Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2635

1919—Britain in revolt

This article is over 5 years, 5 months old
One hundred years ago protests and strikes shook the state. Sarah Bates tells the story of a year of struggle that posed a challenge to the system
Issue 2635
Raise the red flag - workers assemble in Glasgow
Raise the red flag – workers assemble in Glasgow

A hundred years ago Britain was in revolt. The year 1919 saw 34 million strike days, rioting police, an armed forces’ mutiny and mass resistance among the working class.

A huge wave of resistance was sweeping the globe as the 1917 Russian Revolution inspired ­movements for socialism across Europe.

Every state has to be able to rely on its army. But British rulers couldn’t be sure of their soldiers’ loyalty. The German Revolution had finished off the First World War, but British troops were still stuck in dirty barracks.

The desperation to be demobilised—discharged from the military—led to conscripted soldiers rising up. Although the level of organisation varied between different units, it led to thousands-strong soldiers’ ­meetings which took their demands to military chiefs.

War secretary Winston Churchill wanted to ship conscripted soldiers to Russia to fight against the revolution.

When the captain went ashore to report their mutiny, sailors hauled down the naval flag and hoisted the red flag

But, having escaped a war where millions died, British soldiers weren’t keen to be sent off to another warzone. The central demand was over the speed of demobilisation, but demands grew to include complaints over food, living conditions and the behaviour of officers.

Terrified, Churchill insisted that all army commanders issue weekly reports on revolutionary organisation in the ranks.

Folkestone in Kent saw 2,000 soldiers refuse to embark for service abroad on 3 January. Their action drew others behind them and 10,000 marched to the town hall, where a mass meeting was held.

The next day boats to France sailed empty, and the soldiers in Kent busied themselves by forming a soldiers’ union and electing a committee.

How the shockwaves of the Russian Revolution spread across the world
How the shockwaves of the Russian Revolution spread across the world
  Read More

Folkestone was just the beginning, as over the next fortnight tens of thousands of soldiers in Britain and abroad mutinied. Around 1,500 troops based in Park Royal in north west London took their complaints straight to Prime Minister Lloyd George in Whitehall.

He was discouraged from meeting the deputation in case “similar processions would march on London from all over the country”.

Soon revolt spread to the navy. Sailors on the HMS Kilbride, docked at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, went on strike. When the captain went ashore to report the mutiny, they hauled down the naval flag and hoisted the red flag.

The head of the Royal Navy wrote on 5 February, “Unless we acted soon, the situation would become worse and worse each day.

“There was no doubt that we were up against a Bolshevist movement in London, Glasgow and elsewhere.”

The movement soon reached British troops abroad. In Calais, troops struck for four days over the victimisation of a soldier who had been agitating over slow demobilisation.

Strike committees operated in all the camps of Calais and the ­surrounding area. A “Calais Area Soldiers’ and Sailors Association” was elected to coordinate action.

Attempts were made to crush it, but troops that were sent to smash the dissent fraternised with the striking soldiers.

The government was terrified that soldiers would unite with striking workers.

There were already 15,000 troops based in Russia by January 1919—and they weren’t immune to the revolutionary fervour sweeping Europe.

A report to deputy prime minister Bonar Law explained that groups of workers were looking to coordinate action with mutinied troops.

“The danger consequent upon even the slightest success of such a scheme must be patent to anyone who has studied the course of events in Russia,” it said.

“The spread of this spirit is ­alarming. Evidence can be obtained of a determined effort to emulate the Russian Bolshevist ­movement in this country.”

Although this exaggerates the ­reality, this fear in the ruling class was genuine.

Troops won local victories, as well as the government rapidly speeding up demobilisation and increasing pay.

This meant Churchill could not send more soldiers to Russia.

There were already 15,000 troops based in Russia by January 1919—and they weren’t immune to the revolutionary fervour sweeping Europe.

Russian revolutionary forces dropped leaflets from planes explaining why British troops should turn their fire on their commanders, not Bolsheviks.

There were strikes and the formation of a soldiers’ soviet.

On 22 February, Private Riley Rudd wrote a letter saying, “All had gone on strike—half meeting in IM hut last night and passed resolutions that they must be withdrawn from Russia immediately. Others to the effect that censorship be removed from letters in order that people in England may get to know the true state of affairs out here.”

It wasn’t just the armed forces who were in revolt.

After the police cleared the protests on Bloody Friday in Glasgow
After the police cleared the protests on Bloody Friday in Glasgow

In Glasgow the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Clyde Workers’ Committee—led by shop stewards accountable to rank and file workers—raised the demand of reducing the working week from 47 to 40 hours. It would create jobs and improve workers’ lives.

