Military history


BY NOW THE WAR had become the most deadly catastrophe to strike Europe since the pandemic of the fourteenth century, the Black Death. "I did not write the truth to you before," an Indian soldier named Bhagail Singh told his family from the Western Front in January 1917, his words copied by censors monitoring the troops' morale. "Now I write the truth.... Consider us as having died today or tomorrow. There is absolutely no hope of our ever returning.... None will survive. I pass both day and night in lamentation." The next month another Indian wrote: "We are like goats tied to the butcher's stake.... There is no hope of escape."

Unlike the bubonic plague, of course, the cataclysm ravaging the continent was entirely man-made—and the organized opposition remained small. Although deserting soldiers in Russia were voting against the war with their feet, more open protest there was dangerous, and dissenters in most other countries were dealt with no less harshly. Even had there been more freedom for protesters, however, there might not have been many more protests. The war had everywhere unleashed powerful national chauvinism, witch-hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight.

Only in Britain was there the political space for a substantial antiwar movement, and yet in early March 1917, just after Milner returned from Russia, several of its members were about to become the subjects of the war's first big show trial. The attorney general, F. E. Smith, had already announced that he would prosecute the Wheeldon case personally. A blood-and-thunder right-winger, Smith was known for his love of brandy and cigars, his wit and his snobbery. A trade union leader newly elected to the House of Commons, who had not learned his way around, once asked him the way to the men's room. "Down the corridor, first right, first left and down the stairs," Smith told him. "You'll see a door marked 'Gentlemen,' but don't let that deter you."

Smith used his influence to get the trial moved from Derby to London, a better place for a public shaming designed to intimidate antiwar forces. "The persons in this case," he declared, "are a very desperate and dangerous body of people ... bitterly hostile to this country, shelterers of fugitives from the Army, and persons who do their best to injure Great Britain in the crisis in which this country finds itself to-day."

Meanwhile, young Willie Wheeldon, on the run as a draft dodger, was captured at Southampton. The public was riveted, making the case a boon for tabloid newspaper sales: eight photographs and a banner headline, "The Lloyd George Murder Plot," filled the front page of the Daily Sketch. In other newspapers, Alice Wheeldon and her two daughters were shown in their long prison dresses, under the eye of a warder in the jail where they were awaiting trial. From their cells, the three women could hear regular reminders of the war: the firing of guns at a nearby artillery officers' academy. "I think this is only one of the convulsive death rattles of Capitalism," Hettie Wheeldon wrote to a friend about the ordeal they were going through. Her mother also wrote from jail, ending one letter: "Yes, we will keep agoing as you said and will break before we bend. So long, comrade, keep the flag flying ... we will meet again." Then, beneath her signature, she added her defiance of the patriotic mania in the air: "The world is my country."

The trial took place at the Old Bailey, the columned stone courthouse topped with a no less imposing tower and dome. In the packed courtroom, reporters rubbed elbows with society figures and antiwar activists. The gist of the government's case against the Wheeldons was summed up by the attorney general: from Winnie's husband, Alf Mason, an assistant in a chemistry lab, Alice had obtained two vials of strychnine and two of curare, wrapped in cotton wool and packed in a tin box. Secret agent Herbert Booth then took the stand, testifying that Alice had told him and his colleague Alex Gordon that Lloyd George played golf on Saturday afternoons, so it would be easy for someone to hide behind a bush on the golf course and, like South American Indian hunters, to use a blowpipe to shoot him with a poison-tipped dart.

The evidence for this unlikely assassination plot was, to say the least, thin. Aside from displaying the package of poison, the prosecution relied mainly on Booth's word, even though he had spent much less time in the Wheeldon household than his subordinate Gordon. Attempting to shock the jury, the prosecution pointed out that in one letter Winnie had called Lloyd George "that damned buggering Welsh sod." F. E. Smith was a dazzling courtroom orator, and the denunciations, sinister hints, and references to Britain's hour of danger offered up by him and three assistant prosecutors overwhelmed jury and judge. Several times, the judge praised the prosecutors, and joined them in questioning witnesses. Alice proudly affirmed that the family had indeed helped men fleeing the draft. From her defiant denials and her unwillingness to plead for mercy, it was clear that she and her "co-conspirators" knew they had little chance of persuading the jury of their innocence. During a preliminary hearing, Hettie Wheeldon had conspicuously read a newspaper, as if to indicate that there was no point in paying attention to such a farce. During the trial itself the judge admonished the prisoners for showing "levity." But when responding on the witness stand to a question about her son, who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for evading the call-up, Alice, whom one newspaper described as "haggard and pale," acted with anything but levity. She wept.

