Easter Marches – Blog

To mark Easter this year, our placement Emilia Bazydlo from University of Leeds is taking us back in time to explore the Ban the Bomb marches of Easter 1960. 

On the Easter Weekend of 1960, at least 60,000 people gathered on Trafalgar Square to mark the end of the Aldermaston ‘Ban the Bomb’ march. This was the third Aldermaston March. After the success of the first one, from London to Aldermaston, the march became an annual event. The protest was focused on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Berkshire. In the following years the march reversed direction to bring people’s voice to the centre of power, but the protesters demanded the same: renunciation of the British bomb, an end to testing, manufacturing and the threat to use it. 

The first march was also Britain’s first expression of mass protest after World War II. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused a fear of nuclear war which gripped Europe. “People marched then because they were frightened of nuclear weapons. They were also worried about the fall-out from nuclear tests,” said Pat Arrowsmith, co-founder of CND and organiser of the march. “Why we are marching to Aldermaston now is because we believe there are schemes to create a new generation of nuclear weapons.”

The threat nuclear weapons pose, was seen not only as matter of safety, but also as a violation of democracy. Labour MP Michael Foot said during the march in 1960 that ‘nuclear weapons threatened the very existence of democracies around the globe because decisions were gradually being removed from elected bodies to military advisers.’ And ‘the Aldermaston march was a democratic protest against “military dictatorship”.’ The global interest in banning the atomic bomb was well represented by the groups of protesters from all over the world; Pakistan, Sweden, India, Cyprus, Iraq, Malta, South Africa, France, Ghana and Nigeria. The march united multiple religious groups. Slogans of the banners carried showed that the marchers came from all backgrounds and towns around the country. People united in one purpose and this is well reflected by the atmosphere of the marches: happy and peaceful, with very few disturbances in site of huge crowds. 

A significant part of the march was music. The first march was supposed to be silent in defence of Easter. However, ‘somewhere in Knightsbridge this proved too much for a gay band of young people from Bermondsey, the boys in bowlers and camouflaged jackets and jeans, the girls in pony-tails and high heels and men’s bright shirts hanging over their skirts. They struck up “Tannenbaum” on a handy trumpet and banjo.’ The generation had something important to say: that’s why they started marching. And at the same time the British protest song was born. Aldermaston marches needed their theme song. John Burner’s people ‘ ‘The H-Bomb’s Thunder’ (‘Men and women, stand together/Do not heed the men of war/Make your minds now or never/Ban the bomb for evermore’) was fitted to the tune of ‘’The Miner’s Lifeguard’, a song from mining disputes in the early 1900s and it became Aldermaston’s anthem.  The mass protest inspired young musicians to write campaigning songs against the bomb, such as Matt McGinn’s “On the Road to Aldermaston”. Britain’s first folk music magazine Song journalist, Eric Winter, summarises: ‘The hydrogen bomb may be able to destroy singers but cannot destroy songs – songs are stronger than the hydrogen bomb… we believe that song has a powerful role to play in the struggle of the British people for peace and socialism.’  Music was crucial in gaining support for the cause and the songs keep up spirit of the marchers. 

The marches became less spectacular and gradually fell from public eye after the signing of the International Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Nonetheless, many people and organisations continue raising awareness of the danger nuclear weapons pose. What is worth remembering, is the strength and positive attitude of people who took part in the Easter Marches. 

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