Military history


LONG AFTER THE BOY became a man, the day remained seared into his memory.

Young Jamie's stepfather was out of work. A younger brother lay ill at home, with a fever that would soon prove fatal. His mother was nine months pregnant. The entire family, with four children, lived in a single room in a packed Glasgow slum. Christmas, just passed, had been spare and grim, for ten-year-old Jamie was the family's sole source of income, working twelve and a half hours a day, seven days a week, delivering bread for a baker. Twice during the week after Christmas, helping care for his sick brother while his stepfather was away job hunting, he had been fifteen minutes late for work. On a rainy weekend, he arrived at the bakery to start another workday.

"When I reached the shop I was drenched to the skin, barefooted and hungry. There had not been a crust of bread in the house that morning. But [it] was pay-day." He was told that his employer wanted to see him in his flat above the bakery. A servant then asked him to wait while the baker's family finished their morning prayers. "At length the girl opened the door.... Round a great mahogany table sat members of the family, with the father at the top.... The table was loaded with dainties. My master looked at me over his glasses... 'Boy ... my customers leave me if they are kept waiting for their hot breakfast rolls. I therefore dismiss you, and, to make you more careful in the future, I have decided to fine you a week's wages." Jamie wandered the Glasgow streets for hours before he could bring himself to go home and give his mother the news. "That night the baby was born, and the sun rose ... over a home in which there was neither fire nor food."

The next job he found was in a coal mine.

For James Keir Hardie—who stopped using his first name as he grew older—the imprint of those early experiences would be stamped upon his life as if with a red-hot brand. Hardie's intensely Christian rage against the dirt-floor poverty he knew firsthand would never flag. When elected to the House of Commons, he would be the only member who spent nights helping dole out food at a soup kitchen to those who had none. Even as an MP, he rushed to the scene of a Scottish mining disaster, down the shaft, into the tunnel, to see what could be done for the trapped men, for he knew what it was like to see fellow miners killed. In portraits, his thick beard is dark red when he is young, white as a shroud when, in his fifties, he saw the war he had long feared shatter his dreams. His hauntingly sad, heavy-browed eyes seem to stare out at you so piercingly from any photo that they might as well be staring beyond Hardie's own life, into an entire century of world wars and crushed hopes.

Hardie had been born out of wedlock, as had his mother, a farm servant near Glasgow; several years after his birth she moved into the grimy industrial city, notorious for its slums crowded up against shipyards, locomotive works, and factories. There she married a ship's carpenter. Hardie had no formal schooling and the family could not afford books, so he read discarded newspapers he picked up off the street or the pages of books propped open in bookstore windows. At eight he went to work as a messenger boy. After that came a job as a riveter's assistant in a shipyard, where he worked on a narrow platform slung over a ship's side; once a boy working next to him slipped off and fell to his death.

After losing his bakery job, he labored in a coal mine for eleven and a half hours, six days a week—which meant that in winter he saw no daylight except on Sunday, when the workday was four hours. Before long he was driving one of the "pit ponies," which hauled coal on rails underground. "We were great friends, and drank cold tea from the same flask." One day, he and the pony had to be rescued after part of the mineshaft caved in; Hardie always remembered the splintering creak of the wooden supports collapsing, the thunder of falling earth, the sobs of panicked miners. When he was older he became a hewer, digging and shoveling coal from the advancing end of a mine tunnel in the dim light of a lamp on his helmet, often standing ankle-deep in water. By 21, he had spent more than half his life in the mines.

When he became an organizer for the miners' union, the role seemed to him fully of a piece with his work as a lay preacher in the Evangelical Union, a working-class Protestant sect that was one of the "dissenting," or non-Anglican, churches from which so many English and Scottish radicals sprang. "The rich and comfortable classes have annexed Jesus and perverted His Gospel," Hardie declared. "And yet He belongs to us." Hardie rallied miners to press for better pay and safer conditions, and for this he and two of his brothers were fired. An elevator in which they were descending underground was recalled to the surface by the mine manager, who told them, "We'll hae nae damned Hardies in this pit."

Soon he became secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation, began to think of himself a socialist, and found that he was as persuasive with his pen as with his voice. Although he turned 30 before he left Scotland for the first time, his horizons rapidly broadened beyond the mines and the Glasgow slums. A founder of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, he became the editor of its paper, the Labour Leader, whose office windows were smashed by an angry crowd when Hardie denounced the Boer War as an imperialist land grab. More jeering mobs dogged his steps as he toured the country speaking against the war, sometimes from a lecture platform, sometimes from the back of a wagon in a muddy field.