Although what little incriminating evidence there was appeared to come mainly from the first agent to worm his way into the Wheeldon house, Alex Gordon, Smith announced "that for reasons which seem to me good I shall not call this witness before the Court." In vain did the Wheeldons insist that it was the mysterious Gordon who had requested poisons they had obtained for him. He had, they declared, promised help in getting Alice's son and other draft evaders out of the country—but he claimed that to do so he needed to poison some dogs guarding an internment camp where COs were being held. In vain did the Wheeldons' otherwise inept lawyer ask, Why did the prosecution choose not to call its key witness? He himself wanted to question Gordon, he said later, but prosecutors would not reveal the man's whereabouts.

The trial lasted less than a week. At the end, the judge made clear what verdict he expected, calling poisoning "the most dangerous and dastardly of all conspiracies." After a grueling ten-hour Saturday session of testimony and concluding arguments, he asked the jury to start deliberating immediately. They conferred for a mere half hour. Hettie Wheeldon was declared not guilty, but her mother was found guilty of conspiracy, soliciting and proposing to murder. For their role in supplying the poison, Winnie and Alf Mason were found guilty of conspiracy. Because of their youth—Alf was 24 and Winnie 23—the jury recommended mercy.

But the judge had no interest in mercy, and without delay he sentenced Alice Wheeldon to ten years' hard labor, Alf Mason to seven years, and Winnie, whom he declared under the "bad and wicked influence of your mother," to five. Alice took her sentence stoically. Guards led the prisoners away. In a final statement to the courtroom, the judge virtually condemned universal education. He was shocked, he said, that the two Wheeldon daughters were schoolteachers, yet had spoken of the prime minister in "language which would be foul indeed in the mouth of the lowest hooligan.... It is difficult to imagine that education is the blessing we had hoped."

As the proceedings were about to end, something occurred that would have been unheard of in any normal criminal trial. A person with no relation to the case entered the witness box and spoke to the courtroom. The judge not only gave his approval, but asked newspaper reporters present to "take note." The speaker, as elegantly dressed and well spoken as ever, was Emmeline Pankhurst.

She was there because the Wheeldon women had once been members of her Women's Social and Political Union, and now, as a loyal patriot, she was eager to dissociate herself and the WSPU from them. "My Lord," she said to the judge, "since the name of Mr. Lloyd George has been mentioned in connection with us, I want to say that at this present moment, in this crisis of our country's fortunes there is no life which we think more essential to the safety of our country than that of the Prime Minister. We feel that so strongly, that we would even endanger our own, if it were necessary, to safeguard his. And I want too, for the honour of women ... to say the opinions of the prisoners, their actions, their mode of expressing themselves, are abhorrent to us that have devoted ourselves since the commencement of this War to patriotic work."

A mere four years before, Lloyd George had so enraged WSPU suffragettes by his opposition to votes for women that they planted a bomb in the house he was having built. "We have tried blowing him up to wake his conscience," Emmeline Pankhurst said proudly at the time. For endorsing that crime, Pankhurst had been awarded a three-year prison sentence in this very courthouse. Now the past was conveniently forgotten. And she would do a far greater favor for the prime minister, on a mission abroad, in the months to come.

After the Wheeldon trial, those on the right spoke in horror of a murder plot emanating from a sinister nexus of socialists and draft dodgers. Many on the left, however, were convinced that Booth and Gordon had framed the Wheeldons. To some war supporters, too, the conspiracy sounded less plausible than the plot of the latest John Buchan novel, and several MPs asked embarrassingly pointed questions in Parliament. Like the Sacco-Vanzetti case in the United States, the Wheeldon affair has continued to stir strong emotions ever since.* And it raises a question: Why, in the midst of a terrible war, did the British government devote so much effort to prosecuting this unlucky family on such far-fetched charges?

