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Armistice 1918. ‘If thine enemy hunger’

09 November 2018

Dorothy Buxton held up a tin of condensed milk and said: This is religion. Her story is told by Petà Dunstan


Dorothy Buxton

Dorothy Buxton

WHEN the guns finally fell silent on 11 November 1918, the day of the Armistice that ended the hostilities of the First World War, the reaction was celebration and relief. But joy was hardly a sustainable emotion to so many who had lost so much.

About a million people from Britain and its Empire had died. Thousands upon thousands more soldiers returned home with serious injuries. Many had lasting and unsettling mental-health issues. Economic conditions in 1918-19 were very tough, too, and affected almost all families in some way.

The joy of that November day therefore soon drained away, leaving only sadness and bereavement, which then turned to anger and cries of revenge. The coalition government took full political advantage, and called an election which they won with inflammatory slogans such as “Make the Germans pay” and “Hang the Kaiser”.

The wave of anti-German emotion was hard to counter, but some people did brave the prevailing mood. They advocated thought and concern for the millions of people who were now starving in former enemy countries — people who, they argued, were not responsible for the past decisions of their governments.

The lack of food in Europe was a direct consequence of the Allies’ policies. The blockade of continental Europe during the war had been very successful, and was one of the reasons that the resistance of Germany and its allies had collapsed so dramatically in late 1918. Furthermore, lifting the blockade was a potent weapon for the victors now that military hostilities had ceased. It would not be lifted until the defeated nations signed a peace treaty that would include paying reparations for war damage.

Some found this blackmailing approach so outrageous and inhuman that they were emboldened to challenge the public mood.


DOROTHY BUXTON was prominent among those who protested. She had run an information service from the summer of 1915, publishing translations of articles from newspapers in enemy and neutral countries. These “Notes from the Foreign Press” had been invaluable in informing many in influential positions and countering the crude propaganda produced by much of the British press.

From the winter of 1916-17, she had received information about the growing food shortages in Germany and Austria, and was keenly aware that, by late 1918, scarcity had turned to famine. A group called the Fight the Famine Council (FFC), chaired by Lord Parmoor, was created on 1 January 1919. Although there were other participants in the campaign, it was Dorothy who provided the facts and figures to make the case for lifting the blockade. Inevitably, such a call was seen as a political struggle.

To Dorothy, however, this was not about politics but about humanitarian need. She could not wait for success in a political campaign — she needed food sent to the starving immediately. Even a few months of delay could mean thousands of preventable deaths, especially among the most vulnerable: the children.

She went on a fact-finding trip in March and April 1919 with a large donation from the Quakers, as well as her own funds, to provide food and medicine. On her return, she created a separate committee from the FFC, to be called Save the Children. It would raise funds to provide milk and other essentials to the deprived children of Europe. It was registered as a separate charity, and launched at a large gathering at the Royal Albert Hall on 19 May 1919.

SAVE THE CHILDRENCrowds queuing to hear Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton talking at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 May 1919

Dorothy famously held up a tin of condensed milk when speaking from the platform, and said that, at that moment, it represented morality and religion. She was greeted with thunderous applause that symbolised a change of emotion among the audience from the bitter post-war attitude.

Operating as an honorary secretary, she continued to collect information via a voluminous correspondence, while also appealing for funds. Many had ridiculed her idea initially, some even sending her letters condemning her concern for Germans.


THE tide of opinion had turned, however, and, to Dorothy’s astonishment, the funds that began to arrive were huge. The Miners’ Union sent £20,000: £2 million in today’s terms. Some individual donors sent as much as £10,000. It was an awe-inspiring response and showed that the British public were far more generous and forgiving than the immediate post-war had indicated.

She was over-burdened by this huge response, and her sister, Eglantyne Jebb, took over the honorary secretaryship in September 1919. Dorothy concentrated on the research, while her sister became the public face of the effort. Eglantyne was more persuasive than Dorothy: the latter tended to be blunt and challenging. That was a consequence of her being a shy person by nature and less confident in public than her big sister.

The two founded an international office for the charity in Geneva, the home of the new League of Nations, early in 1920. Eglantyne was unwell; so Dorothy chaired the conference that launched Save the Children on a European footing. Thereafter, she played less of a part, concentrating more on politics, and leaving Eglantyne as the charity’s leader.

When Eglantyne died, in her fifties, in 1928, Dorothy insisted that her sister be called the “founder” and her own part be played down. Only now, as we approach the centenary of the charity, has the opportunity come to restore Dorothy’s place as the initiator and instigator of one of the best known of British charity foundations, with a biography.


YET, in doing so, two questions arise. First, where did a shy woman find the confidence and courage to speak out in an era when it was difficult for women’s voices to be heard? Much of those qualities come from her upbringing and education.

Born in Shropshire into a local gentry family (the Jebbs), Dorothy was educated at home. Her mother instilled in all her four daughters that they must have a purpose in life and try to make a contribution. She taught them drawing, besides encouraging their intellectual curiosity.

Their Aunt Louisa, who lived with them and ran the family estate, taught the girls to be independent and practical. They learned much, from gardening to fishing to kayaking, using bows and arrows, carving in wood, and making things in metal — all to encourage confidence as well as skills. Above all, Aunt Louisa instilled in Dorothy that she should be unafraid, as a woman, to make a public contribution, and should push herself to speak out.

This courage was bolstered by religious convictions. While studying at Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1901 to 1904, Dorothy was leaning to atheism, but the examples of Eglantyne and of Charles Roden Buxton, who became her husband in 1904, convinced her that a Christian faith provided a sense of the goodness of humanity and the need for justice in society for the poor.

To say that Dorothy now “believed in God”, however, is not to denote that she adhered to a prescribed set of dogma or particular religious practices. She joined the Quakers in 1918 because they did not prescribe what she had to believe, and they also shared her pacifism. What she believed about God changed over the years, and was not orthodox by any means. Nevertheless, her faith commitment was a significant motivation in her campaigns.

Another question is: “Why has she been forgotten?” She was left-wing in her politics, which made some wary. She was enthusiastic about the 1917 Russian revolution and its attempt to forge a new classless society. Indeed, she eventually wrote a book, The Challenge of Bolshevism, published in 1928, which criticised the failure of Western European nations to tackle the inequalities that had caused the revolution.

She rejected the Communists’ use of violence, and, in the end, turned against them after Stalin took charge. Yet, it was too late: the taint of being pro-Communist clung to her name.

The main reason that she was not popular, however, was because she was judged to be pro-German. She believed steadfastly that the German people were not the same as the German government. She opposed the Kaiser and then, later, the Nazis — but they were not, for her, the ordinary Germans.

Others could not see this distinction in the bitterness and grief that underlay the relief of 11 November 1918. In the period that followed, she was perceived as speaking up for the “enemy”. Dorothy was able, with others, to turn around public sentiment about German children, but she could not shake off suspicion about her loyalties. In the end, people accepted her arguments but could not quite accept her.

In the next decades, Dorothy also worked for refugees and those she felt were lacking a voice. All she did deserves to be remembered and celebrated.


Dr Petà Dunstan is a Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Campaigning for Life: A biography of Dorothy Buxton by Petà Dunstan is published by Lutterworth Press this month at £22.50.

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