For congresses of the Second International, Hardie began crossing the English Channel. For him, as for many other delegates, socialism was less a matter of workers owning the means of production—although he firmly believed in that—than a moral crusade for a society that put workers before profits, public good before private wealth, and, above all, peace before war. Like the spirit of the times, it was an optimistic creed. Sylvia Pankhurst once wrote of "a longing, profound and constant, for a Golden Age when plenty and joy should be the gift of all." And at this point in history, before the bloody battlefields of 1914–1918, the Golden Age seemed within reach. If journeys that once took weeks had shrunk to hours through the miracle of steam power, why could not all injustice be eradicated by the miracle of socialism? If determined campaigners a half century earlier had managed to abolish British Empire slavery, why not abolish poverty too? Socialism, said Jean Jaurès of France, should allow people, however they chose, to "walk and sing and meditate under the sky." Hardie became fast friends with the plump, unkempt Jaurès, leader of the French socialist party, with whom he shared a dread of a future war in Europe that could set working people against each other.

The final goals of the socialist revolution to come might be hazy, but the world's wrongs were pressingly real, and Hardie's passion for justice knew no national boundaries. He barnstormed the United States for two months in one of the presidential campaigns of his socialist friend Eugene V. Debs, speaking at 44 rallies and meetings, including one at a mining camp in Colorado. Visiting India, he spoke out forcefully for self-government and refused to enter any building if Indian friends with him were barred. After the Boer War, he traveled to South Africa to demand political rights and decent farmland for the territory's voteless majority, declaring that to allow no Africans to sit in the new country's legislature was like inscribing, above the portals of the British Empire, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." His hotel was stoned, and a meeting he addressed in Johannesburg was broken up by a white mob.

When Hardie arrived to take a seat in Parliament for the first time, a hired trumpeter played the tune of the socialist anthem, "The Internationale":

Arise ye workers from your slumbers,
Arise ye prisoners of want...

Instead of the usual ceremonial garb of parliamentarians—starched wing collar, black tailcoat, and black silk top hat—he wore Scottish tweed and a Sherlock Holmes—style deerstalker cap. Once, entering the House of Commons, he was stopped by a policeman who did not recognize him but knew the building's roof was under repair. "Are you working here, mate?" he asked.

"Yes," Hardie replied.

"On the roof?" asked the policeman.

"No," said Hardie. "On the floor."

On that floor, Hardie voted against the usual extravagant appropriations for the royal family. He rose, outraged, to protest when MPs spent hours making speeches celebrating a royal birth while ignoring the 251 Welsh miners killed in an accident the same day. After fiercely criticizing an exchange of visits between King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II—whose absolute rule was the epitome of tyranny for the European left—he was not asked to the King's annual summer garden party, to which the entire House of Commons was routinely invited.

Hardie's wife, Lillie, cared for and made all the clothes for their four children—one of whom died in childhood—remaining in Scotland when for parliamentary sessions he went to London. In the capital he lived frugally in a one-room apartment, decorated with busts of Walt Whitman and Robert Burns and a photograph of Karl Marx. At one point he was forced to auction off his beloved library to keep the Labour Leader publishing. When he was stricken with appendicitis, family and friends had to raise funds for his operation and convalescence. He used the same pocket watch he had had as a boy in the mines, which bore the teeth marks of his pit pony, and he often stopped in the street to talk to horses. In Parliament, Hardie never ceased demanding support for those who had little, whether this meant free meals for schoolchildren, help for the poor who were suffering through a winter so bitter that the Thames froze over, or better pay and conditions for the waiters and messengers at the House of Commons itself. He worked hard to ensure that the beneficiaries of workmen's compensation insurance included illegitimate children.

Although his own marriage was quite traditional, the breadth of Hardie's sense of justice made him, far more than most male radicals, an ardent backer of votes for women. For years he had been a regular visitor to the dinner table of Emmeline Pankhurst, who became his comrade in opposing the Boer War, and her crusade for suffrage resonated with all he had seen of the difficult lives of his own mother and the mothers and wives of other Scottish miners. He supported suffrage in Parliament, raised money for the WSPU, and repeatedly intervened on behalf of imprisoned suffragettes. After one of Christabel's arrests, he telegraphed, "Can I do anything?"

Above all else, ever since he had seen the raw face of British jingoism whipped up over the conflict with the Boers, Hardie feared war—its frightening atavism, its destructiveness, the way it could make people forget the fight for social justice. His hope, always, was that organized working people would simply not let their nations go to war. Attending the 1904 congress of the Second International in Amsterdam, while the Russo-Japanese War was under way, he was profoundly moved when the Russian and Japanese delegates spied each other on the platform and rushed to embrace, to fervent applause. This, he felt, was a moment "worth having lived to see."