Intimidating the antiwar movement was, of course, the main motive, but a wide array of personal ambitions were also involved. Attorney General Smith, a holdover from the Asquith government, leapt at the chance to prove his loyalty by personally prosecuting the case against the new prime minister's alleged would-be murderers. Intense rivalry among proliferating counterintelligence agencies further inflamed matters. The military, Basil Thomson at Scotland Yard, and the Ministry of Munitions spy unit were all engaged in a fierce turf war—and an investigation that won a dramatic conviction in court would be a boon. Within the Ministry of Munitions unit itself, in the weeks before he ingratiated himself with the Wheeldons, Alex Gordon felt his job was at risk, for he had slipped up badly on a previous assignment. From Manchester, he had reported that all was calm, only to see the city's trolley car drivers promptly go out on strike. The Wheeldon case offered a chance for him to make up for his mistake and regain favor.

Meanwhile, the ambitious Thomson found himself in an ambiguous position. If there was a murder plot against the prime minister, he wanted credit for foiling it. But he was equally eager to show that the Ministry of Munitions spycatchers who nabbed the culprits were an unreliable bunch, no match for his Scotland Yard professionals who deserved to take over their work. (Soon after the Wheeldon trial, they did.) In one of several self-aggrandizing memoirs he wrote after the war, Thomson managed to make both claims, while hinting that the idea of the "poison plot" originated with Alex Gordon. Describing the agent as "a thin, cunning-looking man of about thirty, with long, greasy black hair," he added, "I had an uneasy feeling that he himself might have acted as what the French call an agent provocateur."

Thomson was right. If not for wartime paranoia, the prosecution's story of a plan to kill the prime minister with a blowpipe and dart would have been quickly discredited because the key witness who claimed to have first heard it, Gordon, never testified. Little wonder, because he was a prosecutor's nightmare. Only after the arrest of the Wheeldons, it appears, did the prosecution team learn that Gordon was not his real name, that he had a police record, and that he had once been found criminally insane.

His subsequent short career as a spy revealed him as an unabashed agent provocateur who relished the role. The very day Mason and the Wheeldons were sentenced, an alarmed intelligence operative informed Milner and other top officials that "Gordon went to Leicester and Coventry and offered poison and bombs to the A.S.E. [a labor union] man there." More reports of this sort kept coming in. Clearly, if Gordon continued traveling around Britain offering people poison, sooner or later he would be exposed, humiliatingly unraveling the case against the Wheeldons. The authorities swiftly found a solution: Gordon was put on board a ship at Plymouth with £100 and a one-way ticket to Cape Town.

The Wheeldons' friend and political comrade, the former lion tamer John S. Clarke, liked to write inscriptions for the tombstones of his political enemies even while they were still alive. His "Epitaph on Alex Gordon," published in the newspaper he continued to edit in hiding, the Socialist, became a favorite recital piece at labor gatherings:

Stop! stranger, thou art near the spot
Marked by this cross metallic,
Where buried deep doth lie and rot,
The corpse of filthy Alex.

And maggot-worms in swarms below,
Compete with one another,
In shedding tears of bitter woe,
To mourn—not eat—a brother.

Less than a week after the Wheeldons were sentenced, the known world turned upside down.

"During the afternoon of March 13, 1917," Winston Churchill would later remember, "the Russian Embassy in London informed us that they were no longer in contact with Petrograd. For some days the capital had been a prey to disorders.... Now suddenly ... there was a silence.... The great Power with whom we had been in such intimate comradeship, without whom all plans were meaningless, was stricken dumb. With Russian effective aid, all the Allied fronts could attack together. Without that aid it might well be that the War was lost."

Within days of Milner and his delegation's leaving the Russian capital, demonstrators began marching in the snowy streets, protesting against the endless war and shortages of food and fuel. They shouted revolutionary slogans, broke shop windows, and sang "The Internationale." And that was only the beginning. The marchers' ranks were soon strengthened by some of the 200,000 munitions workers who now went out on strike. Bitter fighting broke out on barricaded, freezing boulevards, and the Tsar's government lost control of the city. A unit of troops mutinied, killing their commanding officer, and put themselves and their rifles at the service of the rebels. The rest of the capital garrison, ordered to suppress the mutineers, instead joined them, rampaging into government buildings and camping defiantly in palace ballrooms. An armored car rolled through the city with FREEDOM! chalked on its side. Crews of Russian naval vessels in the harbor mutinied as well.

