Dundee’s War Resisters and the Independent Labour Party during the First World War

15 MAY 2020

Hi everyone! Fiona, Project Officer for Perth & Kinross Remembers here.

This is the first of two blog posts by Dr Billy Kenefick to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day on 15th May. In this blog Dr Kenefick explores the beginnings of the movement in Dundee in the early years of the war, focusing on the anti-war activities of the Independent Labour Party and one of its leading figures, Ewan Geddes Carr. He also looks at the establishment of the Dundee branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Dundee Joint Committee against Conscription, whose activities led Dundee to become a leading centre of the anti-war movement in Scotland.

Dr Kenefick is Senior History Research Fellow at the University of Dundee. He has published widely on Scottish labour, military and political history, and was chair of the Heritage Lottery Funded Great War Dundee Commemorative Project 2014-2019.

When war was declared on August 4th, 1914 Scots responded in great numbers to Lord Kitchener’s patriotic call to arms and on the home front the Scottish public commitment to the war effort seemed never in doubt. Yet from the commencement of hostilities, the Scottish Independent Labour Party (ILP), vowed to fight the jingoism, militarism and secret diplomacy that had caused the war in the first place. The ILP were viewed as an “irrelevant minority” with only modest if somewhat committed support, yet it assumed a leading anti-war role Scotland.

Indeed, on Sunday August 9, in association with the Glasgow Peace Society and the British Socialist Party (BSP), the ILP organised a large anti-war demonstration at Glasgow. It was promoted as a Peace Rally and attracted over 5,000 men and women. It was the largest of its kind anywhere in Scotland. Click here to learn more about this demonstration.

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Article on the Glasgow Peace Demonstration published in Forward,  August 15 1914. Image courtesy of Dr Kenefick

Forward, the Independent Labour Party’s Scottish newspaper, reported that those gathered included ‘doctors and dock labourers and rebels of every possible brand from mild peace advocates to the wildest of revolutionaries.’

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Description of the peace demonstration gathering, published in Foward, August 15 1914. Image courtesy of Dr Kenefick.

Those in attendance recognised they ‘could not stop the war’ but in holding this event they attempted to offer an antidote to ‘jingoism and war fever and the mad rush of militarism that was sweeping over Europe.’ Despite being condemned by the press and by the public at large as Britain’s only ‘pro-German’ party, the ILP never deviated from their stated anti-war position throughout the war, and its members – men and women – became staunch war resisters from that point onward.

Patriotism in Dundee

Support for the war was never in doubt and Scots enthusiastically volunteered in substantial numbers for military service. On the same day that Forward reported on their anti-war peace demonstration, the Dundee People’s Journal was vigorously promoting military recruitment. The poster titled ‘Shades of Bruce’ was created by Dyke White – a Glasgow cartoonist and illustrator working in Dundee – and it used the iconic image of Robert the Bruce encouraging the Men of Scotland to enlist.

As a result of press propaganda, Scots enlisted into the armed forces in tens of thousands. In recognition of this outstanding national achievement the Dundee Advertiser on November 8, 1914 noted with great pride: “All honor to the lads who have put Scotland in the front this time … We must not let the sons of the Rose or the Leek or the Shamrock get in front of the proud Thistle”.

Thereafter, the Dundee press never wavered in its patriotic duty in support of war. Men who refused to fight or volunteer in 1914, failed to attest their willingness to fight under the Derby Scheme in 1915, or claimed to be conscientious objectors (COs) after conscription was introduced on March 2, 1916, were castigated and condemned as “shirkers and cowards”.

[Editor’s note, click for details of the Derby Scheme and for further information on the the Military Service Act 1916 click here].

Dundee’s patriotic support for the war and the contribution made in terms of its manpower and its citizens’ wider contribution to the wartime economy was never in doubt at any time during the long years of war. Yet at the same time Dundee was to be confirmed as a prominent anti-war center in Scotland due to the activities of the ILP, in conjunction with other anti-war organizations such as the BSP, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), and the Women’s Peace movement.

Indeed, Dundee produced a host of local war resisters who were drawn from across the working-class community in the city and surrounding district who became well-known within the anti-war movement in Scotland. One such individual was long-time socialist and active ILP member Ewan Geddes Carr.

Ewan Geddes Carr

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Ewan Geddes Carr  c1910 at the ILP Clarion Scouts camp. Carr Archive © Dundee City Council, Dundee Art Galleries and Museums, McManus Galleries.

Ewan Geddes Carr was born at the Overgate in Dundee in 1886. He was an active member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) at the time of the by-election in 1908 when Winston Churchill was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Dundee. This was Carr’s introduction to radical cutting-edge politics in Dundee and before long he was a labour organiser and area election agent for the ILP, covering Dundee, Montrose, Forfar, Brechin and East Perthshire. It would not be his last election tussle with Winston Churchill.

Carr was fully involved in the ILPs political campaigns for the provision of affordable working-class housing, the ‘Living Wage’ and workers’ rights during the great ‘Labour Unrest’ in the three years preceding the outbreak of war in August 1914. He was also Secretary and Treasurer of the Dundee ILP Cycle Scouts: an organisation and a body of men and women ‘who combine pleasure with propaganda for the cause of Socialism.’ He later become Scottish Secretary of the ILP Cycle Scouts. Carr also ran as an ILP municipal candidate in 1914 and was already a fervent peace campaigner well before war declared in 1914.

But it was his stubborn anti-war position that brought him to prominence within the ranks of the ILP and latterly the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) in Dundee. After conscription was introduced in March 1916 (with the passing of the Military Service Act in January 1916), he co-led a large group of 106 working class conscientious objectors (COs) in Dundee.

With the assistance of the ILP and British Socialist Party (BSP), he would have been active in the establishment of a branch of the NCF which was launched in Dundee in November 1915. (The NCF was launched in 1914 to fight against conscription should it be introduced at any time during the war.)

Growing opposition to Conscription

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Notification of formation of Dundee branch of the NCF, published in The Scottish Prohibitionist newspaper, January 1, 1916. Image courtesy of Dr Kenefick.

In January 1916 city war resisters and objectors took their act of resistance to another level when they formed the Dundee Joint Committee against Conscription (DJCAC).

This formidable group was unique in Scotland and included two Dundee-based Prohibitionist Parties, the Scottish Prohibitionist Party (SPP), led by Edwin Scrymgeour, and the National Prohibition and Reform Party (NPRP), led by Bob Stewart; the Dundee Free Religious Movement, led by Rev. Henry Dawtrey and his daughter J. H. Dawtrey; Dundee Trades Council, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), and leading members of the ILP including Miss Agnes Husband, Mrs. Abernethy, Andrew Henderson, Ewan G. Carr, and Alex Ross.

Bob Stewart spoke to the crowd on the day of the JCAC inauguration and in what could easily be construed as an act of sedition stated that “The British Worker was still more closely allied to the German worker than was the former to the British capitalist.”

The JCAC were later joined by the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) after a branch was formed in Dundee in May 1916. The Dundee JCAC was thus more or less supported by all sections of the labour movement in the city and held weekly Sunday meetings regularly turning out crowds more than 1,500.

With the unequivocal support of the Dundee-based Scottish Prohibitionist newspaper – an important anti-war press outlet that did not exist elsewhere in Scotland – the JCAC ensured that local opposition to conscription once it came into official operation in March 2 1916 was maintained and advanced upon throughout the remainder of the war.


Coming up in part two, Dr Kenefick looks at war resistance and the experiences of Conscientious Objectors in the remaining years of the conflict.