At a later congress of the group, in Copenhagen, Hardie, supported by Jaurès, proposed that in the event of war, workers in all countries immediately declare a general strike. His anxiety only grew as he watched Parliament funnel money that might have gone for social welfare programs into the naval arms race with Germany, centered on the powerful new Dreadnought-class battleships, whose high-speed steam turbines and long-range 12-inch guns made previous warships obsolete. When an American journalist asked him what he thought would be the twentieth century's major danger, his one-word answer was "militarism."

The British public knew Hardie as the leading voice of labor, and they knew the Pankhurst family as the defiant embodiment of the fight for women's suffrage. But there was another story they did not know. It began, as far as we can tell, one day in 1906 when Sylvia Pankhurst was sick, short of food and money, and moving into a new flat. She had only 25 shillings to her name, scarcely more than two weeks' rent, because she had chosen not to be on the WSPU payroll and so become dependent on her mother and older sister. "I sat among my boxes, ill and lonely," she wrote many years later, "when, all unexpected, Keir Hardie came knocking at my door. He took command of the situation. He lifted heavy things into position and when all was in order, took me out for a meal."

Sylvia was 24, and Hardie about to turn 50. She had known him as a family friend ever since she was a small girl, and had long admired him. But now they were both at low moments in their lives, and they turned to each other.

Hardie was a hero to thousands around the world, but his was not the happiest of households. He had married Lillie as a 22-year-old coal miner, but from the age of 35 on, he spent most of his time in London. While he frequently visited Scotland, where the children were in school, he rebuffed his wife's wish to join him permanently in the capital. Hardie felt undervalued by her, writing a friend that Lillie did not seem to know "what a terribly important body her man is in other folks' opinion." Around the same time, the friend cryptically recorded Hardie's being upset at Lillie's "strange behaviour to him," adding that Hardie "feels ... Mrs. Hardie's ways keenly." For her part, she may well have resented having to run a household and raise the children while her husband was away most of the time, becoming a world figure. In any event, others noticed that she was given to long, stony periods of silence.

Where he found Lillie reticent and unappreciative, the far younger Sylvia Pankhurst was supportive, warm, and uninhibited. "We are for free sexual union contracted and terminated at will," she wrote later in life, a thought that would have horrified her more straitlaced mother. "We are for free love because love is free and no one can bind it." Until Hardie arrived that day to help her move, however, such ideas of hers were purely theoretical; he was almost certainly her first lover. In a poem she wrote for him, she spoke of how his love "woke the tender buds that slept before." She respected him not just for his politics but for the way he cooked and cleaned for himself in London, polished his own shoes, worked so hard, and wrote so constantly. They exchanged their favorite books, he read Robert Burns's love poetry aloud to her, and they wrote many letters. One poem she sent him ran:

Last night when all was quiet you came to me.
I felt in the darkness by my side
Waiting to feel your kisses on my mouth,
The clasping of your arms, and your dear lips
Pressing on me till my breath came short...

What he wrote to her was only somewhat more restrained:


All the night I have been working and thinking about you and hoping that all was going well with you.

In one letter, written in 1911 when she was on a lecture tour of the United States, he spoke of how she would continue his work—an acknowledgment of their age difference but also, in a way that must have thrilled her, of their equality: "I like to think of you going over the same ground, speaking in the same halls, & meeting the same people as I have. I can think of myself as ... smoothing the pathway for the coming of my little sweetheart. May it ever be so."

"They did not hide their attraction," recalled a friend of Hardie's. "...I remember her sitting on his knee with her arms around his neck." As he worked long hours in the evening, Sylvia drew or painted portraits of him, and soon two of her paintings would be hung in his room. That their bond was intense is clear, but it may have felt precarious as well, as love affairs between people of very different ages often do. Theirs, also, was love on the run between two busy activists, and her frequent arrests brought other complications.

Hundreds of jailed suffragettes were now trying to provoke the government by launching hunger strikes in prison. In response, the authorities ordered that they be force-fed. Hardie denounced force-feeding in Parliament and more than 100 doctors signed a protest, all to no avail. He desperately tried to persuade Sylvia to stop going on hunger strikes. As an agitator, he understood the tactic, but as her lover, he was horrified. "He told me," Sylvia later wrote, "that the thought of forcible feeding was making him ill." Weren't there enough martyrs to the cause already, he asked. "Of what use to make one more?"

Sylvia wanted to be a martyr for the cause, however, and repeatedly pushed her body to the limit. And there could be no question of her breaking ranks with her hunger-striking mother or WSPU comrades. On one occasion, she was so weak on being released from jail that she had to be carried on a stretcher to a suffrage rally, where she managed to say only a few words before being taken home by ambulance. Once she smuggled a desperate message out to the mother whose love and esteem she craved: "I am fighting, fighting, fighting. I have four, five and six wardresses every day as well as the two doctors. I am fed by stomach tube twice a day. They prise open my mouth with a steel gag, pressing it in where there is a gap in my teeth. I resist all the time. My gums are always bleeding.... My shoulders are bruised with struggling whilst they hold the tube into my throat."