It was the kind of upheaval in the ranks that every general in this war had always dreaded. By March 17 the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, a new Provisional Government was in power, and a few days later, at the palace where Milner had visited them the previous month, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest. Petrograd's main prison and the secret police archive were set ablaze. Across the vast country, jubilant soldiers and civilians began ripping down flags and smashing statues and plaques with the double-headed eagle emblem of the Romanov dynasty. More than 300 years of Romanov rule were suddenly history.

The Germans were delighted, while the dismayed Allies took cold comfort when Russia's Provisional Government, under strong pressure from them, announced it would remain in the war. That promise meant little, however, for the very municipal government of Petrograd—in a process repeated in some other cities—came under the control of a much more radical soviet, or council, which began issuing its own orders to the army. Among them, men in all military units were to elect their own soviets, a dramatic break in the centuries-old chain of command. The already high rate of desertion only increased, sailors lynched dozens of naval officers, and on March 27, 1917, the Petrograd Soviet declared that the peoples of Europe should "take into their own hands the decision of the question of war and peace." It urged the workers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to join their Russian comrades in refusing to fight in the war of "kings, landowners, and bankers." A Russian War Ministry official confessed to the British military attaché that army discipline was collapsing: when replacement troops were sent forward, so many deserted that less than one man in four reached the front. The army was still fighting, but at this rate, how long would that last?

Radical opponents of the war across the continent were thrilled with the news from Petrograd. "The wonderful events in Russia," wrote Rosa Luxemburg from the German prison cell where her antiwar protests had landed her, "affect me like an elixir.... I am absolutely certain that a new epoch is starting now and that the war cannot last much longer." The conscientious objectors serving time in London's Wormwood Scrubs were delighted that as one of its first acts, the Provisional Government had granted amnesty to all political prisoners—including more than 800 war resisters in Russian jails.

Emrys Hughes, the future husband of Keir Hardie's daughter, was in prison in Wales when another CO furtively handed him a newspaper page wrapped in a handkerchief; he turned his back to the peephole in his cell door and read the electrifying news: "The old order was dead, a new society was being born ... the end of the war was in sight." Bertrand Russell hailed the upheaval in Russia as "a stupendous event ... more cheering than anything that has happened since the war began." As March ended, nearly 12,000 Londoners packed a rally in the Royal Albert Hall to show their support for the Russians who had overthrown the Tsar; 5,000 more were turned away at the door. It was the first time in over a year that a dissident public meeting in the city had not been broken up by patriot gangs. "I longed to shout at them at the end to come with me and pull down Wormwood Scrubs," wrote Russell. "They would have done it.... A meeting of the kind would have been utterly impossible a month ago."

"I remember the miners," the Labour politician Aneurin Bevan recalled years later, "when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands." May Day gatherings brought more celebrations: a crowd one left-wing newspaper claimed at 70,000 in Glasgow, a big peace march in London, and a rally in Liverpool that featured actual Russians: 150 bewildered sailors who happened to be in port and found themselves greeted as heroes. In Manchester, the head of the transport workers' union declared, "Revolutions like charity begin at home."

France saw strikes and the largest May Day demonstrations of the war years, with red flags flying and speakers calling for peace. An American correspondent on the Eastern Front watched through his field glasses as Russian and German enlisted men met in no man's land to communicate in sign language: the Russians blowing across their open palms to show that the Tsar had been blown away, the Germans thrusting their bayonets into the earth. Could this finally be the moment that Hardie had hoped for so fervently, when soldiers on both sides refused to continue killing each other? Sylvia Pankhurst jubilantly called the change in Russia "the first ray of dawn, after a long and painful night."

At sea, as on land, nothing was going well for the Allies. Germany's ramped-up U-boat war had severely disrupted the vital transatlantic lifeline and sowed fear among sailors and passengers. For them, the danger of being sunk by a torpedo was magnified by the fact that the explosion could crack a ship's engine room boilers, releasing below decks a high-pressure blast of scalding steam. An officer on a merchant ship taking supplies to Russia reported that some officials he was carrying stayed on deck, near the lifeboats, for most of the voyage. The area just southwest of Ireland, crossed by ships approaching most major English and Irish ports, became what Churchill called "a veritable cemetery of British shipping."