Just three days into January’s strike, 40,000 workers in the engineering and shipbuilding industries had joined it. And even more worryingly for the bosses, solidarity action started to spring up.

Miners from nearby pits were convinced by flying pickets to walk out for a 40-hour week.

By the fourth day of action on 31 January, tens of thousands of strikers flooded into George Square where police baton-charged the crowed.

The fighting lasted into the night, and during the battle police arrested leading members of the Clyde Workers’ Committee who were on their way to the square.

The potential existed for workers in all the key industries to fight together

The violence was discussed in the War Cabinet the following day, where Scottish secretary Robert Munro described it as “a Bolshevist uprising”.

Troops were deployed from northern England to police the streets of Glasgow. And the army stationed in the city’s Maryhill barracks were locked in their barracks in case they sympathised with strikers.

The English troops, along with tanks, returned six days after the strike finished on 12 February. Even this didn’t end the fightback.

Days of hope - the 1918 German Revolution
Days of hope – the 1918 German Revolution
  Read More

The potential existed for workers in all the key industries to fight together.

But that raised the question of ­leadership. The focus turned to the Triple Alliance, a collaboration between the leaders of three trade unions to support each others’ members with action.

It brought together unions ­representing miners, railworkers, and dockers and other transport workers.

Formed in 1914, the Triple Alliance should have coordinated powerful action between some of the most organised and biggest sections of the working class.

But the conservatism of its leaders meant the potential was never fully realised.

They saw their role as bargaining with bosses, not working to ­overthrow the state and capitalism. Trade union leaders such as Jimmy Thomas, of the railway workers’ union and a Labour MP, worked to minimise the action.

Speaking in the House of Commons he said, “However difficult an official strike may be, a non-official strike will be worse, because there is always the grave danger in unofficial strikes of no one being able to control them.”

But even with right winger Thomas in the leadership, a 100,000-strong railway workers’ strike stopped wage cuts.

The government was determined to divert a possible general strike, so it offered an investigation into miners’ pay, conditions and hours—the Sankey Commission.

Workers’ struggle in 1919 shows a level of coordination and scale of action that is still inspiring today.

Its interim report offered higher pay and a cut in hours, but not nationalisation. Trade union leaders travelled the country telling workers to accept the commission’s recommendations, rather than striking for more.

At the high point of the strikes, Lloyd George told the leaders of the Triple Alliance, “If you carry out your threat and strike, you will defeat us.”

But, he warned that the process could mean “a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself”.

He asked, “Gentlemen, have you considered if you are ready?”

The union leaders ran away. Robert Smillie, president of the miners’ union, later admitted, “From that moment we were beaten and we knew we were.”

Workers’ struggle in 1919 shows a level of coordination and scale of action that is still inspiring today.

But it also shows how a situation’s revolutionary potential can slip by unless there is a group of workers organised in a revolutionary party to raise the level of struggle, generalise it and take the lead to win socialism.

Even the cops went on strike

Even the police were touched by the mood of revolt. They began to form unions and agitate for better conditions.

Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edward Henry, said the authorities would sack any cop attending union meetings.

So they did it in secret.

The National Union of Police and Prison Officers organised a solid strike in August 1918 that won better pay, a widows’ pension and the reinstatement of union activists.

It led Henry to complain that, “They actually got more than they asked for.”

Members of the union returned a huge vote for strikes in June 1919—48,863 for action, and 4,324 against. The government decided it was time to kill off the threat of police action. It did it with repression and bribes.

Striking police were threatened not only with the sack, but also the total loss of pension. At the same time they were given improved pay and conditions.

A strike finally took place in July, but only 1,000 came out in London. In Liverpool 1,200 cops struck—leading to three days of rioting.

The experience of 1919 saw the government work to separate the police off from workers and ensure their loyalty as an anti-working class force in the future.

The bosses pushed racism

The ruling class always seeks to divide resistance, and some workers can be led to blame the wrong people for their problems.

There were racist riots in several major British ports between January and August 1919. Black workers were targeted because some white sailors thought they were “stealing” jobs.

This was compounded by bosses paying Indian seafarers a lower rate.

Some unions blamed the Indian workers for undercutting the wages of white workers.

In May 1919, a boarding house for black sailors in Limehouse, east London, was surrounded by a furious group of racists. The Times newspaper reported that “any coloured man who appeared was greeted with abuse and had be escorted by the police.

“It was necessary at times to bar the doors of the home.”

Even at high points of struggle it’s important to fight racism, sexism and everything that divides working class unity.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance