By Simon Webb

Pen and Sword History. 170 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-47386-286-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

My father, who was in the Royal Navy from 1913 to 1925, served on the battleship, HMS Valiant, at one point. I don’t know if he was on board when she sailed up the River Mersey and, with two escorting destroyers, acted as a deterrent to those who were thought to have been planning some sort of revolutionary activity. There was certainly a great deal of what might best be termed social unrest in the city in 1919, but was it in any way revolutionary?

From a government point of view, and bearing in mind what was happening across Europe and elsewhere at the time, it must have seemed that the potential for revolution was there. Following the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917, and the ending of the First World War in 1918, there were  attempts at communist coups in Hungary and Finland, and abortive risings in Germany and elsewhere. Strikes and other forms of militancy affected France and Italy. Australia was almost brought to a standstill by a massive strike of miners and seamen. The United States was hit by a major steel strike in 1919, in which left-wingers played a prominent part, and a general strike in Seattle on the West Coast also saw radicals actively involved. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) had a slogan, “every strike is a small revolution and a dress rehearsal for the big one”, which was more than likely to convince conservatives that a revolution was imminent. I’ve mentioned a few examples of what was happening in 1919, and it’s worth referring to Anthony Read’s The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism (Jonathan Cape, 2008) for a much broader picture.

In Britain the ending of the war with Germany had brought problems relating to the slow demobilisation of the hundreds of thousands of conscripts who were idling in camps in France and across the United Kingdom. They were, naturally enough, of the opinion that there was no reason for them to be there now that the fighting had stopped. But the authorities were worried that the release of hordes of young men, often with no immediate prospects of obtaining work, into communities already affected by unemployment as the demand for labour declined when wartime production slowed, could create a situation similar to that experienced after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, the ex-soldiers had created a community of “sturdy beggars” and more who might use their military experience if they linked up with radicals in the working-class.

There were other reasons for not wanting to quickly demobilise, and indeed to continue with conscription, and they had to do with the military activities that Britain was involved with in Ireland, India, Iraq, and Palestine, not to mention Russia. We had intervened, ostensibly to stop guns and other supplies we had provided to the Czar’s army from falling into the hands of either side in the Russian Civil War, but actually to try to influence the defeat of the Bolsheviks. Troops rebelled when they thought they might be sent to Russia, and there were mutinies on Royal Navy ships when sailors were faced with the same prospect. Dockers in London refused to load arms and ammunition onto ships bound for Russia.

Simon Webb does a good job of providing a wide survey of the general situation in Britain with regard to discontent among soldiers who no longer wanted to be in the army. There were numerous demonstrations and riots, sometimes involving Canadian troops who were anxious to return to their own country. Other soldiers, who were less likely to disobey orders, were often turned out to deal with the rioters who were sometimes armed. Did the storming of police stations to free fellow-soldiers, who had been arrested for drunkenness and other minor matters, constitute revolutionary activity? Not in itself, but in a country where industrial conflict was also causing concern, there were worries that a combination of incidents could lead to a wider situation in which the police, and even the army, might lose overall control. 

In Britain. where the police were traditionally unarmed, it had always been legitimate for local magistrates to call for assistance from the army if it was considered that the police were unable to deal with rioters. There were times in the 19th century when this happened, and before the First War troops had been involved with suppressing rioting and strikes in Liverpool and South Wales. They had been forced to open fire in both locations, with deaths resulting on each occasion. In 1919, however, there were doubts about the reliability of certain regiments, especially if it was thought that the soldiers could be from the same areas as strikers and/or rioters, and might refuse to fire on crowds if ordered to do so. Other units were brought in from different parts of the country when the situation necessitated such a decision.

It has to be said that some of the incidents that Webb describes had little or nothing to do with any sort of radical aims, though they could be ascribed to the particular social problems that were prevalent in 1919. There were major race riots in various places, including Liverpool, Cardiff, and Glasgow. These arose because of the number of Chinese, Asian, and Caribbean seamen and other workers who had come to the country during the war to replace local men who had been conscripted. When the war ended, and discharged soldiers returned home, they found that there were few jobs available, and they turned on those who they perceived as being “outsiders”. These riots were especially nasty, with properties which housed the outsiders set alight and people badly injured and, in a few cases, killed. Again, this wasn’t revolutionary in intent, but it’s easy to understand how it was thought that the anger displayed by the rioters could be turned by agitators into something more serious.