Once a submarine had shown its location by firing a torpedo, a Royal Navy ship could attack it by dropping depth charges—explosives set to go off underwater, at the level the submarine was thought to be. But seldom was a warship close by, for it was impossible for them to escort each of the thousands of cargo vessels crossing the Atlantic. Few U-boats were sunk and, ominously, the Germans were increasing the size of their submarine fleet. Senior Admiralty officers had long resisted one possible solution: sending merchant ships in convoys, guarded by a screen of destroyers or other small warships. Convoys were cumbersome, limited to the speed of the slowest ship, and ports became clogged when dozens of ships arrived together. The navy chiefs, writes war historian Trevor Wilson, "were imbued with a proud tradition, according to which going hunting for the enemy seemed a proper course and chugging along in support of merchantmen did not." The navy preferred to be, as it were, cavalrymen of the sea. But wiser heads eventually prevailed. Milner, now wielding unprecedented powers supervising Britain's entire war economy, was acutely aware of its depen dence on shipping and helped persuade Lloyd George to adopt the convoy system. On May 10, 1917, 17 merchant vessels and their naval escorts set off for England from Gibraltar, and, at a time when more than 300 ships a month were being torpedoed, not a single ship in the convoy was sunk.

Convoys made life far more difficult for U-boats, for if one did torpedo a cargo ship, fast destroyers with the convoy could rush to the scene to drop depth charges. And with electric engines limiting their underwater travel to a mere eight knots, less than a quarter of a destroyer's speed, submarines had trouble getting away. Before the year was over, more than half of Britain's overseas trade would be carried by ships in convoy. U-boat "kills" dropped dramatically. The submarine, though still much feared, was not going to win the war. Germany's great gamble at sea had failed.

The German high command had long known that unrestricted U-boat warfare would risk bringing the United States into the war. And so it did—but far sooner than the Germans had planned for. In March, the American press trumpeted news of the notorious "Zimmermann Telegram," gleefully decoded and given to Washington by British intelligence, in which Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, foolishly tried to induce Mexico to join the war on the German side by promising it Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Soon after, U-boats sank three American merchant ships, drowning many sailors and prompting an outcry in Congress and the press. On April 7, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Even though everyone knew it would take nearly a year before significant numbers of American troops could be trained and reach Europe's battlefields, the boost in morale to Britain, France, and Italy was incalculable. In addition, the large fleet of American destroyers quickly joined British warships in escorting convoys. For the first time in its history, the United States was committing itself to waging large-scale land warfare on the continent of Europe. The world's balance of power would never be the same again.

On the heels of its failed U-boat warfare bet, the Germans made an even riskier gamble. Although Russia's armies were in a state of near collapse, the Central Powers still had to keep more than a million soldiers on the long Eastern Front. If, however, Russia fully imploded in revolution and ceased to fight, the German high command could move most of those troops to France and Belgium, launch a decisive offensive to capture Paris, and send the Allied armies reeling before the Americans could arrive in force. The Germans needed, therefore, to ignite further upheaval in Russia.

From the beginning of the war, German agents had been in touch with the most extreme group of dedicated Russian revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, many of whose leaders were in exile in Switzerland. The Bolsheviks wanted to overthrow capitalism and militarism everywhere, including Germany. But what mattered more to Berlin was that these Russians were determined to take their country out of the war. The Bolsheviks were hamstrung, however, because their exiled leadership was cut off from sympathizers at home. The faction's dominant figure, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, was living with his wife in a single rented room in a shabby working-class apartment in Zurich, next to a sausage factory. He spent part of each day at the public library, researching and writing acerbic articles and pamphlets attacking rivals on the left and predicting the imminent demise of capitalism, but, more than a thousand miles away from his followers, was in no position to seize power.

In early April 1917 the German government provided what later became famous as the "sealed train" to the Bolshevik leadership. It carried them across Germany, from the Swiss border to the Baltic Sea, where they could embark for Petrograd and make their revolution. The 32 Russians in threadbare clothes who took the journey would, within a mere six months, leapfrog from penniless exile to the very pinnacle of political power in a vast realm that stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific.

