tillett: We sent them money, I fought for Larkin and Connolly when they were imprisoned, I shared a platform with Larkin…

Irish docker: Fine speeches are one thing, action another. You stabbed Larkin in the back, and the TUC and the Labour Party sold them all out….

Tillett: That strike was doomed by Larkin’s mouth not mine….

Irish docker: Charlatan, sell out… [scuffles as the Irishman is restrained by his fellows]

[Tillett retires from the platform]

Chairman: Ernie, would you like to take the platform…

Bevin: Brothers, I come before you with a heavy heart after reading the stop press in the newspapers.

Yesterday, the first steps to a major conflict in Europe were taken when Germany declared war on Russia. This is a critical moment in history when we need clear heads, without emotion, without propaganda and without fear.

In these moments we should turn to what we know best and what is best for our class; that is the working class of Bristol, Britain, Europe and the World.

The imperial powers of Europe and the near East have been rattling their sabres and trading insults for months; they may have prepared for war, they may now be heading for war, but without the international working-classes behind them they are incapable of war.

This afternoon, all across Britain, in every city and major town, tens of thousands of working people are meeting like this. Together we oppose the head-long rush to bloody conflict that our rulers seem incapable or unwilling to halt.

Patriots: Pacifist traitors! German lovers! Cowards!

My public school friends may be a little confused, despite their education….I don’t see many pacifists here….No disrespect my love [points towards ILP women]. What I do see are fighters for the working-class, who have been proved in many battles [Cheers from the crowd].

We have not come here today to discuss Christian morals; we are deciding whether Britain should enter a conflict that could escalate across the world; a world war which could end in the slaughter of the working-class; English, French, Russian or German and Austrian alike. It is we the workers who will suffer, not the ruling classes.

We all know the suffering of the recent South African war will be a mere fleabite compared with total war between the imperial powers. Fighting a few Dutch Boers…and I see some veterans here… with all the death and misery that entailed, will be nothing compared to the havoc and destruction that Dreadnaughts, Airships and Armies will wreak on the cities of Europe if they are unleashed.

Some may think there is no choice but to join this impending conflict, but there is always a choice for the working-class. Do we support our moneyed-rulers or do we support the international working-class? That is the question.

Struggling for peace, comrades, does not make you a moral pacifist. However, arguing for conflict makes you war-mongers [looks accusingly at patriots].

Only the other day, in the lobby to the House of Commons… somewhere I cannot say I am accustomed to [laughter in crowd]…. I heard of an agreement to send 70,000 British soldiers to the Continent in case of war. 70,000 British workers! Have you been consulted about this? Has this been debated by our so-called democracy? If it was, comrades, then I think it would not be agreed to. It is this urgency to fight by our rulers that endangers us.

As my comrade Ben Tillett knows full well….English Trade Unionists are on the most friendly terms with Trade Unionists across the Continent. It would be insane to fight them simply because there is a local dispute between Austria and Serbia.

This is not our war. This is not a war for the workers. This is a war for profit, land and booty.

[Bevin retires from the platform, Tillett retakes it]

Crowd: [Some cheers and applause] Hear hear…. etc.

Patriots: Pacifist traitors! German lovers! Cowards!

Tillett: Our pro-war friends over here accuse us of being pacifists, as if we would stand around doing nothing whilst thousands of British workers died for an unjust cause. No, we are far from being canting humbugs… Afraid? Are we afraid? Are we cowards? No, comrades we are not.

However, neither are we lovers of war.

I have in my hand a piece of paper [fumbles for a piece of paper]…a manifesto which I have brought from London, signed today by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, as you know both recent leaders of the Labour Party.

This manifesto urges our movement to:

  • Hold mass demonstrations against war in every industrial centre.
  • Compel the governing class and their Press…who are eager to commit you to co-operate with Russia….to keep silence and respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people, who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy.
  • Workers stand together for peace!
  • Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all.
  • Proclaim that for you the days of plunder and butchery have gone by.
  • Send messages of peace and fraternity to your fellows who have less liberty than you.
  • Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the war.
  • Up with the peaceful rule of the people.

Tomorrow there is an emergency session of the Dockers’ Union executive in London. At this meeting we will consider what action can be taken. Your decisions today, Brothers, will have a bearing on this.

Our resolutions will be sent to the presidents of the Miners, Transport Workers and Railwaymen…our triple alliance…. I hope the purpose and power of this alliance can be made felt and the grave necessity of the occasion and our sacred responsibilities in preventing war and demanding the neutrality of England be realised.

The Kings, Czars and Emperors of Europe may have their alliances, their so-called triple ententes….. but if there is to be an alliance between countries, let that alliance be confined to the workers of each country who have no quarrel with each other.

[Tillett retires from the platform, Bevin retakes it]

Bevin: Comrade Tillett is right to speak of alliances. We are being asked to support an unholy alliance to which the British people have never agreed. We are being asked to give our lives in fighting against German dictatorship. It seems our rulers and their media lackeys have lost their memories which is no surprise in these fevered times…..

