One hundred years ago, London had enjoyed good weather for the August 3 bank holiday. The tense situation in Ireland, with conflict brewing between unionists and nationalists, and the suffragette campaign of direct action had taken the attention of most of the public over the summer, rather than the consequences of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
The expiry of the UK ultimatum to Germany at 11pm on 4 August, provoked a sharp change in mood. Both Houses had sat on 3 August to debate the worsening international position. The official Opposition supported the analysis of Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, that the country would have to honour its treaty commitment to Belgium. The ensuing debate can be read online at c1809-32).
The Times parliamentary correspondent, Michael MacDonagh, noted that the Commons was packed, floor and gallery and described the dramatic moment when John Redmond, leader of the Irish nationalists, pledged the support of his country.(In London during the Great War 1935). Only four of the 37 Labour MPs refused to support the war, although its leader Ramsay MacDonald, and its veteran MP, Keir Hardie, both spoke against. MacDonald resigned as leader later in 1914, not resuming leadership until 1922.
Parliament’s Living Heritage hub [Parliament.uk/ww1] has more material, and the Parliamentary Art Collection includes a fine painting, Parliamentarians in the First World War, with, Grey, Redmond and MacDonald shown among others.
The War and MPs
The impact of the First World War on the Commons deserves attention, not least because by January 1915 the number of MPs on active service was 184 out of a House of 690. Altogether during the war, 264 MPs held military rank in some capacity A handful of MPs, including F. W. S. McLaren, Sir John Simon, and Lord Hugh Cecil, would serve in the new Royal Flying Corps, but most were in the army. (Dr Matthew Johnson Leading from the Front: The ‘Service Members’ in Parliament, the armed forces, and British politics during the Great War English Historical Review June 2015 forthcoming)
Under the House of Commons (Commissions in His Majesty’s Forces) Act 1914, introduced in November 1914, Members who accepted a commission were no longer barred from being elected to, or sitting or voting in the House of Commons and were able to receive pay as a MP and a serviceman.
A number of MPs were killed on active service. The House of Commons Book of Remembrance 1914/18 gives biographical information about all of the serving MPs, some of the former MPs, their sons, Officers of the House of Commons and their sons who fell in the First World War. The original, published in 1919 in two volumes, is kept in the safe of the House of Commons Library, but has been digitised by the Parliamentary Archives and will be available on the Parliament website later this year. it was also republished, in book form, in 1931. The Library has copies.
In the Commons Chamber, there are a number of shields commemorating Members who fell during the two world wars. The parliamentary website lists 19 shields for the Great War. The Parliament’s war memorial stands in St Stephen’s Porch at the south end of Westminster Hall, commemorating peers, MPs, parliamentary staff and their sons.
Parliament has been characterised as executive-dominated during this period, especially after the formation of the Coalition Government in 1915. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA) was passed by both Houses on 7 August 1914, without even a printed text being available. It gave the Government sweeping powers to nationalise key industries, enforce press censorship, introduce British Summer Time and create licensing hours for pubs. There were a number of secret sessions during the war which were not recorded in Hansard. The 13th edition of Erskine May (1924) recorded the details on page 205. Under DORA, the Government made a regulation banning the reporting of any secret session.
As the conflict continued, there were lively parliamentary debates on policies which continue to resonate in contemporary politics. Here are a selection.
Conscription and the Military Service Acts 1916
Huge losses among British troops led to the introduction of conscription in 1916. The UK had been the only great power without a conscript army. Conscription initially applied to all single men between 18 and 41, but was rapidly extended to married men later in 1916. Conscription did not extend to Ireland until the last months of the war due to concerns that it would provoke unrest, particularly after the 1916 Easter Rising.
Due to effective lobbying from the No-Conscription Fellowship, formed by Fenner Brockway, there was a provision in the Act to allow for conscientious objection (COs). Conscription was not popular and in April 1916 over 200,000 demonstrated against it in Trafalgar Square. Of the 16,000 conscientious objectors in Britain during the First World War, more than one-third went to prison at least once, and 1,500 ‘absolutists’ were locked up for the duration of the conflict. Many more COs accepted non-combatant work on various projects of ‘national importance’. Herbert Morrison, later Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was one, who undertook farm work. He was to become Minister of Supply in the Coalition Government of 1940-45.
