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

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

by Jennifer Hobhouse Balme
Agent of Peace: Emily Hobhouse and Her Courageous Attempt to End the First World War

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

by Jennifer Hobhouse Balme


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In the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) Emily Hobhouse championed the cause of the women and children herded into camps by Kitchener's army. By 1914, a confirmed pacifist, she felt passionately that civilians suffered more than combatants and she was anxious for a negotiated peace. Her 'Open Christmas Letter' of January 1915, calling for an end to hostilities, was answered by 155 prominent pacifist and feminist German and Austrian women. By 1916 Emily was concerned by the scale of losses at the front as well. During a visit to Berlin she met the German Foreign Secretary and came to realise that peace negotiations were possible. She put forward a plan to bring about talks, to which he agreed, but in England she was snubbed by the Foreign Office. Despite this setback, Emily continued in her mission to relieve the suffering caused by war, working tirelessly for the release of civilian prisoners and to secure better food for Belgium. The story of this extraordinary woman and her battle to secure peace is told here by her grand-niece largely through Emily's own letter, journal and diary extracts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750963367
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 02/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 192
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jenny Baume is the grand-niece of Emily Hobhouse. She was a nurse with the WRVS for many years. Upon her father's death she inherited a trunk of Emily's papers, on which this book is based.

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Agent of Peace

Emily Hobhouse and her Courageous Attempt to End the First World War

By Jennifer Hobhouse Balme

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hobhouse Balme
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6336-7


A Cornish Background

Born in 1860, at a time when women had no status and were expected to be good, obedient and pure, Emily Hobhouse was the youngest of four girls. Her brother, Leonard (L.T. Hobhouse, the noted sociologist and thinker), was four years her junior. Her father, Reginald, was rector of the small Anglican parish in east Cornwall and was later appointed as one of the two archdeacons for the Cornish diocese.

The girls were educated at home and as they grew up, besides sports, art and music, their time was given over to good works, but when their mother died all the fun went out of the house. Their father became reclusive and Emily, as the last remaining girl at home, found the life of a Victorian spinster more and more repressive. Her only outlet was visits to her uncle and aunt, Arthur and Mary Hobhouse. They asked her to be hostess for them when they were in the country. With her quick wit and sweet singing voice she was an asset to any party. Arthur Hobhouse had been in India as the law member of the Governor General's council. He was now a peer of the realm and a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal in the British Empire.

When her father died in 1895, Emily wondered what she could do. Through the wife of Edward Benson (their former bishop in Cornwall who had become Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop in the Anglican Church), she went to Minnesota to carry out welfare work for the Cornish miners who had emigrated there. She found they were doing well, but there was plenty of work helping other miners – for example, she visited the sick and those in prison, started a library and organised entertainments. She also fell in love and became engaged to be married. With plans for her fiancé to follow her, she went to Mexico to purchase a ranch where they could grow coffee and pineapples. Unfortunately the relationship came to nothing. She returned to London to study child welfare and try her hand at writing.

Emily was always interested in current affairs and TheTimes was delivered daily, even in Cornwall. This she read at meals to her austere father but she had to be careful not to let him know of her Liberal views. He was a staunch Conservative, although Arthur and her brother Leonard were Liberals who believed in the rights of small nations.

In 1899 the Anglo-Boer War broke out. It was really an issue about the gold mines in the Transvaal, South Africa. The Boers (Afrikaner people) had trekked hundreds of miles north of the British Colony at the Cape of Good Hope because they, and the people of the Orange Free State, wanted to be independent of British rule, and the British now wanted their say in the operation of their new territories. Because of his judicial position, Arthur Hobhouse was not able to take part in politics. However, some of his friends, including Leonard Courtney, the independently minded Liberal Unionist MP for the Hobhouses' constituency in Cornwall, formed a South African Conciliation Committee. Emily, who knew Leonard Courtney, entered wholeheartedly into the campaign to find and execute a resolution to the conflict. She spoke publicly, and went on to form a relief fund for the South African women and children who were being herded into camps after their farms had been burnt or destroyed as part of British policy.

