Birkbeck pop-up takes Great War stories to the streets

University’s 10-week project featured talk by Michael Berlin on First World War conscientious objectors

May 15, 2014

A Birkbeck historian has entered the debate on the First World War by bringing back to a North London community the long-forgotten stories of its conscientious objectors.

For 10 weeks until the end of this month, Birkbeck, University of London is running a range of talks and workshops at a “pop-up university” in an empty shop in Willesden Green. On 7 May, history lecturer Michael Berlin drew on the newly digitised records of the Middlesex Military Service Appeal Tribunal to tell locals about the area’s conscientious objectors.

When the tribunal was set up in 1916, he explained, many of the young men applying for exemptions from service did so on conscientious grounds, because they were Christian pacifists, secular socialists and ethical humanitarians.

The records were highly revealing about how such men were treated. Mr Berlin described how several had their appeals dismissed because they were said to be “too young to have serious convictions”, while a military representative on the tribunal claimed that “a socialist could not have a conscience”. A Moss Bros tailor was turned down because he was already contributing to the war effort, since “officers’ uniforms were available in the store”.

Mr Berlin’s presentation also touched on significant developments in wider labour and gender history. The London General Omnibus Company garage in Willesden was one of the first to employ women, many of whom came from but never returned to domestic service. In April 1918, it witnessed a strike by its female workers, launched without consulting either management or the union and demanding equal pay and a five-shilling war bonus.

Yet beyond the intrinsic interest of the material, Mr Berlin also acknowledged a “more political” purpose to his presentation, in the wake of education secretary Michael Gove’s determination to challenge “the dominant image of the First World War as one of the greatest follies in European history”.

In this centenary year, Mr Berlin said, we must also recall the “courage of those who endured prosecution and punishment by pledging not to kill for king and country”.

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