At various points during the last four years we have marked the centenary of World War I on this blog by highlighting our collections relating to aspects of Quaker work at that time, including the relief work of the Friends War Victims Relief Committee and support for conscientious objectors. As the centenary draws to a close this November, it seems appropriate to look at what our collections tell us about how Quakers in 1918 felt peace could be achieved after the war.
Amongst our archives from the time are the records of the Friends League of Nations Committee, later the Friends League of Nations Association, which began with a preliminary meeting held in London on 24 July 1918.
In January that year, the US president, Woodrow Wilson, had spoken about his proposed Fourteen Points for peace, which included a proposal for a League of Nations. When Yearly Meeting considered the report of the Peace Committee in May, it was reported in The Friend that Joseph B. Braithwaite urged support for the idea, as the only practical proposal for peace that had been put forward, referring to William Penn in arguing that peace had to be backed up by force if needed. Other Friends present differed, unable to support a League which rested on the threat of force.
Joseph B. Braithwaite was one of those who gathered on 24 July to consider the matter, with the minutes of the meeting recording that:
“The Friends present were unanimously of opinion that although the late Yearly Meeting of the Society declined to take any action endorsing the proposal for a League of Nations, there were a very large number of Friends, who were anxious to participate in this piece of constructive work for Peace, and that steps should be taken to ascertain if this is so.”
An appeal was drafted to be printed and circulated , asking for people to respond with their views. The letter referred again to William Penn, drawing parallels between his 1693 Essay towards the present and future peace of Europe and recent statements in favour of the League of Nations by Viscount Grey, the former Foreign Secretary.
By the time the new Friends League of Nations Committee met again on 4 September 1918, they reported that they had so far received 2092 assents and 112 dissents to their letter.
The Committee’s activities increased. They held a meeting of supporters at Devonshire House on 1 November 1918, and sent a minute to Meeting for Sufferings, recommending “drastic control” of the production of armaments, and “a solemn international compact to employ such material solely under the sanction of the League of Nations for the maintenance of international peace based upon Right, Justice and Liberty, and for the protection of peoples threatened with injustice and oppression…”.
The Friend reported on a further conference at Devonshire House on 21 November, called by the Peace Committee of Meeting for Sufferings. At the conference the discussions continued, with speakers like Carl Heath again questioning whether Quakers should actively support a League of Nations if the purpose was not disarmament, while J. Bevan Braithwaite continued to argue that, “As long as evil was in the world, force must be employed to repress it, if necessary, otherwise anarchy would prevail.”
The Friends League of Nations Committee became the Friends League of Nations Association in 1919 and continued to operate until 1921, when it was decided that it was no longer needed as a separate body, following the decision of Meeting for Sufferings in February that year to establish a League of Nations Watching Committee.
The Library holds the minutes of the Friends League of Nations Association and the Propaganda Committee, and of the League of Nations Watching Committee (1921-1925).