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Political unrest and protest in WWI

A badge from the Anti-Raglan protest at Tynwald Day 1916

A badge from the Anti-Raglan protest at Tynwald Day 1916

  • by Manx National Heritage
 

One of the popular misconceptions surrounding the First World War holds that while soldiers were ambivalent about the conflict, civilians were united in a bellicose, anti-German jingoism.

In fact, neither of these generalisations stands up to close scrutiny. In the case of those on the home front, whilst it is true that a majority of people supported the actions of the British government in going to war to defend Belgium from German aggression, there were also many divisions and differences of opinion.

Many people today forget that there was a small but significant anti-war movement in Britain at this time; however, up to 1916, participation in the war was a matter of individual personal choice, and those who did not feel able to support Britain’s actions for whatever reason were free to abstain from it. With the passing of the Military Service Act in 1916, all fit males were liable to conscription, and there could no longer be any standing aside. Those who objected to the war could still appeal against conscription (usually on grounds of religion or political affiliation) but many conscientious objectors found themselves imprisoned.

Today we might respect and applaud these men for having the courage to stand up for their convictions, but we must not forget that at the time they were hated and despised by the majority of the population, who regarded them as nothing more than cowards. Never the less they presented a conundrum, for anyone who considered the matter dispassionately could see that unless the authorities could reach some sort of accommodation with them, and unless they were treated with humanity, then the country with lose any moral authority which it might claim to have over Germany. In the Isle of Man, at least two such men held out for absolute exemption from military service, and were imprisoned as a result. One, Harold Lilley of Castletown, wrote:

…as a humanitarian … I believe in the sanctity of personal life and individuality, and I deny the right of any Government to compel me to kill my brother man … the right of freedom of conscience … in times of war inevitably becomes a subject for ridicule and misrepresentation. Such as espouse such a cause and hold such convictions are deemed to be actuated by no other motive but cowardice, and a desire to shirk the sacrifices demanded of others…

In the Isle of Man however this was not the only fault line within society. Here the First World War precipitated a political crisis, when the Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan (who it must be said was already unpopular before the war) refused to offer financial assistance to those in difficulties due to the collapse of the tourist industry. Although Raglan had control over the Island’s tax structure (and no finance bill could pass Tynwald without his assent) the Manx people had no democratic means at their disposal to remove him – an archaic legacy of feudal rule. Protest against this grew, with the formation of the War Rights Union, led by Samuel Norris, which united those who were in financial difficulties because of Raglan’s intransigence.

In 1916, protests reached new levels with a national day of protest organised against Lord Raglan at the July Tynwald ceremony. Some badges and banners called for ‘Reform, Retrenchment and Redress’, whilst others called for a new governor. So strongly did feelings run that Lord Raglan was hit by a sod of earth, thrown at him by someone in the crowd – the only time that this has ever happened. Appeals to the Home Secretary in Westminster for replacement of the Lieutenant Governor fell on deaf ears; some observers noted that Lord Raglan wielded more power over his subjects than King George V in England did over his, whilst Norris concluded ruefully that:

In the Isle of Man, Raglan was Caesar.

Ultimately, Raglan would be toppled by a humble printer. The First World War had seen enormous growth in trade union strength, and by 1918 the Workers’ Union, under its leader Alf Teare, was the strongest in the Island. When Raglan tried to end the subsidy on bread that year, Teare led a general strike which crippled the Isle of Man. Teare was now regarded as the ‘most powerful man’ on the Island, and Raglan was humiliated. After his departure in 1919, much needed reforms meant that a lieutenant governor would never again exert such unfettered control.

A badge from the anti-Raglan protest, and a petition calling for his removal, may be seen at the Manx Museum as part of the exhibition This Terrible Ordeal.

 

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