Today in anti-war history, 1920: communists disrupt the two minutes silence on Armistice Day

Is it disrespectful to the dead of World War 1 to refuse to participate or even to disrupt the official Armistice Day two minutes silence?

If you oppose the whole spectacle of the military hierarchies, capitalist elites, religious busybodies hypocritically saluting the millions who were merrily sent off to die (by the predecessors of these worthies), for the imperial interests of the British Empire and profits of the rich and powerful that drove it?

… the same elites that today promote war-mongering, arm sales to genocidal regimes and murderous governments, backing military intervention across the world, repression and exploitation, weeping at the ‘heroic sacrifice’ of World War while dumping ex-squaddies to sleep on the street with PTSD; enlisting nationalism and racism in the service of mass murder…?

If you draw inspiration from those who refused, resisted, the conscientious objectors, the internationalists, the soldiers who deserted, shirked duty, took part in mutinies (some of which forced an end to the slaughter), those who went to prison, went on strike (illegal under wat legislation), fought against war-induced high food prices and shortages, built co-operative projects to support each other, marched, argued and spoke out against the war (and got their heads kicked in for it, by ‘patriotic mobs’ led by Special Branch men, paid by Tory MPs and whipped up by rightwing journalists) – who sheltered draft dodgers on the run, printed sedition and got their papers raided…? Got framed for invented plots to off the prime Minister because of their involvement in anti-war agitation? Who were shot at dawn for running away from murder, horror, gas and shellshock; who stood against racism and nationalism, rape and war profiteering? Who went on rent strike, tried to paralyse industry, threw down their arms?

Can you oppose the promotion of war and militarism that is inevitably associated with the red poppy, the elevation of ‘our’ dead over the dead of other places… while still remembering and mourning millions of men manipulated into thinking the war was for ‘freedom and democracy’, or forcibly conscripted – and dying for it?

Do you think its ok to ignore state-sponsored hypocrisy fests like the Armistice Day parade to the cenotaph, or refuse to be silent because the overwhelming voice of media and wider society is that silence is the only respectful and appropriate response?

The annual arguments about whether its an insult to the dead of World War 1 to not wear a red poppy, or to wear a white one (remembering conscientious objectors), have run at a higher level than usual this year as it 100 years since the end of World War 1. And the pure bollocks of the spectacle of royalty, the military, the nationalist elites and almost every level of wealth and power pretending to care for the dead is even more repulsive than in other years.

Some people have felt that respecting the silence is to consent to the militarisation of the remembrance, the deliberate conflation of respecting the dead and supporting the nation, the military, the social order that demands wage slavery and death for the profits of the few…

On November 11th 1920, on the second commemoration of Armistice Day, some communists in London were attacked for refusing to stay silent, even mocking and deliberately disrupting the two minutes silence.

Much as anti-war protestors had been violently attacked during the war by crowds calling them traitors, pro-German, spies, they were beaten up by a crowd.

The Workers Dreadnought newspaper had its offices at 152 Fleet Street, above Bolt Court. Their protest against the silence and the response was reported widely in the newspapers:

“The girl employees in the offices of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Communistic payer. The Workers’ Dreadnought, in Fleet Street, were thrashed and the offices upset just after 11 o’clock today by an angry crowd…”

“DISGRACEFUL SCENE: Revelry at the ” Dreadnought Resented by the Crowd…
As a result of the unexpected breaking of the great silence the offices of the “Workers’ Dreadnought” in Fleet-street, party of angry men and women raided the premises and inflicted rapid revenge on the persons stated to be responsible. eye witness said two or three girls the office created a disgraceful scene. They were singing, shouting, dancing, and banging tin cans. The crowd remained perfectly still and quiet until the two minutes’ silence was over, and there was rush for the premises. The noise made by the girls gave a shock to everybody in the vicinity, and it completely spoiled the whole spirit of the ceremony in this locality.”

