On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the Women Social & Political Union immediately began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.
Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task." Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."
Sylvia Pankhurst was distraught by this decision and she joined forces with Henry Harben and George Lansbury established the League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives. Pankhurst later recorded: "When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances."
Looking back, I can date the change from a meal which I had with Mr. H. D. Harben in the autumn of 1914 and the homily which it provoked. H. D. Harben was a Socialist; he was rich, he was a gentleman, and he had a large place in the country. He was also an ardent suffragist. Suffragettes, let out of prison under the "Cat and Mouse Act", used to go to Newlands to recuperate, before returning to prison for a fresh bout of torture. When the county called, as the county still did, it was embarrassed to find haggard-looking young women in dressing-gowns and djibbahs reclining on sofas in the Newlands drawing-room talking unashamedly about their prison experiences. This social clash of county and criminals at Newlands was an early example of the mixing of different social strata which the war was soon to make a familiar event in national life. At that time it was considered startling enough, and it required all the tact of Harben and his socially very competent wife to oil the wheels of tea-table intercourse, and to fill the embarrassed pauses which punctuated any attempt at conversation.
When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.