The Southampton mutiny, 1919 - Dave Lamb


A history of the militant rebellion of British troops in Southampton following the end of the First World War. Amidst the widespread dissatisfaction, the men were highly reluctant to return to Europe after the end of the conflict.

Submitted by Steven. on September 9, 2006

Following the massacre of World War I, a
reminder of the strength of ordinary soldiers came from Southampton, in the
middle of January 1919, when 20,000 soldiers went on strike and took over
the docks. Robertson, Commander in Chief of the Home Forces, sent General
Trenchard to restore military authority. Trenchard had witnessed several mutinies
in the French Army and was quite prepared to employ the most ruthless measures.
Nevertheless he underestimated the men as he approached the dockgate and attempted
to address a reluctant audience. A chorus of boos and catcalls accompanied
his remarks. The meeting came to an undignified end when a group of men took
hold of him and gave him a going over before ejecting him. Said Trenchard:

"It was most unpleasant.. . It was the only time
in my life I'd been really hustled. They said they did not want to listen
to me. They told me to get out and stay out."

Smarting from his minor injuries and major wounds to his
pride, Trenchard acted with the vengeful cunning which had preserved his military
caste for generations. Indifferent to the grievances of the soldiers - many
of whom had seen active service - he saw only a mutinous rabble to be put
down by force. Fully aware that the mutineers were not armed he phoned a request
to the garrison commander at Portsmouth for 250 armed men plus an escort of
Military Police. In spite of fierce objections from Southern Command, Trenchard
made it perfectly clear that if necessary he would initiate a blood-bath.

The following morning Trenchard returned to the quayside
and waited for the troop train from Portsmouth. Only when the unarmed mutineers
had been surrounded by armed troops with their safety bolts in firing position
did Trenchard make a second attempt to address the troops. And even then he
was told to 'drop dead' by a sergeant, who was promptly arrested. Following
this incident the mutiny collapsed. 170 soldiers were personally selected
as ringleaders by Trenchard, fifty three of whom were confined in a nearby

The docks were now quiet but a few score soldiers had
barricaded themselves in their billets. Hose pipes were commandeered and after
half an hour Trenchard's riot squad had captured about 100 soaked and shivering
men who were then forced to stand in the January frost outside Trenchard's
office until the latter had satisfied his desire for vengeance.

A few weeks later, in early February, Trenchard was called
in by Churchill, then Minister for War and Air, and was congratulated on his
'masterly handling of the Southampton riots' and appointed Chief of the Air
Staff. (Duel of Eagles by Peter Townsend, Weidenfeld &: Nicolson, 1970,
pp 47-8)

Unrest amongst the troops merged with unrest in industry.
By February 1919 large numbers of soldiers were refusing to return to the
Continent. Civil disturbances in mining areas, which under normal circumstances
would have been quelled by a show of force, presented grave problems to the
authorities, since it was not clear whether the troops could be relied upon.
Eventually the Army Council decided that there was a Guards division that
could be trusted and issued instructions for them to be brought back from
the Continent. The Guards were used on a number of occasions, for example
to disarm the Durham Light Infantry at Colchester, when they refused to embark
for Russia.

How near was Britain to a full scale revolution during
these weeks? This must remain a matter for speculation. The Army was in disarray:
soldiers and sailors councils and demobilisation clubs were being formed.
Delegates from various camps were beginning to combine their efforts and resources.
The number of strikes in Liverpool and Glasgow were increasing. There were
riots in Glasgow and troops sent to occupy the streets were beginning to fraternise
with the strikers and demonstrators. There were riots in Belfast and a national
railway strike was imminent. From August 1918 until mid-1919 even the police
force was affected by militant strike action.

Edited by libcom from Mutinies by Dave Lamb