As for German militarists, have they forgotten about Russia our supposed ally? Are we meant to leap to the defence of the Czar and his band of corrupt aristocrats? Everyone knows that Russia is a cruel autocracy, a place where peasants and workers are treated like cattle, where to even organise a strike is a crime. Why should British workers die for corrupt dictators who would lock us up if they had half a chance? [cheers in the crowd]

We as workers have no say in the secret deals between the rulers of Britain, France and Russia. We have no idea what they are getting up to in their hallowed halls with their sherry and cigars, with their maps, carving up the world between them.

But what I do know, and this is a fact; without us, Brothers and Sisters, workers of the world, they cannot have their wars and they couldn’t carve anything except a Sunday joint… [cheers] and we probably wouldn’t trust them with that… [Laughter]

[Bevin retires from the platform, Tillett retakes it]

Chairman: Brothers, we need to move to a resolution. Ernie would you like to propose?

Bevin: I move the following resolution….that this meeting of the Bristol branch of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union calls upon the Government to immediately declare its neutrality in connection with the European war……..and further calls upon the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Labour and the Labour Party to call a national conference to discuss way and means of preventing this country from being involved in ‘hostilities’.

Chairman: Does anyone second this?

Mr. G. Clark: I second you Ernie….

Chairman: Then we’ll take it to a vote….

All those in favour of Ernies resolution, we call on the Government to declare Britain’s neutrality and for a national conference to debate ways for preventing this country joining the conflict. All those in favour raise your hands and say Aye….

Crowd: [most raise their hands] Aye, Aye …

Chairman: All those against, raise your hands…

Crowd: [A few hands are raised, the patriots cheer them] Nay, Nay

Chairman: The resolution is carried, unanimously…. [cheers from the crowd]

Before we conclude this meeting Comrades, I would like to bring your attention to very sad piece of news. On Friday, as some of you may know, the French Socialist Party leader, Jean Jaurès was assassinated in Paris. Jean was shot down in a café in a cold-blooded and cowardly murder. His assassin, it seems, was a French Nationalist, a lover of war and one who could not bear Jean’s principled internationalism and anti-militarist stance. I would like to read a few words from a friend of Jaurès who was present at his horrific demise in Paris.

I have known M. Jaures well, and a more simple-hearted man I never met in my life. He was absolutely free from personal vanity and personal ambition, and gave up the whole of his life to the cause of Socialism and peace. His death is a terrible loss to the Socialist party in France which cannot replace him without the very greatest difficulty.

Comrades, in memory of our comrade and brother Jean Jaurès I would like you to respect a minutes silence…

[A minutes silence]

Unless there is any other business or any objections we will conclude this afternoons meeting with a song… Comrades in memory of Jean Jaurès, I give you the Bristol Socialist Society Choir. Let’s give ‘em a big hand comrades….

[The Internationale]



Books and Journals

Ball, Roger The Origins and an Account of Black Friday 23rd December1892 (Bristol Radical History Group, 2013)

Belsey, James The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986)

Bullock, Alan The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin; Vol. 1 Trade Union Leader 1881-1940 (Heinemann, 1960)

Gregory, Adrian ‘British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment’ in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 Braybon, Gail (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003)

Hochschild, Adam To End All Wars: A story of protest and patriotism in the First World War (Pan, 2012)

Lorwin, Lewis Labor and Internationalism (Macmillan, 1929)

McNeill, Jim Ben Tillett (Bristol Radical History Group, 2012)

Millman, Brock Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain (Frank Cass, 2000)

Morgan, Kevin Bolshevism, syndicalism and the general strike: The lost internationalist world of A. A. Purcell (Lawrence and Wishart, 2013)

Moses, John Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler 1869-1918 (George Prior, 1982)

Pearce, Robert ‘Ernest Bevin’ in Labour Forces: From Ernie Bevin to Gordon Brown Kevin Jefferys (ed.) (I.B. Tauris, 2002)

Richardson, Michael Bristol and the Labour Unrest 1910-14 (Bristol Radical History Group, 2013)

Schneer, Jonathan Ben Tillett (Croom Helm, 1982)

Tillett, Ben Who was responsible for the war–and why? (Whitwell Press, 1917)


Bristol and the War December 1915

Western Daily Press 3 August 1914

Bristol Evening News 4 August 1914

Daily Herald 3 & 5 August 1914


Spartacus Educational



  1. [1]

    A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 67.


  2. [2]

    A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 77.


  3. [3]

    A. Gregory “British War Enthusiasm in 1914: a Reassessment” in Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18 G. Braybon (ed.) (Berghahn, 2003) p. 71-2.


  4. [4]

    Bullock, Alan The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin; Vol. 1 Trade Union Leader 1881-1940 (Heinemann, 1960) p. 45.


  5. [5]

    Western Daily Press 3 August 1914.


  6. [6]

    Western Daily Press 3 August 1914.


  7. [7]

    Western Daily Press 4 August 1914.


  8. [8]

    Western Daily Press 27 July 1914; J. Belsey The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986) p. 12.


  9. [9]

    J. Belsey The Forgotten Front: Bristol at War 1914-1918 (Redcliffe, 1986) p. 12.


  10. [10]

    C. Pennell WWI New Perspectives: Rethinking British Volunteerism in 1914 Youtube


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