The crowd beat up the women and trashed the office. Later, one of the women attacked claimed that they had not intended to deliberately disrupt the silence (although not especially convincingly!):

“One of the girls concerned, interviewed, said we were dusting the office; we certainly made some noise, and we did not dream of people outside hearing it. went on dusting the place, because we were not interested, we don’t believe it. workman must have told the people were the Workers’ Dreadnought,” and a lot of people rushed upstairs. A workman said, ” Are there no women in the crowd,” and then some girls knocked about. They kept on hitting us until the police came.”

Just saying – the cleaning story doesn’t entirely wash. Maybe they should have just owned their action... Many of the Dreadnought group had been part of the anti-war movement for 4 years, and were filled with a rage against the war machine, the mass slaughter and the profits it made the rich, the imperialist lies; the 1000s imprIsoned for refusing to fight, the 1000s shot for being overpowered by fear. The millions killed for a cause that wasn’t theirs. The two minutes silence, the whole Armistice commemoration may have seemed to them just another slap in the face to the dead.

The Workers’ Dreadnought, originally called the Woman’s Dreadnought, had been launched in 1914, and was published by a group based around the socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. The group had changed its name several times, having been founded as the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913, becoming the Women’s Suffrage Federation, then the Workers Socialist Federation. They had transformed themselves from an organisation working to win women the vote, into an anti-war movement, involving men and women, building daily solidarity to relive the terrible privations the war brought to working class East Londoners as well as campaigning against the war and contributing to networks of resistance against the slaughter.

In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the group, and a move towards internationalist communism.

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought had been adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), as the Workers Socialist Federation had become on merging with several other smaller communist groupings. This group would merge into the new Communist of Great Britain in 1921, despite major policy disagreements (though Pankhurst and a number of other ex ELFS/WSF activists would leave or be expelled as their doubts about the Soviet state and the CPGB’s slavish pro-Leninism and reformist tendencies grew…)

The Dreadnought had been targeted by the state throughout the war for its opposition; it was constantly being raided, especially as it publicised mutinies and resistance to the war, and for its vocal support of the Russian Revolution, and calls to spread revolution across Europe. Special Branch and other secret state organs were very interested in their links to Russian and other international revolutionaries, and to dissident soldiers and sailors… The mutinies and demob riots among British soldiers in 1917-20, especially in the light of the inspiration of the mutinies and revolutions sweeping Europe scared the British government, and they were determined to shut up anyone trying to encourage similar social change here. The WSF involvement in the movement to prevent British/Allied intervention to smash the Bolshevik regime, a campaign which was bearing fruit, was also enraging the government, who were determined to keep hundreds of thousands of men in uniform and ship them off to fight in Russia.

Even when the war ended, war legislation allowed for heavy repression against anti-war and radical voices was renewed, and used heavily to silence the Dreadnought and groups like them. Only three weeks before the Armistice Day events, the Dreadnought offices had been raided by Special Branch and Sylvia Pankhurst arrested for sedition, for reprinting an article about discontent in the British navy by a radical sailor. She was on bail pending an appeal against a prison sentence for this when the armistice day events took place, and had agreed bail conditions that banned her from wiring or publishing or taking part in any political activist, so wasn’t present in the office at the time. However, she did comment afterwards:

“I myself would greatly deprecate anything which might seem disrespectful to the dead” However, she picked up the women’s defence that they were just cleaning: ‘I have been told that it was the inadvertent shaking of a duster out of the window by a girl of 17 that was the cause of the trouble.”

Yerrrrs (strokes chin), we believe you.

This post was written in haste, lost due to a technical fault and then re-written – I did want to publish it at 11 am, but missed that deadline. I plan to add more information to it later today or tomorrow, but for now, would like to invite discussion on this – what should we do when we reject capitalist war and the lies that are used to dress up the slaughter of World War – but don’t want to dismiss the deaths of millions? Is it ok to refuse to be silent? Is silence consent?

Not sure what people think on this. But we salute the deserters, the mutineers, the women of the ELFS and the Dreadnought, Sylvia Pankhurst as well as the millions of many ‘nations’ who refused to be enlisted in the war effort and fought, died, marched, were jailed, went on strike to try to push forward a vision of a better, juster, egalitarian social order. For their sake we should not stay silent.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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