As the train steamed through the night, it carried, as escorts to the revolutionaries, two German officers—one of whom spoke fluent Russian but was under orders to conceal it, all the better to report overheard conversations back to Berlin. The exuberant passengers sang leftist songs, but when the train pulled into Mannheim, one of the German officers angrily demanded that they be quiet. At Frankfurt, some German soldiers on the station platform heard that the train was full of Russian revolutionaries and rushed up to talk. Although their commanders ordered them away, the encounter left the Russians optimistic that Germany, the industrial titan of the continent, was as ripe for revolution as their own backward peasant land.

For most of the journey Lenin stood by a train window, thumbs in the armholes of his vest. One thing above all struck him about the fields and villages the train rolled through: there were no young men. They were all at the front.

The escort officers handed out sandwiches and beer; Lenin's wife brewed tea for all on a portable kerosene burner. Finally the train reached the Baltic, where the Bolsheviks boarded a ferry and then traveled on through Sweden and Finland to Russia, where party organizers assembled a huge crowd to greet them at Petrograd's Finland Station. In a country ravaged by war and now throwing off centuries of autocracy, the party's message of "peace, land, and bread" had immediate, powerful resonance. And on a war-weary continent it could be highly contagious. In Churchill's words, Germany had sent Lenin on his way to Russia "like a plague bacillus." It remained to be seen how fast the bacillus would multiply.

What Churchill saw as a bacillus, Britain's war resisters saw as their deliverance. Few of them cared about the differences among various left-wing factions in Russia; they simply hoped, above all, that if popular pressure would at last force one country to completely stop fighti ng, others would follow.

In the meantime, the war was putting ever more COs into the gray uniforms covered with arrows worn by British prisoners. Among them was Stephen Hobhouse. In each of the prisons he was in, he found long rows of cells, four or five stories of them, facing each other across an open area. "Across the central space at first-floor level is stretched a wire netting to catch any unhappy man trying to commit suicide from above." Every cell had a peephole in the door "through which at times could be seen the sinister eye of the warder spying on the inmate." The warders sometimes padded silently along the corridors in felt slippers, to catch the prisoners unawares. Two of the day's meals consisted only of porridge, dry bread, and salt; the third was mostly potatoes. Each day began with emptying your cell's latrine bucket. You were allowed to send and receive one letter a month—but none at all for the first two months. There were regular chapel services, but once "while I was singing the Te Deum and looking round about me to get a sense of fellowship with the other faces, the warder's harsh voice broke in with 'Number B.27, look to your front.'"

Hobhouse had encouragement from an unexpected source. "Every soldier realises that mental suffering—such as is caused by solitary confinement etc.—requires infinitely more courage to bear than does physical suffering," wrote his brother Paul, who had twice been wounded at the front and was on his way back to the trenches. "However much we may disagree as to methods, I pray you may have some alleviation from your present lot and keep in good health for all the reconstruction after the war. Good luck to you."

Stephen had been thrown into solitary because he refused to obey the "rule of silence," by which prisoners were forbidden to speak to each other. Almost all COs worked out subterfuges to communicate anyway: muttering under their breath or tapping the water pipes that ran through each cell block, turning them into a Morse-code party-line telephone. But Hobhouse would have none of this. "Stephen had a very... awkward kind of conscience," recalled a fellow prisoner. "The spirit of love requires that I should speak to my fellow-prisoners," he wrote to his wife, Rosa, "the spirit of truth that I should speak to them openly." And so, he told the warders, he planned to talk to his comrades whenever he felt like it.

From then on, the materials for the mailbags he sewed as required prison labor were brought to his cell. And when the men were allowed out for daily exercise, Hobhouse was kept separated from the others. From the front in France, his brother Paul sent a message to the family: "Tell Stephen not to lose heart."

Hobhouse's integrity evidently touched even his keepers. On one of the monthly visits he was allowed, he was talking to Rosa under a guard's supervision, with just a table between them instead of the usual double set of bars or wire screens. As the visit ended, she asked if she could kiss her husband goodbye. "The warder bluntly refused." Stephen was marched back to his cell. Soon afterward, he recalled, "I heard a key in the lock, and the tyrant of our visit came in, and, in a way that indicated how deeply moved he was, begged me to believe that he felt as unhappy over the incident as we must be feeling.... My faith in humanity was renewed."

When his mother paid her first visit, she was driven to the prison by the family chauffeur, a former coachman, who entered with her. "Sorry to see you like this, Mr. Stephen," he said.