There was intense dislike of the COs as unpatriotic, and on a free vote by 209 votes to 171 MPs voted to deprive them of the franchise in the Representation of the People Bill (which enfranchised women over 30, with a property qualification and extended the male franchise). The Conservative Lord Hugh Cecil made an impressive speech during the debate on 21 November 1917, exposing the illogicality of the arguments for disenfranchisement:
The Military Service Acts have not been extended to Ireland, and yet we are to give votes to all the young men of military age in Ireland, although they have not got this qualification of military service. If the need of the State be so supreme, if the law of its safety be so cogent, will not some people at any rate ask “How comes it then that you are exempting twenty or thirty times as many people in Ireland, because they are Irishmen, while you are not exempting merely a few in England because they are religious”? (HC Deb c 1220).
Munitions of War Act 1915 and the employment of women
This legislation gave the newly created Ministry of Munitions power to declare factories controlled establishments, and restrict the freedom of workers to leave, through a system of certificates and of tribunals. The Ministry was given power to regulate wages in the industry 1916. Strikes in war industries were made illegal and labour disputes went to compulsory tribunals. In practice, strikes continued in the UK throughout the war.
The concern that lower wages paid to women engaged in munition work would prejudice the position of skilled men returning from the war is made clear in this response from the Minister, Lloyd George on 21 October 1915:
Mr. LLOYD GEORGE: It would be a violation of the spirit and the letter of the Munitions Act if the employment of women or unskilled men on munitions work should be utilised for the purpose of lowering the remuneration of men customarily engaged on that class of work.
The proportion of women in total employment rose from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918. Women had proved themselves in the workforce, a factor in earning them the vote, but after the war employment levels fell back. See Suffrage in Wartime in Parliament’s Living Heritage page.
Impact on Parliament of the Great War
The story of the impact on Parliament is well covered in Michael MacDonagh’s In London during the Great War. The Members elected in December 1910 served until December 1918, as the Parliament was prolonged through special legislation. MacDonagh paints a vivid picture of Westminster, with disputes between the so-called die-hard MPs who favoured the prosecution of war by any means, and the Government, as well as the negotiations leading to the formation of the two war-time coalitions in 1915 and 1916.
Dr Matthew Johnson’s research shows how MPs in uniform regularly intervened in the debates about the prosecution of the war, sometimes to the disquiet of their commanding officers. The Army Council made a direct complaint to Lloyd George, complaining that it undermined service discipline.
Then as now, individual Members determined how they served in Parliament, although party organisation and whips would also have to be taken into account. However, the following short extract from Politicians at War: July 1914 to May 1915, on considering William Wedgwood Benn as a replacement for Percy Illingworth as the Liberal Party Chief Whip, indicates that parliamentary life was also affected by the War:
In June 1914, Benn would have been delighted with the appointment [of Chief Whip]. But, after five months of war the pert, energetic, ex-Junior Whip had other plans. He had put on the uniform of a cavalry officer. ‘The task of organizing conflicting Parties in Parliament seemed ridiculous and distasteful,’ he wrote many years afterwards. It seemed all the more ridiculous when lengthy prorogations and the suspension of party warfare left ‘practically nothing to do on the floor of the House’. 
A number of individuals wrote memoirs or autobiographies which would include accounts of wartime service, and they provide some information on how they fulfilled their parliamentary and military duties. Johnson relates one exceptional story:
In December 1915 Captain Stanley Wilson, the Unionist MP for Holderness, was carrying military despatches from the Eastern Mediterranean to London when the Greek steamer on which he was travelling was intercepted by an Austrian submarine. Wilson was interned in an Austrian prisoner-of-war camp, and the electors of Holderness remained effectively unrepresented at Westminster until their MP was released in August 1917.
Sittings in both Houses of Parliament were suspended on the evening of 18 December 1917 due to the threat of German air raids. The then chairman of Committees, Mr Whitley, suspended the sitting in the Commons at 7pm, but an indignant backbencher Mr Billing put a point of order when the Commons returned after 9pm stating: ”are we to understand that if another warning be given this House will proceed to the cellars again?”(c1892). Press censorship prevented the evacuation being made public.
St Stephen’s House, now demolished, near Westminster Bridge, housed both the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (a cross-party organisation which used the party infrastructure in parliamentary constituencies to support recruitment) and the Society of Friends’ War Emergency Committee, which helped the families of destitute aliens who had been interned in a variety of locations including Alexandra Palace and the Isle of Man, following the passage of the Aliens Restrictions Act 1914, on 5 August 1914 (see HC Deb cc1986-90 for the lack of scrutiny of the legislation). An exhibition, Little Germany, Stratford and East London 1914, explores the internment of aliens in a jute factory in Stratford.
As well as MPs, staff in both Houses served in the war, and the shortage of men led to the employment of women in a number of positions, including as messengers. For a presentation on this, see Women in Parliament in World War One and Two.
Author: Oonagh Gay