SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 183 November 2014

When soldiers said stop the war

Continuing our world war one anniversary series we reprint an article by CLIVE HEEMSKERK reviewing an account of the mutiny that developed in the British army in the weeks following the armistice, a movement written out of conventional history but which threatened the very power of the British ruling class. This article was first published in 1985 in issue No.30 of Militant International Review, the predecessor of Socialism Today.

"A REPRESENTATIVE of the soldiers threatened that, if [the armed harbour guard] remained, they would procure their arms from their quarters at the rest camp and forcibly remove the guard. The latter was consequently withdrawn, and the malcontents placed pickets at the approaches to the harbour to prevent British soldiers from entering..."

In this way the Morning Post of the 6th January reported one incident in the mutiny of 10,000 soldiers at the Folkestone Transit camp in 1919, the first spark in a rapidly developing soldiers’ rebellion that shook the British ruling class to its foundations.

The revolt started on the 3rd January when 3,000 soldiers about to embark ship for duty in France instead held a mass meeting and decided to march to other rest camps in the area, and then onto Folkestone Town Hall to protest at their retention in uniform despite the conclusion of the armistice to end world war one eight weeks earlier in November 1918. After assurances from the Town Army Commandant that only those who wished to would have to return to France the soldiers marched backed to their camps.

However, the following day some of the soldiers were ordered onto ships to France. They refused the orders and this time set up pickets at the railway station to meet other soldiers returning from leave and, as described in the newspaper report, effectively sealed off the harbour with their pickets. There was another march, 10,000 strong, to the Town Hall where it was announced that a ‘Soldiers Union’ had been formed to negotiate with the authorities. This time, with staff hurriedly sent down from the Ministry of Labour to defuse the situation, the soldiers’ demands were met.

The events at Folkestone were the first in a widespread movement which developed throughout the British Armed Forces during January and February 1919 against delays in demobilisation and the conditions in the army. In his book, The Soldiers Strikes of 1919, first published in 1980 but now reprinted in paperback, Andrew Rothstein documents over 50 incidences of soldiers and sailors involved in strikes, demonstrations and protest meetings. Drawing on local newspaper reports, War Cabinet papers, War Office records, memoirs of generals and ministers, and the recollections of the soldiers themselves, Rothstein describes events ranging from Stirling, where soldiers stormed the police station to release two arrested demonstrators, to Milford Haven, where sailors on the HMS Kilbride went on strike over low pay and hoisted the Red Flag above their ship!

Of course, many of the details of this magnificent movement, which struck terror into the hearts of the ruling class, were suppressed both in the newspapers of the time – Rothstein reports a War Cabinet decision to censor press coverage – and undoubtedly in the military records made available since, especially where the movement took the form of a serious rebellion or where the authorities had to use violence to contain the movement.

Rothstein, for example, quotes the biographer of Lord Trenchard who, using Trenchard’s private records and his report to the War Office, describes how Trenchard led 250 armed soldiers backed by military police to secure the surrender of 5,000 soldiers who had taken over Southampton docks. However, Rothstein could find no hint of a mutiny in Southampton either in the Southampton press or in the War Office papers made available to him at the Public Record Office. Nonetheless, despite such obstacles, he has performed a service to all socialists in providing valuable historical evidence about a significant chapter in the history of the labour movement.

The Russian revolution

The main theme of Rothstein’s book is to show how the soldiers’ strikes of January and February 1919 prevented British imperialism from launching a large-scale intervention to overthrow the Bolsheviks and restore capitalism in Russia.

The Russian revolution acted as a tremendous inspiration to workers throughout Europe. No country was untouched in the months and years immediately following the revolution. In fact the revolutionary wave unleashed by the victory of the Bolsheviks hastened the end of the first world war. A revolt by the Bulgarian troops who occupied their army headquarters and proclaimed a republic on the 25th September 1918 forced the Bulgarian government to sue for peace. An insurrection by armed workers and soldiers in Budapest on the 30th October, a rising in Prague, and a revolution in Vienna on the 3rd November heralded the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

As late as 21st October 1918 Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, predicted that Germany could not be militarily defeated until well into 1919. And yet, just 21 days later on the 11th November, after the revolutionary intervention of the German workers, soldiers and sailors through a naval mutiny at Kiel and a general strike in Berlin, the Kaiser had to flee to Holland and an armistice was signed. Many German towns and cities lay in the hands of the workers. In Bavaria, as in Hungary, a Soviet republic was established in the spring of 1919.

