The woman who made strides for peace

by
12 September 2014

Against the tide of opinion, Emily Hobhouse stepped into the Boer War, and then the First World War, to protect civilian victims. Janet Traill tells her story

WAR MUSEUM BLOEMFONTEIN

Top-level talks: Emily Hobhouse

Top-level talks: Emily Hobhouse

WHEN war broke out on 4 August 1914, a fever of jingoism swept the country, and young men rushed to enlist.

There were, however, some who felt great apprehension and sadness at the turn of events. One of these was Emily Hobhouse, who had already seen at first hand the devastating effects of war on a civilian population.

She was born in Cornwall, in 1860, to the Revd Reginald Hobhouse and his wife, Caroline. In later years, she said that the self-discipline and sense of duty impressed on her by her father prepared her for her future work.

Her aunt and uncle, Mary and Arthur Hobhouse, were also a great influence on her. He was a Liberal MP, and later a Privy Councillor, and she absorbed many of their ideals.

When Hobhouse was 20 years of age, her mother died, leaving her to look after her ailing father for the next 14 years. After his death, she went to stay with her brother in Oxford, and enjoyed the academic atmosphere. Later, she moved to London, where she became friends with the prominent Liberals Kate and Leonard Courtney.

When war with the Boer Republics was declared in 1899, the Courtneys formed the South African Conciliation Committee to try and restore peace by negotiation. Hobhouse entered wholeheartedly into this, and took an active part.

The guerrilla tactics of the Boer commandos, mostly made up of farmers, resulted in three early and devastating British defeats. A policy of farm burning was instigated to curtail aid to the commandos, and the occupants, mostly women and children, were de-ported to tented concentration camps.

Hobhouse was appalled. Haunted by a vision of homeless women and children, and in the face of great opposition, she started a distress fund that had the support of many influential people.

 

EVENTUALLY, Hobhouse arrived in the Cape, and obtained permission to go north to the Bloemfontein camp, taking with her food and clothing bought with donated funds.

She found conditions harsh, and supplies lacking. Illness was rife - there were insufficient nurses, and the army doctors had little experience of women and children. The death rate was high.

Hobhouse determined that something drastic must be done. Ever practical, she had some immediate recommendations: a matron for each camp; more water and soap; more nurses; and schooling for the children.

After visiting a number of other camps, she returned to England to make people aware of what was happening. She set out on a speaking tour of the country, often experiencing violent heckling and being labelled pro-Boer. Meanwhile, the Distress Fund committee published a report, using extracts from Hobhouse's letters.

Although the Government derided her descriptions, a growing tide of public opinion forced it to act. In July 1901, it announced that a ladies' commission was being sent to report on the camps. Hobhouse was saddened not to be included.

Many of the commission's recommendations were similar to hers, and, with government approval, they were put into prac-tice. The chronic death-rate, particularly among children, began to decrease.

Peace came in 1902. The following year, Hobhouse returned to South Africa, and found the landscape in the north bare and desolate. She organised ploughing teams for many districts, and later started a successful scheme to teach spinning and weaving.

In 1913, a monument was erected to the 26,000 women and children who died in the war, and Hobhouse was invited to Bloemfontein to unveil it. Unfortunately, she could not attend because of illness, and her speech was read to the 20,000 people present.

In it, she begged everyone to forgive their enemies; "for love is more beautiful than hate, and hatred, like rust, eats into the soulof a nation and an individual," she wrote. Talking of her own part in the Boer War, she wrote: "I came, quite simply, in obedience to the solidarity of your womanhood, and those nobler traditions of English life in which I was nurtured, and which, by long inheritance, are mine."

 

IN 1914, war was declared again, and Hobhouse was determined to do all she could to bring it to a speedy end. In October, she addressed an open letter to "Women Throughout Europe", saying that a higher power was needed to bring about peace - the spiritual force of Christianity.

In 1915, when she was Secretary for the Women's International Bureau, she said that women wanted to get rid of the idea that one side in the conflict was completely right, and one wrong. Since both were a mixture, it seemed obvious that they should meet and settle their differences amicably,and it was worse than foolish to shed another drop of blood.

Ever a woman of action, she decided to go to Germany, primarily to see the effects of the reduced food-supply on women and children, and to visit British civilians in a camp near Berlin. She also wanted to see the conditions in German-occupied Belgium.

With permission from a German government minister whom she met in Switzerland, she went to Belgium. She found that conditions were generally not as bad as they had been portrayed in Britain, but, because she was not supposed to talk to any Belgians, she had difficulty in ascertaining the true picture.

Then news came that she could go to Berlin, where she met the Foreign Minister, Gottlieb von Jagow. She felt that he would be willing to negotiate terms for peace.

Hobhouse visited the civilian camp, and, although she felt that no camps were good, she found that this one was better than those in South Africa. Nevertheless, she promised to try and obtain the release of the inmates when she returned to England.

 

BACK home, she met Lord Newton at the Foreign Office, and told him about her visit. He advised her to write to von Jagow to try and arrange an exchange of civilian prisoners. She did, and eventually this was organised.

She also met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, whom she found kindly and well-meaning: he wanted to do his duty, but lacked a powerful presence. She told him of her interview with von Jagow, and of his general attitude of moderation, and begged him to take the lead in bringing about negotiations.

Later, she wrote to him saying that she had met people in various European countries who all hadthe same objective: they were seeking a light to lighten their darkness, and there was only one light, the eternal love, which encompasses all nations.

"I am jealous of our country that she should be the exponent of this love," she wrote; "that she should initiate a great moral and spiritual act such as would make her blessed amongst nations. Without this, it seems to me that this righteousness is in rags.

"My hope in telling you what I did was just this: that the knowledge that our Opponent would support and forward such effort would give irresistible power, and multitudes at home and abroad would rise up and call you blessed."

But, despite all Hobhouse's efforts, the fighting continued until November 1918. The terms of the peace treaty included clauses that prohibited the Germans from fishing in the North Sea, and the requirement to give up 140,000 milk cows.

Both of these issues outraged her. She telegraphed every influential person she knew, asking that the Germans should be allowed to keep their cows for the sake of the children. Meanwhile, she discovered that starving children from Vienna could be taken to Switzerland to recover, and she started raising money for this.

There was fighting still in Russia, and Hobhouse was hugely concerned for the children, especially during the bitter winter. She started the Babies of Petrograd Fund, to send essential supplies, and even sold her house to help the work. Both of these funds were incorporated into the new Save the Children Fund.

 

WHEN she heard of appalling conditions in Leipzig, she set off to visit the city. Finding that the reports were correct, she obtained pledges from prominent people to start a food scheme, which eventually fed 11,000 children.

Although Hobhouse longedto return to South Africa, she suffered much ill health over the following years, and died on 8 June 1926. As she had wished, her ashes were sent to South Africa, where they were interred at the base ofthe Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein. It was a momentous occasion, and many dignitaries were present.

Hobhouse had led her life according to her firm belief that she should love her enemies. It would have pleased her greatly that, in his speech, Jan Smuts, the statesman and one-time Boer general, acknowledged this.

"We stood alone in the world, almost friendless against the mightiest Empire on earth," he said. "And then one small hand, thehand of a woman, was stretchedout to us. At that darkest hour, when our race almost seemed doomed to extinction, she appeared as an angel. . . Strangest of all, she was an Englishwoman . . . the great symbol of reconciliation between closely kin people who should never have been enemies."

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