Unrest in Britain in 1919

Government dispatches tanks to Liverpool - August Bank Holiday 1919
Government dispatches tanks to Liverpool - August Bank Holiday 1919

A short account of unrest in Britain during the year 1919

Submitted by Battlescarred on December 10, 2020

In Britain in 1919 the level of unrest could be gauged by the number of strike days that year, 35 million compared to six million in 1918.

Soldiers returning from the War were dissatisfied, often facing unemployment, and bad housing and work conditions.

In January of that year, 2,000 troops at Folkestone refused to go on ships to be sent abroad, fearing that they would be used to put down revolutions on the continent, and fed up with the way they were treated by the arrogant officers. They were joined by other soldiers and then 10,000 of them marched through the town.

The next day there was another demonstration and at nearby Dover, 2,000 soldiers also mutinied. A soldiers’ union was set up with a committee made up from the rank and file. On 9th January the revolt spread to camps around London. 1,500 soldiers based at Park Royal marched to Downing Street. The military authorities , terrified by this, agreed to their demands, the end of the draft to Russia and better conditions.

At Calais, British soldiers organised a mass meeting at the end of January and a mutiny broke out with the demand for demobilisation. Soldiers broke into a prison and released a soldier who had agitated for demobilisation. Soldiers’ Councils were set up in various regiments. At nearby Vendreux, 2,000 soldiers mutinied and marched to Calais. These combined mutineers then marched to Arnmy headquarters and demanded the release of the re-arrested agitator. By now 20,000 had joined the mutiny. French troops now began to fraternise with the mutineers. The soldiers set up a committee, with each group electing delegates to camp committees, which then sent delegates to a Central Area Committee. At Dunkirk soldiers were sympathetic to the Calais Mutiny, General Byng surrounded the Calais mutineers on January 29th, but his troops also started to fraternise. Again the government backed down, with no one being punished for involvement with the mutiny.

The mutinies spread through both the Army and Navy with the patrol boat HMS Kilbride running up a red flag. For this one sailor received a 2 year prison sentence, three served a year in prison and another 90 days. In far away Archangel in North Russia, British troops of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, sent there to intervene in the Russian Revolution, mutinied and set up a soviet.

On February 8th, 3,000 soldiers marched to Whitehall, protesting over the bad food they were given and poor sleeping arrangements. They were met by a battalion of Grenadier Guards with fixed bayonets and were forced back. The authorities now acted quickly and started speeding up demobilisation from February onwards.

Also in late January strikes broke out in both Glasgow and Belfast, involving 100,000 engineering workers. They demanded the reduction of the 54 hours a week that they were working to 40 hours. Mass meetings took place every day. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers(ASE) , the official union, sabotaged the strike by infiltrating the workers committees that had been set up.

The strike committee called for all trams to be stopped in Glasgow. When the transport authorities refused to do this, workers cut tram cables and used the immobile trams to block roads. Police were beaten off. In one instance two cops who were intervening to stop the sabotage of a tram, were stripped of all their clothes and ran away naked!

However now the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) , the official union, sabotaged the strike by infiltrating the workers committees that had been set up. On January 31st, strikers assembled in George Square were brutally attacked by the police in what became known as Bloody Friday. The following day, troops marched into Glasgow, supported by tanks, field guns, machine guns and planes. The State were scared to use local troops, in case they went over to the strikers. Faced with this armed might, the strikers were defeated, although later in the year 100,000 Glasgow workers came out on May 1st.

The government was concerned that the movement in Scotland would merge with the wage demands of miners, rail and transport workers, who all had national wage claims. Projected strikes were sabotaged by union officials like Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader, and Jimmy Thomas, the railworkers union leader. Thomas managed to halt a strike on 27th March but when the Government ordered wage cuts, 100,000 rail workers came out on strike and got better wages for the lower grades.

During summer of that year cotton workers went out on strike for 18 days, involving 450,000 workers. As well as this was the police strike that year (see separate article).

The burned out shell of Luton Town Hall - summer 1919

Unrest manifested itself in other ways apart from strikes and mutinies. In July in Luton, the local council made preparations for a lavish celebration of the Armistice. They were prepared to spend large sums on this at a time of unemployment and poverty, which disgusted many in the town. There was also the question of unsatisfactory allowances made to discharged soldiers and their dependents. In addition, it was believed that the Mayor and members of the Corporation Food Control Committee had made large profits by raising food prices during the War and that they were now responsible for food shortages and continuing high prices. On 19th July on a public holiday declared Peace Day, thousands gathered outside Luton Town Hall. An expensive banquet was going on inside. It was so expensive that no ex-soldier could afford to go. As a result the town hall was stormed and then burnt down.

The rioting went on for three days. Pitched battles with the police took place and the Food Office was also burnt to the ground. The crowd sarcastically sang the pro-war tune “Keep The Home Fires Burning”. A large body of troops and police was brought in from nearby Bedford to put down the uprising.

Similar riots broke out in Swindon, where a flagstaff erected outside the town hall at considerable expense was burned down. The police station and several businesses were also attacked. At Bilston near Wolverhampton a riot was set off by the arrest of two soldiers by the police. Several thousands marched on the police station, demolished a brick wall and then used the bricks to bombard the building, breaking all the windows. They then attempted to set fire to it with petrol but were driven off by police reinforcements.

Also on Peace Day, riots broke out in Coventry involving 3,000 people. The immediate cause of this was the exclusion of ex-soldiers and munitions workers from the celebratory parade. The riots lasted 3 days, with windows smashed in the city centre, and the looting of shops.

In nearby Birmingham there was also unrest on the streets during the Peace Day and its aftermath.

Also in July, 400 Canadian troops in Epsom rioted after two of their number were arrested by police. The troops attacked the police station and a police sergeant was hit with an iron bar and killed.

In August in Liverpool, there was rioting and looting in Liverpool following the police strike there. 2,600 troops with 4 tanks were brought in to quell the disturbances and the battleship Valiant and two destroyers were brought up the Mersey to menace the city.

The above article first appeared in Virus No. 1 (2019), the magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group.