John Gibson (1887-1980): War & Memory – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): War & Memory

Whilst the First World War no doubt had an impact on John’s life, it is a subject he only touches on briefly. This is perhaps due to the painful memories he is reminded of when discussing such a topic, having lost a brother in the conflict. John’s apparent opposition to the war will have no doubt placed him in the firing line for criticism in a time when conscientious objectors were attacked by the media and labelled cowards by fellow members of the public, a traumatic experience which may also have discouraged him from discussing the war in this transcript.

John Maclean, a leading Red Clydeside and antiwar figure about whom John is very complimentary within the transcript.

At no point within these pages does John claim to be a conscientious objector. However, given his political beliefs, and his avoidance of the Army’s drafting campaigns, it is safe to assume that he objected to the conflict and wished to play no part in the fighting. Colleagues of John involved in the Red Clydeside movement, such as William Gallacher and John Maclean, were vocal in their opposition to the war, with the latter even being imprisoned for his stance. This emphasises just how harshly treated ‘“Conchies”’ (Wallis, 2014) were during the conflict.

Referred to by this derogatory term, conscientious objectors ‘attracted considerable stigma among peers’ (Ibid). In the media, ‘COs were branded as lazy men who “shirked” their duties’ or as ‘cowards who…[had] betrayed [their] country’ (Tomlinson). As the war continued and more and more lives were lost, ‘“powerful resentment built up towards conscientious objectors, especially where people had lost sons, husbands.”’ (Wallis, 2014). For men like John however, this was the price one had to pay for sticking to one’s principles, believing the conflict to be ‘a capitalist war, waged to preserve the empire’ (Ibid). With the introduction of conscription in 1916, the inclusion of a ‘“conscience clause”’ meant that ‘about 20,000 men registered as COs during the following two years’ (Tomlinson) of the war.

Painting of Allied fighter planes during the First World War.

John recalls the very scene where he first heard the shocking news: ‘We was in the station when war was declared’ (3). In this London train station, John and a friend ‘had got all the paraphernalia to go to Holland, on holiday’ (3). Of course, due to the announcement, the men were forced to cancel the trip, and ‘chucked [their holiday essentials] in the wastepaper basket!’ (3). From there, John decided they had to return home immediately, as ‘“they’ll be coming on at us to join the Army in London”’ (3). Here, John shows his contempt for those in the higher ranks of the armed forces, claiming that ‘they were quite pleased when was was declared. That’s the way they were…’ (3). He and his friend, however, wanted no part in the recruiting of, primarily, working-class men to serve as cannon fodder, and so ‘we went back to Darlington’ (3).

John was in Darlington for merely ‘a week or two’ before he ‘decided to go to Scotland, where the life was, real life’ (3). By this, we assume John is referring to the radical politics taking Glasgow by storm during this time, known as the Red Clydeside period. Whilst north of the border, John was among ‘“fighters”’ (3) and fellow socialists who shared his antiwar sentiment, choosing to stand in solidarity with them and continue their trade union work despite the upheaval of a world war.

Depiction of a munitions factory during the war. This kind of work was vital to the war effort, meaning trade unions had increased power over the government.

In fact, the war saw a huge increase in trade union membership. ‘In 1914, 437,000 women and 3,708,000 men had belonged to trade unions. By 1920 over 1 million women and 7 million men were union members’ (Todd, 2015, 31). Due to the huge demand for workers during the conflict, ‘labour leaders were able to strike new bargains over wages and working hours’ (Ibid), causes John had always fought for and which were now becoming impossible for the government to ignore.

As previously mentioned in the Home & Family blog, John discusses ‘this brother of mine who got killed in the ’14-’18 war’ (1) merely in passing. One assumes this is due to the painful nature of this topic, as well as the typically masculine behaviour of bottling up difficult feelings. It is perhaps due to this that the war does not play a significant part in the transcript, although there is enough material to detect John’s opposition to the conflict.

3:O232  GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Todd, Selina. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. London: John Murray, 2015.
Tomlinson, Charlotte. ‘First World War Attitudes to Conscientious Objectors’. English Heritage.
Wallis, Holly. ‘WWI: The Conscientious Objectors who Refused to Fight’. BBC News, 2014.

Painting of WWI Allied planes –
John Maclean –
Painting of munitions factory workers –

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