The immensely energetic Margaret Hobhouse was accustomed to getting her way in the world. Though no pacifist, she loved her son and was deeply worried about what prison conditions might do to someone with a history of nervous breakdowns before the war who was now experiencing nausea and digestive problems. So she turned to someone she thought could help. When as a baby Stephen Hobhouse had been baptized at a small country church near his family's Somerset estate, his godfather had been unable to attend, and so, following an old custom, a close family friend stood in as proxy godfather. The friend was Alfred Milner.

Milner listened carefully to Margaret Hobhouse and did his best. Files in the British National Archives are filled with memos and letters about Hobhouse's case, to Milner and functionaries below him, from bureaucrats scrambling to show they were taking the minister's concern seriously. From the prison at Wormwood Scrubs came typed excerpts copied from a letter Hobhouse had written to Rosa. From an official with an indecipherable signature came this shrewd evaluation: "If it were possible to discharge him from the Army on medical grounds I do not think he would be likely to become a dangerous peace agitator. He is a pure visionary.... He has a certain following who admire him for his sufferings for the cause. But his consequence would probably be diminished rather than increased if it were found possible to put an end to his 'martyrdom.'" Finally, from Lord Derby, now secretary for war, came a stubborn letter to Milner commenting acidly on conscientious objectors ("the majority of them are neurotics") and insisting that he could not release Hobhouse because "he absolutely declines to be examined by the Doctors."

Had he known that his mother had intervened on his behalf, Stephen Hobhouse would certainly have been appalled. She did something else as well, although neither he nor the public was aware of the full story. As Stephen described it, "Though she thought her eldest son wrong-headed and foolish in his extreme form of conscientious objection, she became more and more convinced of the cruel injustice of the hardships which he and the roughly 1,350 war resisters now in prison were enduring. She conceived the idea of collecting the facts and of publishing them with a reasoned appeal in a book."

I Appeal unto Caesar appeared in mid-1917, written, the cover said, "by Mrs. Henry Hobhouse." It rapidly sold 18,000 copies, and hundreds of trade union branches and other civic groups supported her appeal for the release of imprisoned COs. The book was taken seriously in large part because Margaret Hobhouse supported the war—she was a Conservative, the mother of two sons at the front, and the wife of a prominent and wealthy man active in Church of England affairs. To give it even more respectability, I Appeal unto Caesar had an introduction by the renowned Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray and endorsements by four eminent peers. None of them were opponents of the war, nor were many of those who reviewed it favorably. "This little book has stirred me deeply," wrote the novelist John Galsworthy in the Observer. "I urge one and all to read it."

Only more than half a century later did a Canadian scholar, Jo Vellacott, discover who secretly ghostwrote the book: Bertrand Russell. Margaret Hobhouse, after all, was not a writer, and Russell was a brilliant one; correspondence between them (which she asked him to destroy, although he did not do so) shows that both understood the book would have far more credibility if she were thought to be the author.

Russell was not only a socialist and the acting chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, he was also an ardent freethinker. Was he amused as he put his supple pen to writing a text that ostensibly came from a pillar of the ruling class and a supporter of the war and organized religion? It appears he was, for he could not resist slipping in a few sly tongue-in-cheek passages. While supposedly commenting on the misguided beliefs of the imprisoned COs, I Appeal unto Caesar says:

They maintain, paradoxical as it may appear, that victory in war is not so important to the nation's welfare as many other things. It must be confessed that in this contention they are supported by certain sayings of our Lord, such as, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Doubtless such statements are to be understood figuratively, but the history of religion shows that founders of religions are always apt to be understood literally by some of their more slavish followers.... They believe ... that hatred can be overcome by love, a view which appears to derive support from a somewhat hasty reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

No one detected Russell as the ghostwriter of these double entendres. Milner even gave a copy of the book to the King. In gratitude to Russell, Margaret Hobhouse made an anonymous contribution to the No-Conscription Fellowship. Russell himself, lips sealed, offered this comment in an article under his own name in the NCF's journal: "As a result largely of Mrs. Hobhouse's 'I Appeal Unto Caesar,' many influential people who formerly had only contempt and derision for the C.O. have now come to believe that the policy of indefinitely prolonged imprisonment is not the wisest." Stephen Hobhouse and his like-minded comrades, however, remained in prison.

