Keynote Speaker Cyril Pearce

The Dissent and the First World War conference was held 31 August to 2 September.  Hosted by the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and the Labour History Project, with support from The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and The Archives and Records Association of NZ (ARANZ). The conference covered a range of topics on dissent, and how the First World War divided New Zealand society in many ways.  

Presentation by keynote speaker Cyril Pearce.  
Hon. Research Fellow, School of History, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

Cyril Pearce Opening Lecture Dissent and the First World War Conference

Britain’s war resisters 1914-1918 – some new thoughts.

Our understanding of the extent and nature of anti-war sentiment in Britain during the First World War has been distorted by the propaganda stereotypes of the time, by the continuing debate about war and peace, and by our pre-occupation with the experiences of Conscientious Objectors (COs).  This paper will suggest that work to discover the history of the anti-war movement in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield offers a different understanding. Considered ‘special’ by some, opposition there extended beyond the experience of COs to include elements of the wider religious and political communities and involved significant elements of the Women’s movement. It demonstrates that resistance was a collective as well as an individual experience.  If Huddersfield was ‘special’ the question then arises, ‘Was it the only place?’ The compilation of a database of more than 18,000 British COs, the Pearce Register, and the creation of county maps for England and Wales based on its data make it possible to identify a significant number of other ‘Huddersfields’. The paper will identify a number of contrasting examples, each with its own characteristic political and religious culture.  Work to compile the Register has also exposed aspects of the struggle against the war which have been, hitherto, ignored or underestimated. The intention here is to touch on some of these in the stories of Cos who gave in and served, of those who went on the run, of the ‘underground’ which supported them, and, more tentatively, of the widespread low-level indiscipline and absenteeism which suggests that, perhaps, the Good Solider Swejk had many British equivalents.

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Cyril Pearce is a Hon. Research Fellow, School of History, University of Leeds and a former Senior Lecturer in the Schools of Continuing Education and Social Studies, University of Leeds. Retired in 2004 and now Honorary Research Fellow in the School of History.  He has researched, written and lectured on aspects of the history of Huddersfield and the West Riding and on issues ranging from the History of English Landed Estates and planned Industrial Settlements to Victorian and Edwardian Labour History. He is currently Chair of the Huddersfield Local History Society.  

His current principal research interest is British war resisters in World War 1. This interest grew from the research on Huddersfield war resisters which resulted in his book, Comrades in Conscience: The story of an English community’s opposition to the Great War (First published 2001, new edition, 2014). Extending the search for the stories of other local anti-war communities is what has driven his last twenty years work and has now resulted in the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors, a database of more than 18,000 COs currently on–line as part of the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ project. A new book with the working title Communities of Resistance: Patterns of Dissent in Britain, 1914 – 1918, is planned for late 2017 or early 2018.