Emily went to South Africa to take relief and found the conditions there were very bad. She did what she could there, and then in England, to get them improved. Her actions won for her the ire of the British government but led to the establishment of a Ladies Commission led by Millicent Fawcett to investigate the camps. Emily was not permitted to take part, but their findings showed her to be correct and eventually lasting improvements were made. Meanwhile Emily had tried to go to South Africa again to see if she could do something useful, but she was deported.

South Africa became one of her life's passions. She went back soon after the war and prodded the government in the annexed territories (Orange Free State and the Transvaal), especially the Transvaal, to help rebuild the devastated country. She also developed a scheme of Home Industries – spinning, weaving and lace-making – to encourage young women to take pride in their accomplishments. This scheme was later taken over by the home government.

Emily made many friends among the Afrikaner community, including Mrs Isabella (Tibbie) Steyn, the wife of the former President of the Orange Free State, and the brilliant young lawyer Jan Smuts, who had been a general in the Boer Army and was now in government. When in England, Emily introduced him to the British Liberal elite.

Emily returned from South Africa in 1908 a sick woman suffering from neuritis, lumbago and a heart condition which was to incapacitate her for the rest of her life. She was an invalid and could not climb stairs. Cold weather plagued her, though she felt better in the summer warmth. She was not, however, totally inactive. She took part in the suffrage movement and was elected Chair of the People's Suffrage Federation whose members included Leonard Hobhouse, Bertrand Russell and John Galsworthy. The People's Suffrage Federation's programme was 'one man one vote; one woman one vote' so differed from the suffrage proposals of Millicent Fawcett which advocated votes for women over 30 with some property qualifications, and no alteration in the male vote. Men at the time could have multiple votes. Equality, the Federation's dream, did not finally take place until 1946. Emily spent the winters in Rome where she acquired a flat (apartment) and the climate was milder.

In 1913 Emily returned to South Africa to unveil the monument in Bloemfontein to commemorate the 26,000 women and children who had died in British camps. She became sick but her speech was read for her. While she was there 'Mahatma' Gandhi appealed to her – the Indian community in South Africa was suffering and under great pressure. Emily persuaded him to have patience and was able to facilitate a meeting between Gandhi and Prime Minister Botha with whom she was staying, and thus helped resolve the 'Indian' problem. Much later she told a friend that she considered Gandhi to be far and away the greatest man she ever met. When she died in 1926 Gandhi wrote a glowing tribute to her.


The Beginning

For working people the August bank holiday, the first weekend of August, was a wonderful time of year. All those who were able took trains to the sea and paddled in the water, ate ice cream or winkles (a local speciality) and crowded the piers to play the slot machines or to listen to the local band. But in 1914 the festive mood was dimmed by the sudden possibility of war with Germany. Young men, however, were excited. Their boring lives could now have new meaning as they could travel to and see places they had only dreamt about. Besides, everyone said a war could not last long. However, more thoughtful people were wary. Leonard Hobhouse wrote to his sister, Emily, on 2 August: 'It is the most serious crisis in our lifetime. We are evidently in the greatest danger.'

Leonard was a member of the Neutrality League. Long fearing that war might break out, he and his group had written to the Manchester Guardian, of which he was a director, warning of the possible catastrophe and pointing out that Britain was not obligated to go to war. In fact he had two letters in that paper of 3 August with the same object. Emily had also written pointing out the misery of war to non-combatants.

The crisis had been pending for years. Britain had watched with dismay as Germany built up its armaments and its navy. Many influential Germans, including the historian Treitschke, encouraged the German public with ideas of expansionism as a way to become a great power. This was what many wanted, an aspiration shared by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria. Wilhelm was both Emperor and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces so had considerable power. The Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was appointed by him. In the German parliament, Reichstag, only the nobles could hold office. The system was archaic. There were many in Germany who wanted reform – not war.

