Peace history - learning lessons

We were pleased to be able to make a significant contribution to this year’s Peace History conference, which took place in Manchester on 21st September. Taking as its theme “The Peace & Anti-War Movement on the eve of the First World War – Lessons for Today”, our own centenary this year provided a natural focus and a ready source of material to share with the conference.

NFPB member Barry Mills, who has done a lot of research into our history and that of Northern Quakers during the First World War, was the first main speaker, following a passionate introduction and scene-setting from former MP and war-correspondent Martin Bell. Barry described the different strands of Quaker thinking from the time of the Boer war to the outbreak of war in 1914. He set out some of the particular background and thinking that led to the setting up of Northern Friends Peace Board and described the different ways in which Quakers responded to the war, from service in the Friends Ambulance Unit to imprisonment of absolutist conscientious objectors. Whilst these paths were amongst those followed by Members of the Society of Friends committed to peace, there were significant numbers who did enlist in the army, both before and after conscription was introduced in 1916. Statistics seemed to show significant regional – even local – variation in this, however, with most parts of the North of Britain having greater percentages of objectors. Whilst NFPB, and the peace movement in general, did not stop the war, Barry concluded, the work and activities were important both in supporting individuals and families dealing with the consequences of conscription and in helping establish a stronger and clearer Quaker voice for peace that endures still.

In a panel discussion at the end of the conference Philip Austin reflected on the lessons learned from our history. He reflected on the way in which NFPB has taken time, during its history, to step back both to evaluate and to consider what issues and type of work it should be doing next. The sustained support from Quakers during our 100 years has been of huge importance, both in financial terms but also in relation to the practical role that so many have played. He urged all parts of the peace movement to speak their convictions clearly, whilst also being ready to engage in partnership and collaboration; NFPB has done both over the years.

Other contributors to the conference included June Hannam, on the influences and activities of Isabella Ford, a Leeds Quaker, peace-activitist and suffragist. Mike Crawford and Wolfgang Hombach gave a moving account of the ways in which two communities, one in Calderdale in Yorkshire, the other in Germany, were affected by the outbreak of war in 1914. Conference participants were struck by the devastating affect of the war on the civilian population of Germany, with widespread deaths through starvation and illness. Whilst Martin Bell had earlier described the difference between warfare then and now as being the ratio of civilian to military deaths and injuries, this served as an important reminder of the costs of war to societies as a whole.
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Text of Barry Mills talk available to download (pdf)
Content from this year’s will be added to the Peace History Hub website in due course and material from last year’s conference is already there at: http://www.peacehistoryhub.org/

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