Saturday, 3 May 2014

Ian Birchall on the British Army in World War One

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

The Unknown Army

In LSHG Newsletter 51, Keith Flett, discussing the commemoration of World War I, wrote: “The hope is that the voices of the poor bloody infantry, those who died in the trenches and those who tried to stop war may also get some kind of hearing amidst all the pomp and ceremony.”

Many books have attempted to give such a hearing. One, now largely forgotten, is The Unknown Army, by Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, published by Verso in 1985. Gill had been editor of Black Dwarf and contributed to New Left Review; Dallas, a pioneer of women’s history, died at the age of 40 before the book was published. The book is based on carefully researched archival material, but also uses letters from survivors of the war, which are quoted in the text. The book is long out of print, with only a few copies available in libraries or at high prices on Amazon. It may therefore be useful to give a summary of this fascinating book, highlighting some of the material contained in it.

The authors begin by examining the British army before 1914. They note that the army made little attempt to recruit from the working class, preferring “country lads” who would be more submissive to discipline. There was also great antipathy to the army among urban workers. All this changed in 1914, when half a million men volunteered in the first six weeks, “men breaking with tradition by leaving factory, pit and mill”. By 1918 nearly five million industrial workers entered the army. The new recruits had no experience of war, and received rudimentary training. There was also a shortage of competent officers.

Despite the initial enthusiasm of volunteers, class relations had not changed. Workers had not forgotten that in the pre-war years the army had been used against striking workers. And traditionally, according to Sir John Fortescue, the army “feared the sharp wits of the manufacturing hands, if that class were too widely present in its ranks; it also feared the ‘agitators’ to which that class was prey”. The army’s answer was brutal discipline, with liberal use of the death penalty. British soldiers “could be condemned to death … by a handful of captains and lieutenants, gathered perfunctorily in a tent, for brief desertion or for an act of simple insubordination”. One man was shot merely for refusing to put on his cap. The authors list a number of cases of execution for brief periods of desertion.

But trade-union habits died hard. A letter from a participant describes events in May 1915 in a battalion made up of Welsh miners:

One of the young soldiers was struck on a very sore arm by one of these Sergeant-Majors with a heavy stick which they always carried. The boy sank to the ground in great pain, his comrades went to his assistance and loudly expressed their anger, actually threatening the offender. After parade, meetings were held and it was decided to refuse to “Fall In” the next morning. This was 100% successful, there was to beno further parades until the instructors were sent away. The 3rd Battalion Welsh regt. were sent to Porthcawl from Cardiff to “persuade” us to parade, they failed in their mission. We remained in our billets for four days,we were fed as usual by our civilian landlords. We were then informed that the instructors were transferred elsewhere and accordingly resumed our training…. 

Despite the pressure to volunteer, the army remained distrustful of working-class recruits. Proposals to set up units of Irish resident in Great Britain were rejected; General Parsons dismissed them as “Liverpool, and Glasgow, and Cardiff Irish, who are slum-birds that we don’t want. I want to see the clean, fine, strong, temperate, hurley-playing country fellows such as we used to get in the Munsters, Royal Irish, Connaught Rangers.”

There were particular problems with Irish troops, especially after the Easter Rising:

The garrison at Tipperary, composed of wounded soldiers from all fronts and from many different Irish regiments, was impelled by minor irritants during Christmas 1916 to refuse parade. English 
reinforcements were brought in to arrest the mutineers. A participant recalled: “Orders were given by our NCOs to strip the bed irons and charge the magazine and capture the guns and ammo, and prepare for attack.” The army chose conciliation. “During the day, the GOC arrived and we were invited to come out.He gave the usual speech and informed us all leave would be opened and any man who wanted could have his Xmas leave granted.” The same garrison had to draw rifles from locked stores when mounting guards, and to return them after duty.” 

The centrepiece of the book is an account of the mutiny at the Etaples Base, one of the base camps through which troops passed on their way to the front. It was the site of the notorious “Bull Ring” training ground, where training was so brutal that some men with unhealed wounds preferred to return to the front than stay there. Discipline was harsh and the officers were of poor quality. In September 1917 simmering discontent exploded. Police arrested and assaulted a New Zealand gunner for no apparent reason. A crowd gathered which was soon “of threatening proportions”, with four thousand men present. A participant describes the developments:

By this time hundreds had gathered and the Red Caps [military police] were having a tough time at their littlehuts on the Rly embankment being stoned by those who never missed an opportunity to get at them with a free hand to really enjoy it. The mob was angry and the Assistant Provo’ Marshal soon turned on his horse when the stones started in his direction. 