The present crisis was triggered at the end of June 1914 by the assassination in Bosnia of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria–Hungary. The perpetrator was a Serb national. Austria–Hungary responded angrily with a plan to incorporate the vulnerable Balkan country of Serbia into its own territory. It had only recently incorporated Bosnia. They got German support on 23 July. That made things worse. Czarist Russia mobilised to support Serbia and France supported Russia.

The Germans feared they would be fighting on two fronts, against Russia and France, and decided to take action against the French whom they hoped to quickly defeat. The French had made minor incursions into Germany but, because the Franco-German border was heavily fortified, the Germans formulated a plan to attack France through Belgium. Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality under a treaty of 1839. Prussia (Germany) and France had been signatories. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg sarcastically referred to this Treaty as 'a scrap of paper'.

On Friday, 1 August, the German Army violated Luxembourg's neutrality. The Kaiser telegraphed his cousin King George V of Britain stating that he would not attack France, if France offered neutrality guaranteed by the British fleet and Army.

British action was uncertain. The government did not trust the Kaiser. The Cabinet was split. The City – the financial district – was against war. Henry 'H.H.' Asquith, the British Prime Minister, felt that it rested with Germany to keep the peace. He was concerned about the possible government resignations and felt that if Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, resigned, he would follow. He believed in a strong France and that the British Navy must retain control of the English Channel.

Emily had been working to get everyone she could to stand against war. The Manchester Guardian's editor, C.P. Scott, told her that he was trying to get meetings organised, and the Bishop of Hereford wrote to her that he had written to every incumbent in his diocese asking for action. She urged David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, with whom she had campaigned in the Anglo-Boer War: 'to take a bold and noble stand against the very idea of England taking up arms ...' She told him in the outright language she used: 'We Liberals cannot trust Imperialists.' She also wrote to Ramsay MacDonald, another future Prime Minister and to Keir Hardie, the leader of the Independent Labour Party – both of whom stood for peace.

Since the Anglo-Boer War, women who wanted to have the vote and their say in public affairs had become increasingly active in many countries. They had a worldwide organisation, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), with a newspaper, Jus Suffragii, published in London and abroad. Many believed in peace. Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian described as a fiery feminist, was press secretary and correspondent for various papers. With Millicent Fawcett, vice president of the Alliance, she organised a peace rally in London for the holiday Monday, 4 August. Millicent was criticised for her action. Lord Robert Cecil, a strong supporter of her suffrage programme in Parliament, reminded her that in order to have male support her members must be shown to act 'responsibly'. After this they followed the government line. Millicent regarded Emily as a traitor for her work in the Anglo-Boer War and specifically did not want her there; in this she was gratified.

Emily was unwell and staying in Oxford.

However, hopes for peace were short-lived, for by the time the rally had started German Battalions had begun their march through Belgium. Britain had promptly issued an ultimatum that unless the German Army withdrew by midnight they would be in a state of war. Germany did not withdraw.

On 5 August Leonard wrote to Emily:

We can only exchange sorrowful feelings today ... My view now is that we can say nothing about neutrality or make no criticism of policy until the country is out of danger ... I wrote Ll[oyd] G[eorge] a strong letter yesterday saying that if he did not leave the Govt the Radical party was ... broken. But war being declared I should not urge him to do so now until the naval question is settled ...

Leonard feared a major naval battle. He was also worried about conscription. His son, Oliver, aged 22, was a scholar at Oxford University.

The war feeling in Britain was so strong that all the principal newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian, gave full support to the government. Leonard explained gloomily to Emily, 8 August: 'A paper wh occupied itself with attacks on the war might live for three weeks, but hardly for more.' He continued:

I am not affected by the White Paper wh I have read, as it is clear that Grey, [Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary] (1) never warned Russia that we shd not back her in the quarrel. Had he done so she wd probably have withdrawn (2) made no attempt to bargain our neutrality against Belgian integrity – a bargain which Germany tentatively approached, and might conceivably have accepted.

