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August 1914: When war was a resigning matter

In February 1914 John Burns was promoted to be President of the Board of Trade. But when war came in August he returned to the tradition that made him and resigned.

John Burns

In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. World War I had begun.

John Burns, President of the Board of Trade and MP for Battersea, resigned from the government saying he would have:

“nothing to do with such a criminal folly, the effects of which will be appalling to the welter of nations who will be involved. It must be averted by all the means in our power. Apart from the merits of the case, it is my especial duty to dissociate myself, and the principles I hold and the trusteeship for the working classes I carry, from such a universal crime as the contemplated war will be”.
Burns was referring to the traditions and history which had brought him to high office. He had been brought up in poverty in Battersea, South London. Apprenticed as an engineer, he was introduced to radical politics.

In 1878 he was arrested for holding a political meeting on Clapham Common. Working in Africa, he was horrified by the way Africans were treated. He returned in 1881.

On ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1887 Burns led the defiance of a ban on a Trafalgar Square meeting against government policies. He was sentenced to 6 weeks in prison.

The late 1880s saw the rise of 'new’ ‘general’ unions in a strike wave. Burns came to prominence as an organizer, with Battersea an important centre of them. In 1889 he led the London dockers’ strike. It won its main demands in 5 weeks.

Burns represented Battersea on the London County Council from 1889. In 1892 he became independent Labour MP for Battersea.

Battersea Trades Council was set up in 1894. One of London’s first, it brought together labour, radical liberal and socialist organisations with 'old' and 'new' unions. That year the Progressive Alliance of the same forces won control of Battersea council. In 1900 it won two-thirds of the seats.

The late nineteenth century saw the carve-up of much of the world, especially Africa, between a handful of imperialist powers, as well as growing rivalry between them.

Large deposits of gold and diamonds were found in the ‘Boer’ republics of South Africa. Britain moved to occupy them. The war began in October 1899.

Battersea was a centre of anti-war activity. Its Stop the War Committee was formed in February 1900 with William Matthews, a stonemason and Chairman of the Progressive Alliance, as President.

The Committee included the same organizations as the Trades Council and the Alliance. The Borough Council too opposed the War.

Burns strongly denounced the war in Parliament. The Liberal Party was split into imperialist and anti-war factions. Radical Liberals like Lloyd George joined Burns in attacking the government, accusing it of “a policy of extermination”.

Burns held public meetings against the war in Battersea Park every Sunday from May to August 1900 chaired by Matthews. The Committee too held meetings. Thousands attended.

In October 1900 a “Khaki elecion” was held on the back of early Brit¬ish victories. The Conservative government kept power, but Burns held Battersea without losing votes.

Opposition to the war grew as it dragged on and reports of abuse of civilians came in. Britain interned the population of whole districts in ‘concentration camps’. 28,000 Boers, mainly children, and 14,000 black Africans died of starvation, disease and exposure in them.

The war was the longest, most expensive and bloodiest fought by Britain between 1815 and 1914. The 250,000 troops were the most Britain had ever sent overseas. It cost some 75,000 lives: 33,000 Boers, 22,000 British and allied and 20,000 black Africans.

The war ended in May 1902. William Matthews died that June; thousands turned out to mourn.

Battersea's Latchmere Estate opened in 1903. It was the first municipal housing estate built using a council's own labour force at a time when jerry-building private contractors were the norm. It was well-designed and well-built. Homes contained what had once been regarded as luxuries. Burns called the estate “the common victory of the common people”.

He pointed out that its “streets bear democratic names”. Two reflected the Council’s opposition to the war: One is named after William Matthews, who was also the local Councilor. Another is named after General Piet Joubert, Commandant-General of the Boer forces until 1900.

The other streets are Freedom, Reform, Burns - named after Burns himself, and Odger - an earlier leading trade unionist and radical.

A Liberal government took power in 1906 after a landslide victory partly reflecting revulsion over the Boer War. Burns became President of the Local Government Board, the first government minister of working-class origin.

In February 1914 Burns was promoted to be President of the Board of Trade. But when war came in August he returned to the tradition that made him and resigned.

His former ally against war, Lloyd George, went on to become Prime Minister, responsible for waging a war the horrors of which made those of the Boer war seem insignificant.

Join in the commemoration of the centenary of John Burns' resignation in London on Monday 4 August at The Woolwich Ferry. Full details...

Source: No Glory in War