Yours Fraternally: Contesting International Trade Union Solidarity 1914-1919

On 21st July 2021 I gave a paper as part of the Distant Communications conference about the problematic nature of friendship between trade union leaders during the first world war. This blog post is a short version of that paper, and focuses on the narrative of why and how internationalism and solidarity was contested and ruptured by the need to show patriotic allegiance over fraternal kinship.


Trade unions are a space for finding like-minded people that want to improve conditions for workers and families, and who will work together for a common cause. They are also a space for the type of explosive arguments that could rival any episode of Love Island.* This was no less true for the General Federation of Trade Unions in their early years, even though, as a federation rather than a union, they operated slightly differently. They were created by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1899 to act as arbitrators and as administrators of a national strike fund. Trade unions could affiliate to them (in addition to the TUC), in order to have access to advice on running their union, arbitrators to step in and mediate to avoid or navigate strikes, and a strike fund for their members to draw on if they needed it. They got off to a slow start, but eventually reached a peak affiliation of 1.5 million workers in 1921.

A snapshot of some trade unions, federations, friendly societies and amalgamations that were on the GFTU’s books in 1914. Source: ‘GFTU Annual Report 1914’ Bishopsgate.org,uk, reference: GFTU/1/14

When we talk about trade unions, we often talk about the culture of social cohesion within them; these are people bound by shared common experiences of particular trades, geography or class. In my thesis I talk about trade unions as emotional communities, having taken inspiration from Barbara Rosenwein‘s framework, as a way of exploring the feelings that bound people together (or indeed, the forced them apart). This was harder for a federation like the GFTU, because they were a group of representatives of disparate trades, from all corners of Britain and Ireland, and with wildly different experiences of organisation, poverty and politics. In 1914 for example, affiliates of the GFTU ranged from unions such as the Amalgamated Weavers’ Association, based mainly in the North West of England with nearly 200,000 members, many of whom were women, or the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, that had branches all across the country, with 115,000 members. On the other end of the scale, there were 31 members of the Friendly Society of Wireworkers in Manchester, and 153 members of the Amalgamated Society of Cricket Ball Makers in Tonbridge, that chose to affiliate to the GFTU. Some unions represented highly skilled, specialised trades, such as the Pressed Glass Makers in Gateshead, or (my personal favourite) the London-based Fancy Leather Workers’ Society. Others represented general labourers, such as the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union.

With this great variety, came great tension. How do you represent all these different trades – again in 1914, there were 154 affiliated unions – when they all wanted different things? The best and most effective option was to elect a management committee to represent the whole Federation. In theory, they elected 15 delegates to the management committee each year, with a general secretary being the person in charge. In practice, the same people were often re-elected year on year, with the larger unions and kindred trades holding more sway than the smaller unions. The role of friendship networks was therefore integral in the management of trade union organisations, with like-minded people often working together to effect changes to working conditions, to lobby parliament, or to campaign for each other at rallies.

So what happens when they fall out? Some examples – like Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and devout catholic, refusing to speak on the same platform as Ernest Marklew, an SDF member that espoused a very unconventional appreciation for free love – are a little more obvious than others. There can be a tangled web of obtuse phrasing in newspaper articles, with vague assertions of ‘personal jealousies’ that are so tantalising for historians trying to figure out why certain people no longer wanted to work together. I wrote a little about the personal animosities that may have precipitated the GFTU’s expulsion from the Joint Board for the SSLH here.

But the example of a dramatic friendship break up I want to tell you about has a very obvious cause; war does tend to tear people away from each other.


William Appleton, born in 1860, was a lacemaker in his native Nottingham before he became a trade union official. He worked his way up to be the general secretary of the Nottingham Lacemakers’ Society, and was then elected to the general secretaryship of the GFTU in 1907. He held that post until he was 78 years old in 1938. When he took over, the GFTU were already established as the voice of British trade unionism on the international stage, and were a hub of information for trade union activity all over the world. Their annual reports included biographies of foreign leaders, statistics of trade union memberships, and evaluations of political advances for the working class. The GFTU were active members of the International Conferences of the Secretaries of National Trade Union centres, which became the International Federation of Trade Unions; friendship between foreign leaders was the glue that held this together. Much of this foundational work towards establishing their international links was done by Isaac Mitchell, the first general secretary, and Pete Curran, the first chairman.

William Appleton (1860-1940)

In establishing the GFTU as the spokespeople for British trade unionists, they worked closely alongside Carl Legien, the German equivalent of Appleton. Legien had been a wood turner before his trade union career, which meant that both he and Appleton had an appreciation for craft unionism that focused on skills preservation and community-based welfare. They both tended to focus on the importance of conciliation over strikes, and came under fire from their more socialist-minded colleagues for readily considering the needs and wants of employers as well as workers (particularly so in Appleton’s case). Every GFTU report since 1901 held at least a mention of German trade unionism, if not a full report, and there were frequent fraternal visits between Britain and Germany. On a personal level, the correspondence between international leaders was also often reported, with emphatic appreciation and admiration being placed alongside statistics and reports as a way of centralising the personal friendships within their professional activities. Even brotherly love was expressed for their foreign counterparts.