Next, as to mediation. You will fret yourself in vain if you talk of it now ... If Germany wins she will annex Belgium and dismember France. If we win we shall impose such terms on Germany as will prevent her from being the menace that she has been for Western Europe for 40 years. You must remember that the whole of the armed peace, the doctrine of force wh has taken possession of Europe, and formed it into a camp, is Prussian in origin. Since 1871 [Franco-Prussian War] no Frenchman has had an easy mind. If France wins she will rightly demand the cessation of this menace. It will therefore be useless to talk of mediation until the combatants are exhausted or one is beaten. It is miserable, but it is best to face the facts.

It is bitter for me to realise all this. All our hopes for political and social progress are shattered once and for all ... As to Liberalism, it died last Monday. There will, I expect, be a coalition Govt, the Irish will be thrown over, and a small handful of radicals and Labour men will be left. We may write finis to our work, and hope that civilization may rise again elsewhere.

So Leonard was for supporting the war while the danger lasted. He believed in the rights of small nations, and the reports of atrocities committed by the Germans as they moved through Belgium must have strengthened his resolve. To Emily war was obscene and nothing could mitigate that. After stating that she always longed to go to Germany she gave her position on the first page of the Journal, which she wrote later. She entitled it:

The Story of My Visit to Germany

June 7 – June 24, 1916

During the Great War

From the very beginning of the War – viz in 1914 I was filled with a longing to go to Germany. Holding as I do, that a War is not only wrong in itself, but a crude mistake I stand wholly outside its passions and feel, while it lasts, a spectator of a scene I deplore, but with which I am in no sense a part. I give, have given and will give nothing to any fund to aid war or warriors. My small means are devoted entirely to help non-combatants who suffer in consequence of war and in supporting every movement making for peace. I believe it useless to soften or civilize war, that there is no such thing as 'Civilized War'; there is war between civilized peoples certainly but as we now see that becomes more barbarous than war between barbarians. I believe the only thing is to strike at the root of the Evil and demolish War itself as the great and impossible Barbarity. Hence all the Governments concerned in making this War are to blame in my eyes, none better than the others though possibly some worse. They follow blindly an outworn and impossible system that must be swept away. I blame them all and am against them all equally. On the other hand my heartfelt sympathies lie with all the peoples of Europe, sacrificed, ruined and destroyed by their blind incompetent rulers. They are also to blame in so far as they allow their better judgment to be led astray by their rulers and do not rise up in a body to stay the tide of bloodshed. But they are to be pitied for the poverty, starvation, misery and universal ruin fall upon their shoulders, besides disease destruction and countless worse evils ...

Emily was often unwell. Her doctor from Italy, Dr Francesco Forlani, wrote to her, in flowery Italian on 11 August: 'However good your health situation may be, every preoccupation or apprehension can be extremely dangerous for you. So, be strong and don't listen to the noble voices from your spirit which will incite you.'

For the moment she took his, and Leonard's, advice, but she wrote to her South African friend Jan Smuts, a prominent member of the government there, on 8 August: 'It would be some satisfaction if we could put Grey in a battleship by himself and William II in another and let those two sink each other if they are so anxious to.' She had little sympathy with Grey's policies or the people with whom Britain was allied and she did hope South Africa would be able to stay out of the conflict.


Excerpted from Agent of Peace by Jennifer Hobhouse Balme. Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hobhouse Balme. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. A Cornish Background,
2. The Beginning,
3. 1915,
4. Hard Knocks,
5. Prelude to the Journey,
6. Emily's Journal: Wartime Journey across Germany,
7. Emily's Journal: Into Belgium, June 1916,
8. Emily's Journal: Berlin,
9. Emily's Journal: Disaster and the Return to England,
10. The Citadel,
11. Diary, July 1916,
12. Ruhleben and Peace,
13. August 1916 – Cloak and Dagger,
14. Belgium, Peace and the Push Back,
15. The Weary World Waits,

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