Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Agent of Peace: Emily Hobhouse and her Courageous Attempt to End the First World War

Agent of Peace is the second of three books about UK pacifist and social reformer Emily Hobhouse written by her grandniece Jennifer Hobhouse Balme. The starting point for Balme’s research was a trunk of papers inherited from her father, Emily’s nephew. These personal accounts along with official records help create the story.

Hobhouse is probably best known for her activism around the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). She traveled to South Africa and documented the appalling conditions for women and children in internment camps set up by the British Army. The British government tried to dismiss her. But her work eventually led to a commission of inquiry which collaborated her accounts. She was granted honorary citizenship of South Africa for her humanitarian work there. This was all the subject of Balme’s first book, To Love One’s Enemies.

By WW1, Hobhouse was an affirmed pacifist. She joined and worked with the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and other groups in Europe and the US. (IWLPF exists to this day. Indeed 29 November is International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day.)

In 1914, she wrote an open Christmas letter to “the Women of Germany and Austria” which was signed by 100 British women. An exchange of messages was published in Jus Suffragii, the newspaper of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

The Christmas message sounds as mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to those of you who feel as we do. Do not let is forget that our very anguish unites us, that we are passing together through the same experiences of pain and grief. Caught in the grip of terrible Circumstance what can we do? Tosses on this turbulent sea of human conflict, we can but moor ourselves to those calm shores whereon stand, like rocks those eternal verities – Love, Peace, Brotherhood …

We urge that peace be made with appeal to wisdom and reason. Since in the last resort it is these which must decide the issues, can they begin too soon? … Peace on earth has gone, may Christmas hasten that day … (p 23)

Hobhouse convinced German officials to permit her to visit Belgium to see the conditions of Belgian civilians, and to visit Berlin and civilian internment camps. These visits and her attempts to convince the British government to act on her findings are the focus of Agent of Peace. Most of the book covers her work from June to October 1916. She was of the firm view that the suffering of non-combatants was “far worse than that endured by soldiers.” (p 27)

She was under German escort throughout her travels. She saw what they wanted her to, could not go into the war zone and was not permitted to speak to the Belgians. But she was nonetheless astute in her observations. In Germany, she saw Ruhleben, a camp for civilian male detainees from Allied countries who had been in Germany at the outbreak of the war. She met with German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow and discussed possibilities for peace and for an exchange of civilian detainees.

The conditions of her travels in Belgium and Germany were such that her conclusions could be easily ignored by the British government. They dismissed her as a “peace crank” (p 44), a German sympathizer, a harmless busybody. To some, “She was a silly mischievous old woman but not disloyal to her country.” (p 136) In the end, Hobhouse’s courageous actions received no credit in any official action toward reconciliation and peace.

Hobhouse’s actions seem at once brave, impulsive, naïve, perceptive … and, regardless, impressive for a solo woman with health and physical incapacities. The book leaves me wanting to know more about the context of the larger international peace movement.