Nothing Sylvia did or said, however, could change the emotional balance in the Pankhurst family. As long as she could remember, she had felt in the shadow of her famous mother and the favored elder sister with the china-doll good looks, whose face had even been sculpted for the famous Tussaud waxworks. Given that history, Keir Hardie's love and respect must have felt doubly affirming, and given her desire to be in the public eye, it must have been heady to find that several issues she had suggested were raised by Hardie in the House of Commons.

Both of them had strong reasons to keep their love concealed. Hardie was, after all, a married man, with powerful right-wing enemies who would have been delighted to see him enmeshed in public scandal over an affair with a woman half his age. To make things more thorny for them both, it was soon after Hardie took up with Sylvia that the Pankhursts left his Independent Labour Party, vociferously spurning all alliances with male MPs. Sylvia remained one of the WSPU's most outspoken campaigners, so for the Pankhursts any disclosure of the affair would have proved politically as well as personally embarrassing, guaranteed fodder for anti-suffrage cartoonists. Emmeline, who carefully balanced her militance by always presenting herself as a well-dressed, respectable widow, was particularly dismayed. Once when Sylvia was on a hunger strike in prison, she smuggled out to Emmeline a letter for Hardie that her mother did not deliver. Sylvia never forgave her.

Although the war Hardie feared did not yet seem imminent, suspicion of Germany pervaded popular culture. In 1906, a novel called The Invasion of 1910 was serialized in the Daily Mail; the newspaper advertised it by sending men in spiked Prussian helmets, wearing sandwich boards, through the London streets. The book was a sensation and helped launch a whole fantasy literature of invasion. Another novel depicted the imperial German black-eagle banner flying over Buckingham Palace, the British King exiled to Delhi, and signs declaring it verboten to walk on the grass in Hyde Park. A play about an invasion by "the Emperor of the North" opened in London in 1909 and was still running 18 months later. So many invasion novels flooded the bookstores that the humorist P. G. Wodehouse satirized them with one of his own, The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England, featuring an attack by the Swiss navy and the Chinese seizure of the Welsh port of Lllgxtplll.

Meanwhile, preparations for possible war ratcheted up dramatically: between 1908 and 1913, total arms expenses by the six largest countries of Europe rose by 50 percent. Almost all the great powers were now spending between 5 and 6 percent of their national incomes on their armed forces, even though the usual motives for conflict were relatively few. For example, no major European country, at least in public, claimed a piece of another's territory.

The best counterweight to war, Keir Hardie and millions of other men and women believed, was the socialist movement. The Second International's membership came from more than 30 nations; its first co-presidents had been a Frenchman and a German; all conflicts between countries seemed forgotten by those who rallied under its red flag. Workers thronged streets across Europe to march under that banner every May Day. German generals might bluster, but the German socialists, the Social Democrats, despite a long history of harassment by the authorities, were the biggest party in the national legislature. The Social Democrats were envied by leftists everywhere for their more than 90 newspapers, their large staff of professional organizers, and their welfare programs that almost seemed the embryo of a socialist state within a capitalist one. Hardie attended one congress of the German party and was impressed by how many of the delegates were women—who kept a constant peace demonstration going outside the meeting hall for the duration of the congress. The German government was clearly afraid of the party, for it banned Social Democratic literature from army barracks, and party members from the officer corps. In almost every other European country, socialists were also increasing their share of the vote. Even in the resolutely anti-socialist United States, Hardie's friend Eugene V. Debs, campaigning on his Red Special train with red banners flying, won more than 400,000 votes for president in 1908, and more than doubled the total, to 900,000, in 1912.

An advance in one country was greeted with delight in all the others; a setback in one was pain shared: when the Tsar's Cossacks shot down workers marching in St. Petersburg, for example, British trade unionists meeting in Liverpool quickly raised £1,000 for their families. And even when disagreements broke out among socialists, there was still friendship and respect. At one congress of the Second International, the fiery Polish-German Rosa Luxemburg vigorously criticized a statement by Jean Jaurès. When Jaurès rose to answer, he asked who would translate his reply into German. "I will, if you like, Citizen Jaurès," said Luxemburg. Between such trusting comrades, could there ever be war?

Of course, a skeptic might have claimed that the proletarian desire for peace was only a mere dream in the eyes of middle-class intellectuals. But Hardie believed in it fervently, and he was working class—in fact, one of only two major leaders in the Second International who could claim that distinction. The other, the German August Bebel, was far less sanguine about the peaceful instincts of his fellow workers. "Look at those fellows," he once remarked while watching a military parade. "Eighty per cent of them are Berliners and Social Democrats but if there was trouble they would shoot me down at a word of command from above."

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