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Resistance to the First World War Conference


 Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.

The conference saw a diverse range of papers presented, which covered the themes of gender and resistance, the experience of individual anti-war campaigners and the relationship between the state and war opponents. There were a number of thought-provoking papers which looked to expand our understanding of resistance to war by reinterpreting shell shock, war trauma and malingering as resistance. One of the keynotes, by Benjamin Ziemann, argued that the selfish acts of resistance such as malingering and self-mutilation were central to halting the German military machine. Other keynotes included a paper on Tolstoy’s conceptions of pacifism by Sarah Hudspith and an examination of the wartime experience of Isabella Ford, the Leeds-based feminist, socialist and pacifist, by June Hannam.

The second day of the conference was a public-facing event held at Leeds City Museum at which there was a variety of stalls, exhibitions, performances and talks. There was a particular focus on conscientious objection, with Lois Bibbings delivering a presentation on the parallels between representations of suffrage activists and conscientious objectors (COs) and Cyril Pearce talking about his CO database, which is available through the IWM ‘Lives of the Great War’ project, which can be found here: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org, and the mapping of local communities of resistance. There were also a number of films and cultural interpretations of resistance to war, including poetry responding to the experiences of COs and a performance by storyteller Simon Heywood based on the first-hand accounts, letters of diaries of objectors.

Overall the conference shed new light on the multi-faceted nature of resistance to the First World War and raised important questions about what counts as resistance and its significance today. IWM holds a number of collections on these themes, including an extensive collection of the personal papers of COs and recorded interviews with men and women who actively opposed the war. These documents can be searched through the online catalogue which can be found using this link: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections and the recorded interviews can be accessed online.

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