Another witness recalls that a Staff Captain

…attempted to stop the men crossing the bridge by lining up a lot of officers from the camp about six deep but the men swept them aside. They swarmed into town, raided the office of the Base Commandant, pulled him out of his chair and carried him on their shoulders through the town. 

By the following day “groups of men broke through the picquets on the bridge and held meetings in the town. One witness recalls that a committee was elected, of perhaps six men chaired by a corporal of the Northumberland Fusiliers.”

The disturbances at Etaples presented serious problems for the army authorities; discipline was breaking down:

For three days …. Brigadier-General Graham Thomson, the Etaples Base Commander, had no troops available on whom he could rely. On the first day, his police were driven off, and every attempt to use infantrymen from one or other of the less affected depots, to use New Zealanders against a Scottish crowd, and so on, was thwarted by the unwillingness of the troops concerned to stop the demonstrations. 

It was not till the fifth day that cavalry and other loyal troops were sent in.

Although the Etaples events were unprecedented, they were not an isolated occurrence. As Gill and Dallas note: “Riots, more or less destructive, were fairly common in the army, particularly in the closing period of the war, and strikes – refusals of duty in support of specific objects – became quite popular”. And 1917 was a period of crisis for all the contending armies: the French had been damaged by mutinies in the spring, the Austro-Hungarian forces were beginning to disintegrate, and Russia, between two revolutions, was experiencing mass desertions.

Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had a clear class analysis of the roots of the revolt: “Men of this stamp are not satisfied with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances, and their teaching in this respect is a regrettable antidote to the spirit of devotion and duty of earlier troops.”

But the action produced positive results. As the authors note, after the Etaples mutiny “The generals had lost
confidence in their hold upon the troops … they were no longer certain that their men would still obey.” Reforms were made to the administration of the Etaples base, and the Bull Ring was largely closed. Indeed, concessions spread wider than Etaples; as one veteran recalled: it was “the belief of thousands …. that it changed the whole phase of routine and “Bull” from Base to Front Line”. 1914 was a long way away; in July 1918, Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recognised that “all enthusiasm for the war is dead”.

Once the war was over, insubordination spread rapidly. Soldiers working in base areas in France struck for shorter hours and speedier demobilisation. This was not simply spontaneous; as one participant recalled, there had been organisation:

… we had a real hard-core of trade unionists and Socialists and … we had built up a mass circulation of the Weekly Herald. … We had, over the preceding months while the war was still in progress, raised the circulation from a few copies per week to a total of 500 in the Valdelievre camp alone. 

By the end of January some 20,000 men were on strike in Calais; as a participant recalled, this involved the vigorous use of flying pickets:

On Tuesday morning parties of picked men were sent out to visit the different camps in the area, help them to put their strike organization in order and supply picquets if necessary (but it wasn’t). I was with one of these parties and visited several small camps and found them all solid. We then split into small groups and scoured the nooks and crannies of the dock area. …. Myself, a solitary party of one, I found a group of five or six NCOs doing some clerical work. Myself: “What are you doing here? Don’t you know there’s a strike on?” NCOs swinging round on their office chairs – “sickly grin”. Myself: Question repeated with expletive and still no answer. “I’ve no time to waste arguing with you, come on now, out of it.” Result: All troop out, myself bringing up the rear. 

Meanwhile in Folkestone troops on leave and due to return to France demonstrated against the slow pace of demobilisation:

The Mayor addressed the troops, who greeted him with cheers. He had been in touch with a senior officer, he said, and if they returned to camp they would receive good news. “To this the large crowd replied by singing Tell me the old, old story.” 

The following day:

Ten thousand marched ten abreast through the streets of Folkestone, and the procession, reaching the Town Hall, spread out until the open space and the streets near-by were “absolutely packed” with men in khaki. 

The strikes and demonstrations posed real problems; as Gill and Dallas note “it was doubtful whether the army had sufficient loyal troops in England to put the demonstrations down.” The various strikes won real gains, better pay and an improved demobilisation process. But the Labour Party kept its distance – the Herald scarcely mentioned the wave of mutinies. We on the left have to acknowledge, and explain, the real enthusiasm initially felt for the war among many workers. But when Michael Gove insists that “those who fought were not dupes”, we have to recall the assorted revolts in the latter stages of the war and at its end, and reply – “Indeed they were not”.

Ian Birchall 

Ian Birchall will be speaking about the First World War at Marxism 2014

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