The ‘Great War’ was finally over. When it had begun in August 1914, the British government predicted that it would be won by Christmas, but it had dragged on for four more years, with dreadful suffering and loss of life. In 1916, Britain began conscripting its men to fight.
Now that the fighting was done, the soldiers expected to go home to their civilian lives. Lloyd George had induced then to vote for him by pledging rapid demobilisation.
But the army needed troops to defend Britain’s imperial possessions; and the war was not officially over yet. Lloyd George back-pedalled on his promises, and his Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, vigorously resisted demobilisation, always keen for the next chance to go to war.
The government knew that demobbed soldiers would return to poverty and unemployment, and feared that they would rebel. It raised the spectre of the ‘masterless men’ who returned from the Napoleonic wars. So the government made the soldiers stay in the army, allowing only a trickle of demobilisation.
But its fears of rebellion came true anyway, as soldiers refused to accept this situation. Just three days into the new year, soldiers stationed at Folkestone in Kent took decisive action, as described in socialist newspaper The Herald:
After the official reveille had been sounded at Folkestone on January 3 there was no parade, for the sufficient reason that no-one turned up. But on their own signal – three taps of a drum – two thousand men, unarmed and in perfect order, demonstrated the fact that they were ‘fed-up’ – ab-so-lutely ‘fed-up’. Their plan of action had been agreed upon the night before: no military boat should be allowed to leave Folkestone for France that day or any day until they were guaranteed their freedom.
It was sheer, flat, brazen, open, and successful mutiny. They knew it, and they did it.
Within days, soldiers at Dover, Shoreham, Shortlands and other ports followed suit. On 8 January, delegates from the soldiers’ rebellions arrived in London to press their case to Lloyd George. Two days previously, the Prime Minister had been visited by men form the Army Service Corps in Isleworth, west London, who had commandeered army vehicles and driven them to Downing Street.
The soldiers’ actions enjoyed wide support from a public which knew the justice of their cause and included their friends and families. Lloyd George made a desperate appeal for calm and allowed some concessions and some demobilisation.
Anxiety to return home was not the only reason why soldiers were refusing to fight. Their commanders were trying to send them into battle against Russia, and they did not want to attack the Bolshevik-led workers’ state. At British bases in France, including Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Etaples, soldiers refused to go to the Russian front. As The Herald reported, ‘Everywhere the feeling is the same: ‘The war is over, we won’t fight in Russia, and we mean to go home.’ The temper is solidifying itself.’
Up to twenty thousand men formed and joined the Calais Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Association, and received welcome support from French railway workers, who refused to transport British troops to military engagements. On 13 January, sailors hoisted the red flag during a mutiny on HMS Kilbride at Milford Haven in Wales.
Even soldiers already at war pulled themselves out of the fighting. In February, two Yorkshire regiment sergeants refused orders to lead their men to attack the Russian town of Seletskoe. A court martial sentenced them to death, but fearing a backlash, the authorities allowed them to serve time in prison instead.
Further rebellions took place in March. At Kinmel camp in wales, fifteen thousand Canadian soldiers refused to follow orders, elected delegates and began looting shops around their camp, shouting ‘Come on the Bolsheviks!’ and carrying red flags improvised from curtains and billiard cues. When they attacked the officers’ quarters, fighting started, including with guns and bayonets, killing five men and injuring twenty.
Disturbances hit London when a crowd of three hundred protested at the arrest of three US servicemen for playing dice in the street. When two more were arrested for protesting, the crowd attacked Bow Street police station in what became known as the ‘Strand riot’.
In May, reservists recalled to the army rioted n Aldershot, and in June four hundred soldiers attacked Epsom police station after one of their number was arrested while drunk: a police sergeant was killed in the fighting.
From the start of the year, the British government knew that it could not rely on soldiers to follow orders without question, especially against their own communities. So when it wanted to crush a powerful strike in Glasgow, it sent in troops from outside.
To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.