Under Haig's command, the roughly one and a half million British soldiers on the Western Front continued to wage war to little visible effect. Other than tens of thousands of deaths, the spring and early summer of 1917 included a hapless cavalry attack, in which doomed British horsemen rode off into a blizzard singing "The Eton Boating Song," and the simultaneous detonation of 19 mines containing nearly a million pounds of explosives beneath German trenches in Belgium, producing what is believed to have been the loudest single man-made sound in history up to that moment.

Hoping for a path out of the endless bloodshed, millions around the world read the papers each day for news about Russia. Although the Provisional Government had not withdrawn from the war, it had proclaimed something that didn't yet exist in Britain: universal suffrage. The more radical Petrograd Soviet had gone further, issuing a call, after Lenin's return to Russia, for "peace without annexations or indemnities [reparations], on the basis of the self determination of peoples." Antiwar forces took encouragement as this spirit seemed to be echoed elsewhere. Although scoffed at, ironically, by both the British government and the Kaiser, the German parliament in mid-1917 passed a resolution, by an almost two-to-one margin, calling for a peace agreement without annexations or indemnities. Pope Benedict XV put forth a somewhat foggy peace plan echoing the idea and suggesting that all occupied territories be evacuated. In addition, there were occasional ambiguous peace overtures to the Allies—always rebuffed or ignored—from Germany's less enthusiastic junior partners, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. All this kept hope in the air.

Addressing them as "my sisters," Charlotte Despard wrote an open letter to Russian women, embracing them with the same exuberance she had shown for so many other causes: "I am with you—we are one." If the Russian people could overthrow an autocracy, enfranchise everyone, and set up local councils of workers and soldiers, why could Britain not do the same? She and many others made plans to meet in the northern industrial city of Leeds in early June 1917 for the Great Labour, Socialist and Democratic Convention.

Milner, who kept a close eye on such matters, was dismayed at news of the conference, trumpeted in a leaflet titled "Follow Russia." He sent Lloyd George two clippings from a labor newspaper, underlining passages that particularly alarmed him, one calling for the people "of this and all the other belligerent countries to take matters into their own hands as the people of Russia have already done."

"My dear Prime Minister.... I think there is still time to instruct the Press ... not to 'boom' the Leeds proceedings too much," he wrote. "And I fear the time is very near at hand, when we shall have to take some strong steps to stop the 'rot' in this country, unless we wish to 'follow Russia' into impotence and dissolution."

In Leeds, meanwhile, some 3,000 would-be revolutionaries, meeting in an enormous brick movie theater with an ornate Gothic façade and organ, kicked off the proceedings with a rousing rendition of "The Red Flag" and a moment of silence in memory of Keir Hardie. All the major figures on the British left were there. Many delegates were still outraged about the Wheeldon frame-up, and one speaker railed against the "thousands of 'Alex Gordons' in the country." And, indeed, undercover operatives from the various competing intelligence agencies were in the audience. In a report to the War Cabinet, one noted, with satisfaction, that some Leeds hotels had canceled bookings for those coming to the conference, who had to stay in the homes of local socialists instead. "There can be no doubt on the part of any one who is familiar with ... the Leeds Conference," the agent wrote, "that it is intended to lead, if possible, to a revolution in this country." The resolution adopted by the delegates that most shocked him, so much so that he underlined its key phrase, called for "the complete independence of Ireland, India and Egypt."

The example of Russia, repeatedly invoked, raised everyone's hopes. Despard, in her trademark black mantilla, black robe, and sandals, gave a militant speech and was elected to a 13-member "provisional committee" charged with setting up "Councils of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates" throughout Britain; she herself undertook to organize such a soviet in Newcastle. The delegates voted to send representatives to Russia in a show of solidarity. And Sylvia Pankhurst suggested to the crowd that the provisional committee to which she, too, was elected might someday be a Provisional Government of Great Britain.

Bertrand Russell received a huge ovation when he spoke about "the thousand men now in prison in this country because they believe in the brotherhood of men.... They who had to begin their battle when the world was very dark, now have the knowledge that the world looks no longer so dark as it did, and the hope and new happiness which has come into the lives of all of us, that also is with them in prison." He was more optimistic than he had been since the war began: "The control of events is rapidly passing out of the hands of the militarists of all countries...," he wrote a few days later. "A new spirit is abroad."

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