Consensus and Dissent in Wartime Leeds by Eve Haskins

Consensus and dissent in war time Leeds, 1914-1918:

a case study of two Leeds City Council members

 According to a local Leeds newspaper, by mid-1916 the total number of conscientious objectors (COs, that is men who had applied for exemption to the Military Service Act under the conscience clause) in Leeds, who had been arrested and handed to the Military Authorities was eight hundred and sixty. Of these, two hundred had been court-martialled and fifty had been released (Leeds Weekly Citizen,16 June 1916). As elsewhere in the country, COs in Leeds were therefore a small minority of the male population, however their stance illustrated that there was undoubtedly some resistance to the war present in the city, and that Leeds was not just a ‘hostile sea of jingoism’, as German academic Francis Carsten described Britain in 1982.


The contrasting views and experiences of two local Labour councillors in Leeds at this time highlighted the anti-war activism and pro-war attitudes that co-existed in the city.


Percy Horner: the CO Councillor

One Labour councillor noteworthy for his pro-CO sympathies was Percy Horner (pictured below), who, as well as his brother Ernest, applied for exemption to military service at the Leeds local tribunal and ended up imprisoned as a CO.

Councillor Percy Horner, Leeds Weekly Citizen, 16 June 1916

The newspaper report of Councillor Horner’s arrest in June 1916 confirmed that he was ‘a member of the Labour Party, who has won some prominence as an advocate of the pacifist and conscientious objector position’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 9 June 1916). Councillor Horner wrote regularly to the Leeds Weekly Citizen to outline his views and respond to criticism of his stance. It seems that other Leeds City Council members even accused him of treachery: ‘Coun. [sic] Winn is not correct in his charges against me at the City Council Meeting on Wednesday’ he wrote, continuing that, ‘[n]ext week I hope to say a few things about the patriotic enthusiasm of these councillors, and leave the public to judge as to who are the patriots,’ which indicated the tensions that existed in Leeds City Council on this issue (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 12 May 1916). The newspaper also carried reports of Councillor Horner in prison, keeping the public informed that he, ‘who is serving a term of imprisonment as a conscientious objector to all forms of military service, is in the best of health and spirits’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 8 September 1916).


The press and public were allowed to view the Military Service Tribunal hearings, which meant that the newspapers carried almost verbatim reports, which show that the public gallery would invariably be filled with supporters of the applicants at the Leeds local tribunal, especially if the application for exemption was on conscience grounds. One such example of this support is that of Ernest Horner, brother of Councillor Percy Horner, who was in the crowd along with many other advocates of COs at his tribunal hearing in March 1916, when the socialist anthem the ‘The Red Flag’ was sung. As the Leeds Weekly Citizen outlined in great detail: ‘Up to the time of the calling of Ernest Horner the public in the gallery had been tolerably quiet’, and reported that Horner claimed he was, ‘a socialist and anti-militarist’, at which point voice in the gallery shouted, ‘Justice! Justice!’ and ‘Keep the flag flying’; Horner continued that he was, ‘here as a man and not as a criminal’, and that he had ‘the right to make my own voice’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 31 March 1916). Despite the Chairman of the tribunal adjourning the proceedings for thirty minutes to discuss the position privately in ‘retirement’, Horner’s statement after this time, which ‘amounted to a speech’, meant that the proceedings in that case were adjourned for a fortnight for the panel to ‘refer to question of procedure to HQ for instruction’; the panel then proceeded onto the other applicants, who also wished to make a statement of their views, and each was dismissed by the Chairman, to voices from the public gallery of ‘Shame! Shame!’, and when all subsequent cases were adjourned someone in the gallery started singing ‘The Red Flag’, which was soon being sung by the whole gallery. The report from the newspaper recalled that, ‘Men on the front row rose up to their feet, some waved handkerchiefs, and they sang every verse through’, and that the Labour councillors on the panel were called ‘treacherous Labour representatives’ and ‘renegades’. Once ousted from the City Hall, the gallery members gathered in nearby Victoria Square, where, the paper reported, ‘a largely attended meeting was addressed by several speakers, including Councillor Percy Horner, brother of the young man whose determination brought about the climax, and who was to have been heard later as an objector.’ Ernest Horner’s full address that the tribunal would not let him make is published in the same issue of the newspaper, including the bold lines, ‘Would Jesus Christ wear khaki?’ (displayed below).

Leeds Weekly Citizen, 31 March 1916, p. 4.


The press reported Percy Horner’s appeal against service in April 1916, stating that he was the ‘only member of the Leeds City Council directly affected by conscription’, and included his motivations: ‘I do not believe that this is a war with democracy… I believe that the militarists in the country are hand in glove with the militarists of Germany’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 21 April 1916).


Corporal James Thomson: the Soldier Councillor

In direct contrast to the experience of Percy Horner is that of Corporal James Thomson (pictured below), who had voluntarily joined the Leeds ‘Pals’ Battalion in the early days of the war and was also a Labour Party member of Leeds City Council, for the Bramley ward.

Councillor James Thomson, Labour, Bramley Ward

Leeds Weekly Citizen, 28 December 1917


The Leeds Weekly Citizen reported regularly on Thomson’s army experience, both through interviews with him and reports he had sent into the paper. The prestige and adulation with which many viewed the soldiers during the war was stoked in part by such reports back to the home front from the surviving soldiers of the battles, those who perhaps needed to view the deaths of their friends and colleagues, and perhaps their own imminent demise, as worthy of esteem, rather than a worthless waste of life. In May 1916 it was reported that Thomson, although still on active service in France, ‘is here on short leave this week’ and that he ‘looks brown and hard’; it also stated that Thomson has ‘had his baptism’ in the trenches and recorded that Thomson reported that ‘[t]rench warfare varies wonderfully in fortune’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 5 May 1916). Another article concerning Thomson in December 1917 stated that he had been elected unopposed in the early months of the war and ‘was nearly the first member of that body to enlist voluntarily for service in the Army’ as well as being ‘its only member to go “over the top” on that fatal morning of July 1st, 1916’, and added that he ‘now holds commission as a lieutenant, and is ready for further assaults without any hesitation in his purpose’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 28 December 1917). Two weeks after the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, Thomson authored an article published in the paper which told his story of the ‘Leeds Pals Advance’, at which point he was wounded, in convalescence in East Leeds War Hospital, and wrote that he was ‘very lucky to be living at all after the experience our Battalion had on July 1’, and that the platoon, which was leading the attack was being commanded by the relative of another Leeds City Council member, ‘Alderman Arthur Willey’s son’, who ‘right well and manfully he did his duty too’, and that ‘[n]ot a man but played the game’ and stated that ‘[i]t was the same in all Battalions, the British Tommy is second to none for courage and coolness in the face of death’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 14 July 1916). Reference to Thomson also appeared in the paper in 1920 due to his appointment as trade union secretary and detailed that, ‘on the outbreak of the war Mr Thomson was offered the rank of sergeant, but he preferred to begin as a private soldier in the Leeds Pals’ (Yorkshire Evening News, 25 March 1920).


Corporal Thomson’s experience therefore differs strikingly with that of Councillor Horner, the imprisoned CO, and can be seen as reflection of the range of attitudes to the war within Leeds society.

Eve Haskins, PhD Candidate, School of History, University of Leeds