Carl Legien (1861-1921)

Their closeness was also reflected in financial solidarity. There were frequent calls to support victimised workers from all over the world, and the GFTU responded by issuing calls for levies whenever they could. During the British Transport Workers’ strike in 1912, the IFTU (through Legien) raised £128,000 in support of the workers. Therefore these international connections of friendship had very material consequences for both the rank and file and the personal connections between labour leaders.

But then, of course, came the outbreak of war in 1914.

Most British public figures on the left immediately supported the government at the outbreak of war. There were some notable exceptions, particularly those from the Independent Labour Party, but most decided that patriotic solidarity rather than international allegiances had to be prioritised. The GFTU, under Appleton’s leadership, took on the patriotic mantle with gusto. They were the first trade union organisation to publish a manifesto once war had been declared, and in it they outlined the moral imperative for the working class of Britain to show ‘a real love of [their] country’ by fighting against the ‘outrages on women and children, and the massacres and burnings which have desolated both Belgium and Northern France.’ Appleton confidently quoted the bellicose writings of German militarist authors as evidence of ‘the considered conclusions of the dominant section of [German] countrymen’. This was quite a sweeping generalisation to make, and one that effectively demonised a large proportion of the German population, engendering an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ feeling and mentality. How would the friendship between Appleton and Legien fare? Their letters during the conflict reveal the effect of war on their public and personal friendship.

Sent on the 27th August 1914, a mere twenty-three days after Britain declared war on Germany, the first letter from Legien to Appleton began by lamenting ‘the frightful declaration of war’. After refuting the British press reports of unsavoury conduct by the German government, Legien attempted to reassure Appleton that foreigners in Germany have been ‘treated in the most friendly manner, and [were] well cared for.’Appleton’s reply expressed his ‘profound regret [at] the disastrous effect of the war upon our international relationships’. Blaming the conflict on the ‘arrogance’ of the few, Appleton expressed the hope that once it was finished ‘common people in every land’ would aim for ‘general well-being and happiness’ instead of war, which indicated his commonly shared feeling that the war, though awful, would at least be short-lived. On the matter of how Germans were being treated in Britain, Appleton derided the ‘foolish ones [that] have had to suffer imprisonment or fines’ because they failed to register as aliens, and added that ‘some Germans were in a state of serious destitution, and these were arrested more as a matter of kindness than as a matter of hostility’. By labeling arrests as kindness, particularly as Appleton had not seen the conduct of the arresting officers first hand, he was staking out a level of superiority that he bolstered with a veiled accusation of hostility, in that the Germans were ‘better off than the thousands of Belgian refugees who are seeking the charity and hospitality of London’ after fleeing German aggression. Nevertheless, Appleton ended his letter expressing the ‘hope that it will be possible to resume our joint efforts to secure real liberty, equality and fraternity’. Legien wrote again in December, ‘hoping that [they] may soon again be able to speak of “peace on earth”’ and requesting Appleton’s help in sending German literature to German trade unionist prisoners of war held at Frimley.

From Legien to Appleton, December 1914

Despite the simmering tensions in the letters, there was an administrative problem to contend with. As a tireless worker for the international cause, Legien had been the head of the IFTU and the base had been Berlin. This was now unpalatable to Appleton, and his American equivalent, Samuel Gompers. Appleton wrote to Gompers, saying that although there was ‘very little bitterness or anti-German feeling’ on behalf of the GFTU management committee, there had been adverse ‘opinions expressed that [he] had to combat’ in other quarters of the labour movement. By this point, it was well known that Appleton, alongside management committee members Ben Tillett and John Ward, was among the most overtly patriotic members of the left. Without a doubt, they were the ones expressing those very opinions. Appleton began lobbying for the International Secretariat to be moved to a neutral country, and he asked Gompers to raise this directly with Legien on behalf of the international members. Appleton told Gompers that he was ‘afraid [the war] is going to alter and affect rather seriously the international trade union movement’ because he felt it was now impossible to stop the British people from becoming as ‘bitter as the Belgians and the French’. Appleton expressed ‘the burden of responsibility’ in arranging the transfer of the IFTU secretariat away from Legien, and that he was still ‘most anxious to act without prejudice or ill-feeling’.