Another example of violent activity, this time probably caused by the stupidity and arrogance of local officials, occurred in Luton. The Mayor decided to hold a large banquet, paid for out of Council funds, to celebrate Peace Day and invited councillors and local friends, but not any ex-servicemen. As Webb puts it: “This was especially galling, because neither the Mayor nor a single member of the council in Luton had actually served in the armed forces. All had belonged to what were known as `reserved occupations’, jobs which were thought too important for a man to be conscripted into the army”. Webb also points out that some of the councillors had been involved in operating the Luton Corporation Food Control Committee and were suspected of having profited from food shortages. They were, in the words of Stanley Baldwin, “Hard faced men who looked as if they had done very well out of the war”.

An organisation representing ex-servicemen decided to arrange an alternative event, but their request for permission to hold it on a local recreational ground was rejected by the Council. A march on the Town Hall was then planned, and it inevitably turned into a riot which the police were unable to contain. The Town Hall was burned down, shops looted, and the army eventually called in to prevent further disturbances. Troops remained in Luton for a week. Again, it was hardly revolutionary in intent, but it demonstrated how close the country was to a situation where it was thought subversive elements could step in and take over.

The main cause for concern was probably the threat from organised labour. Unions that represented miners, dockers, and railway workers were particularly strong, and the Triple Alliance, as it was called, had the potential to bring the country to its knees if they decided to take joint action. They did get close to it on more than one occasion, but backed away when faced with the fact that, as Lloyd George put it to union leaders, they might have to take over running the country if their actions succeeded. Most union officials, certainly at higher levels, were less interested in revolution than in improving the pay and conditions of their members, and some sort of compromise could usually be worked out with them. That was the case when railwaymen threatened strikes, with the additional possibility of invoking the Triple Alliance, on being told that a wartime bonus would be withdrawn, with a consequent reduction in their wages. Lloyd George arranged a deal which assured them that the bonus would continue for another twelve months while a review took place. It was a classic British solution.  

While it was true that the Government could usually work with the established union leaders, who were mostly quite patriotic and keen to be a part of the establishment, they were less certain about the activists in the rank and file. Glasgow presented a major problem, and there had been strikes  among shipyard workers and others. There had also been rent strikes, and the city was reputed to be a hotbed of dissidents and revolutionaries. The area was known as Red Clydeside and had its own firebrands, among them David Kirkwood, Willie Gallacher, and Manny Shinwell. All three had fought the police and seen the inside of local prisons, but in due course would come to terms with the establishment. Gallacher was at least a communist MP, one of the few ever elected to Parliament. But Kirkwood was, eventually, an MP, a Privy Councillor, and Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden. And Shinwell had a distinguished career as a Labour politician, becoming Secretary of State for War and then Minister of Defence. He later became Baron Shinwell.

Their later involvements aside, they all participated in the troubles that erupted in Glasgow in 1919, and which led to a strike committee almost running the city. In response, the Government sent tanks to Glasgow and brought in troops to patrol the streets. Machine gun posts were set up at strategic points and for a time a system approaching martial law was in operation. When what were considered the ringleaders of the strikes and protests were arrested, the official unions stepped in to take charge and negotiate a pay and hours deal, which is what most strikers were interested in, just as most rioting soldiers were in being demobbed or protesting about a specific grievance.

It’s Webb’s contention that, “For all the talk of revolution which made the government and the middle classes so uneasy that year, there was no credible and organised revolutionary movement in the country”. Riots, strikes, and mutinies enabled people to express their anger and dissatisfaction with existing circumstances, but none of the incidents involved were connected in a systematic way. The army and the police remained largely loyal to the State, though a police strike did lead to some disturbances in Liverpool, the only place where a substantial number of policemen walked out.

It’s interesting that so little is ever said about the events of 1919. The General Strike of 1926 does get some attention, though it can be argued that it probably presented less of a problem to the Government than did the widespread social turmoil of 1919. Simon Webb calculates that between thirty and forty people may have lost their lives due to rioting, striking, or other forms of behaviour that lay outside the normal framework of social activities. That was certainly far more than the number who died during the General Strike, which was, on the whole, a relatively peaceful affair.

1919: Britain’s Year of Revolution is a lively book, tidily written and covering a wide area of activity in a brisk but informative way. It manages to convey the mood of the period, including the paranoias of Winston Churchill and some other members of the establishment, in an entertaining manner. And it tells how Churchill and certain people in the armed forces got close to treason by plotting the overthrow of the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Churchill had expressed admiration for Mussolini’s rise in Italy, and it makes one wonder what this country may have been like had his conspiracies succeeded.