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© Edward Barber, ‘Embrace the Base’: 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire (1982).

© Edward Barber: ‘Embrace the Base’. 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine-mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire (1982).

History of peace movement in the spotlight

With conflict so often hitting the headlines, it is heartening to be reminded that over the last 100 years or so individuals, whether acting on their own or collectively, have consistently and often creatively campaigned against war and for peace. With this in mind, Ann Kramer, author of two books on conscientious objectors, went to see People Power: Fighting for Peace, an exhibition on peace campaigners at London’s Imperial War Museum.

The exhibition charts the different stages of peace protest in Britain from the trailblazing conscientious objectors (COs) of the First World War through inter-war peace initiatives such as the No More War Movement, the COs of the Second World War, CND – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – and right up to present-day actions such as the massive 2003 anti-Iraq war march in London and the continuing work of the Stop the War coalition.

Each different stage or development is given good coverage, using photographs, diary extracts, letters, memorabilia and posters, as well as extracts from the Imperial War Museum’s own rather astounding and huge sound archive.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London,1939. © IWM (HU 36255).

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London,1939. © IWM (HU 36255).

Pressing a button and listening to Fenner Brockway explaining why he — or more accurately his wife Lilla — started the No-Conscription Fellowship in 1914, or the experience and feelings of First World War CO Howard Martin talking about being sentenced to death help to humanise the exhibition and bring it to life. Howard Martin was not executed, by the way; although he and 38 others were sentenced to death, the sentence was commuted to 10 years’ hard labour.

It is of course very visual — it is an exhibition after all. Black and white photographs of walkers on the first ever Aldermaston march of 1958 making their way through the countryside carrying Ban the Bomb banners contrast with colour photographs of women circling the base at Greenham Common or the huge masses filling London’s streets protesting Blair’s plan to invade Iraq.

Focus on the regular folks

Interestingly the exhibition gives a back seat to the big names of the anti-war movement, focusing instead on the regular folks — women, men and children — who over the last 100 years have stood up against war. It was interesting to see letters sent from and to a Second World War CO called Reginald Porcas, an unknown name to most people and a rather awkward individual who refused to attend his medical examination and was rather annoyed to then be put onto the CO register without his permission.

It is also good to see some of the lesser-known aspects of the peace movement included in the exhibition. There is a banner from the No More War movement, which was founded in 1921 and held many international meetings and demonstrations — the inter-war years are often overlooked. And to see footage of the so-called Spies for Peace being marched off by the police, having broken into a highly secret government bunker in 1963, the year I went on Aldermaston.

©Peter Kennard: Protect and Survive (1981), photomontage on paper,

©Peter Kennard: Protect and Survive (1981), photomontage on paper. A comment on the futility of civil defence measures against nuclear attack.

Their actions made the public aware of the existence of so-called Regional Seats of Government (RSGs) intended for government ministers who would — ludicrous as it sounds — maintain government after a nuclear war. This aspect was reinforced by some videos in a side room.

Extracts from government propaganda films Protect and Survive (1964) and Protecting Your Home (1984) juxtaposed with extracts from Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) and Threads (1984) bring home in chilling fashion the awful futility of nuclear weapons.


Soundscapes also accompany each section of the administration so as you walk around you can hear the jazz bands and chants that accompanied the Aldermaston marchers, snippets of speeches from Trafalgar Square and the sounds of women singing at Greenham. There is also newsreel footage as well as footage taken by activists themselves.

The exhibition is a very comprehensive coverage of the British anti-war movement from 1914. It might have benefited from a bit more information — explanations for instance of which particular events led up to each stage in the peace movement or more biographical details. In my view it did assume quite a bit of knowledge on the part of the visitor. It was also rather dark, particularly in the early part of the exhibition  — some of the display cabinets are very poorly lit, making it difficult to see detail or read letters, a comment that I passed on to a curator.

This slight moan apart, the exhibition is well worth a visit and it is fascinating that the Imperial War Museum, fronted by two huge naval guns and so much better known for its display of military equipment, has chosen to focus on the peace movement in such a positive way. The impression that comes across very powerfully walking around is just how committed, determined and creative anti-war activists have been: the banners, posters and shape of the protests themselves are extraordinarily creative and at times very beautiful, reflecting the hopes of activists for a better and peaceful world.

© IWM ART 2705: Wire by Paul Nash (1918). Nash completed this watercolour drawing when working as an official war artist during WW1. He described his work as conveying a “bitter truth” about the nature of the war.

Paul Nash: Wire (1918). Nash completed this watercolour drawing when working as an official war artist during WW1. He described his work as conveying a “bitter truth” about the nature of the war. © IWM ART 2705.

A sense of fun

Peace or anti-war activists have been taking on the military state at least 100 years and in many different ways, something that comes across strongly. The photographs and filmed footage also convey a sense of fun and enjoyment, which should be familiar to anyone who has taken part in protest or political action. One example is footage of protestors being marched off following an action at the Porton Down chemical warfare research establishment. Smoking and smiling they left peacefully with the police.

People come together because the threat is very real and very dangerous and they often feel isolated. Taking the step to protest, to literally step out of the status quo, can be daunting, but doing so brings people together; they find common cause and also find time to laugh, sing and talk, things that are very necessary when standing or walking for hours, often in the cold and rain.

There may perhaps be a sense of inconclusiveness at the end of the exhibition: so many protests, so many people, and in the end what has been achieved? Interestingly this aspect is well covered by the final exhibit, which is fascinating and inspiring: extracts of interviews with well-known activists such as Lindsey German of Stop the War; CND’s Kate Hudson, the actor Mark Rylance; Vanessa Redgrave; artist David Gentleman, some of whose protest placards are in the exhibition; and peace campaigner Debbie Handy, whose embroidered pink scarf that she wore on CND marches, is on display. All of them have been involved in anti-war campaigning for many years. They discuss various aspects of the peace movement from the importance of creativity through any successes and whether it is all worth it.

What comes across very powerfully that in this world of Trump and wars in the Middle East, it has never been more important to continue protesting, that the peace movement still has and must always have a role and that taking part brings with it a sense of empowerment. In the words of Debbie Handy: “I think all you can do is stand up and be counted and the only way is marching together.”


People and Power: Fighting for Peace Until 28 August at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Daily 10am-6pm. Adults £10, concessions £7, children £5, IWM members free. There is no catalogue of the exhibition other than one that can be borrowed, but there is a hardback by Lyn Smith, People Power: Fighting for Peace From the First World War to the Present (Thames & Hudson, £24.95).

Posted 19:20 Monday, Jul 24, 2017 In: Campaigns

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