Responding to an earlier letter from Appleton, Legien wrote in April 1915 with a detailed account of how well British prisoners of war were being treated in their camps. Legien wanted to give Appleton ‘a description of what he saw and felt at the camp’, specifically to ‘re-establish and even strengthen the trade union bonds again’, which indicated Legien’s very clear desire for the international relationship to continue. Interestingly, Legien also mentioned agreeing with an article in the Federationist, the GFTU’s monthly newspaper, which stresses the connection that Legien still had with trade unionists in Britain; he was making it clear that he still wanted international solidarity to continue, and that he was not an outsider just yet.

Appleton’s response was considerably cooler in tone. Appleton warned:

‘Any efforts [of renewing international friendship] will be rendered more difficult by the methods of warfare adopted. The torpedoing and sinking of the “Falaba”, the drowning of unwarned, unarmed, undefended, and helpless non-combatants, and the useless and senseless firing upon would-be rescuers is begetting a hardness of heart that certainly did not exist previously. In addition to this, there is in circulation amongst the medical profession a number of photographs alleged, upon what is regarded as unimpeachable authority, to have been taken on the actual battlefields in Belgium. These photographs are of Britishers who, having fallen wounded, were brutally mutilated. Amongst the cases there are pictures of disembowelled men, and men whose faces have been hacked and whose brains have been smashed out.

By using such emotive descriptions of the visceral nature of war, Appleton was drawing a clear line between the two friends. Blame for the atrocities was not laid directly at Legien’s feet, but Appleton’s assurance that he would remain ‘uninfluenced by these stories’ is undermined by his use of them in this letter. Indeed, he admitted further on that his feelings were influenced by them, in that they had ‘filled [him] with sadness, because [he] cannot hope that we shall, much longer, be able to keep out of our people’s minds the idea of vengeance which attempts to find expression in reprisals’.


Two days later, on the 23rd April 1915, the friendship between Legien and Appleton was over. Legien had discovered that, unbeknownst to him, Appleton had published Legien’s letters in the Federationist. Appleton’s association with Legien, a high-profile German member of parliament and trade unionist, was something that Appleton felt he needed to distance himself from, and he did so by publishing his correspondence in a bid to ‘prove’ that his patriotic feelings regarding the war had superseded his feelings of international solidarity and friendship.

The Federationist. Source: British Library

Legien’s response was to attempt to convene a conference between all leaders regarding the issue of moving the IFTU secretariat to a neutral country so that the decision was democratic rather than simply at the behest of the British, French and American representatives only. His letter ended with a barb. ‘It need scarcely be pointed out to the officers of the affiliated National Centres’, he wrote, ‘that in view of the conditions under which the conference is to meet, this publication should not be made public’ His annoyance was palpable. By going ahead and publishing Legien’s request to not publish the letters, Appleton showed a clear disregard for Legien’s wishes and feelings.

This chain of correspondance, as well as appearing in their newspaper, also appeared in the 1916 GFTU annual report. The correspondance chain between Legien was this time punctuated with Appleton’s letters to and from Gompers, and other international leaders, to show that he had moved to request the transfer of the International Secretariat office very early on in the conflict. This web of communication, with its contrasting descriptions of anti-German sentiments, but remaining feelings of friendship, indicate the complexity of navigating public camaraderie during conflicts. There followed a clamouring flurry of letters, with different leaders attempting to convene conferences with different aims: some wanted trade unionists to set aside political differences and meet to discuss industrial matters; some wanted to meet only to exert pressure on the German representatives to declare support for the Allies; others, including Britain, refused to meet with any ‘belligerent’ nations under any circumstances whatsoever.


The friendship between all these leaders – from Britain, France, America, Germany, Austria, Sweden etc – had crumbled into factions within the first year of the war. Perhaps this is not surprising, but when taken against the backdrop of the very clear bonds that existed before 1914, it does illustrate the fragility of trade union international solidarity. These organisations, separate from the socialist organisations which are a whole other web of complex allegiances, attempted to be based solely on matters of industrial questions. Their reports dabbled in politics and social reforms, but they mainly stayed on course with matters of workplace arbitration and representation. War put an end to that, with these leaders unable to stay in their industrial lanes whilst also representing their people that gave their lives to the war effort. The GFTU, through Appleton’s leadership, became synonymous with conservative unionism, patriotic support of the government, and wartime jingoism.

Patriotism came first, and international fraternity lost. However, it was the public display of correspondence, and a disregard for the privacy requested from one former friend to another, that acted as the catalyst. Eventually Appleton became the new International Secretariat, but by then the GFTU’s position in the labour movement had irreversibly changed and they found themselves lacking their former levels of influence. The TUC took a renewed interest in international matters, and the GFTU’s important and foundational work in establishing international trade union links was largely forgotten.


Most of the GFTU’s records are digitised at the Bishopsgate Institute.

*Well…perhaps. I’ve never watched Love Island.

Published by Edda Nicolson

I am a PhD Researcher in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wolverhampton. My thesis is on the early history of the General Federation of Trade Unions 1899-1926, and I’m focusing on the emotions used to construct their organisational culture.

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