The British ruling class watched aghast, terrified of the international movement of the workers and determined to crush what they saw as the centre of contagion, the young Russian workers’ state. As Rothstein records, Winston Churchill even argued on the day before the armistice, that "we might have to build up the German army, as it was important to get Germany on her legs again for the fear of the spread of Bolshevism", a policy actually carried out by the British ruling class. And the War Cabinet, as early as November 1917, had decided to aid the opposition to the Bolsheviks inside Russia. In February 1918 British troops were landed at Murmansk in North Russia. In June 1918 British and other forces occupied Vladivostok in the Far East. In July British troops seized Baku and the oilfields of the Caucasus. In August British, French and American troops occupied Archangel, the most important port in North Russia.

Immediately after the armistice the British ruling class drew up plans to expand the intervention in support of the ‘Whites’, the pro-capitalist forces in Russia. A General Staff plan for ‘Military Commitments After Peace Signed’ was agreed on December 8th 1918 – it included provision for British warships entering the Black Sea and occupying Batum and Novorossiysk, for regular army volunteers to go to Transcaspia, and for reinforcements in Murmansk and Archangel. On the 12th December the War Cabinet agreed to maintain 14 to 20 divisions in addition to the regular army – virtually a war footing. And, in fact, by the 31st December, a full seven weeks after the armistice, just 108,000 out of six million soldiers had been demobilised.

But these plans were brought to a shuddering halt by the soldiers’ movement. Not the least of the obstacles to the capitalists’ designs was a mutiny at the Archangel front itself when soldiers of the 13th Battalion Yorkshires organised a meeting and refused to advance. This incident was one reflection of the "unreliable state of the troops" in North Russia who were "inclined to be mutinous" and accessible to "active and insidious Bolshevik propaganda", according to a report to the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, March 1919.

Peace a by-product of revolution

Such events had a sobering effect on the military strategists with their plans for increased intervention. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, who in November had argued that "our real danger now is not the Boche, but Bolshevism" – and in December had signed the document on ‘Military Commitments After Peace is Signed’ – by the end of January was arguing that the army was a "mine which may go up at any minute" and reluctantly urging the prime minister, Lloyd George to get "ready to clear out of Murmansk and Archangel next summer".

These insights provided by Rothstein are a crushing argument against those who maintain that a move by the working class to socialism will always be defeated by a successful intervention by foreign capitalist powers – they give a glimpse of the enormous attractive powers a socialist transformation of society in Britain, based on workers’ democracy and appealing to support from workers abroad, would have throughout the world. However, the main lesson that Rothstein draws from these events for the reader is that the soldiers’ movement caused "a decisive change in British foreign policy: namely, in the policy of intervention in Russia" (my emphasis – CH). It is this idea which represents the main weakness of the book.

Through a one-sided emphasis of the effect of the soldiers’ movement on the foreign policy of the British ruling class, Rothstein fails to show that ‘foreign policy’ is a reflection of ‘domestic policy’. In other words, that not only were the British capitalists unable to mobilise the necessary forces to defeat Bolshevism abroad but that, if there had been a tested, revolutionary leadership at the head of the working class, then the ruling class would have been unable to stop Bolshevism, ie revolution, at home. As Trotsky explained about this period, "if the pressure of the proletariat in the first, most critical years of the Soviet Republic proved to be effective enough [in preventing large-scale intervention] then it was only because at that time for the workers of Europe it was not a question of exerting pressure, but of struggling for power… The struggle against war is decided not by pressure upon the government but only by the revolutionary struggle for power. The ‘pacifist’ effects of the proletarian class struggle, like its reformist effects, are only by-products of the revolutionary struggle for power". (From The Permanent Revolution, ppl43-144)

Strike wave in Britain

This was the real situation throughout the countries of Europe at the end of the first world war, including Britain. As the strikes swept through the armed forces the struggles on the industrial plane, which had gathered pace even in the last months of the war, were building to a crescendo. From the 25th January 40,000 engineering, shipbuilding and municipal workers struck in Belfast for a 44-hour week without loss of pay. Electricity was cut off except to hospitals, the tramworkers came out and the city’s gas supply was cut. Belfast was under the control of the working class through the Trades Council and the General Strike Committee. From 27th January over 100,000 dockers, engineers, electricians, steel workers, shipyard workers, builders and miners in Glasgow came out for a 40-hour week. The electricians and engineers in London agreed to strike from 8th February in support of Belfast and Glasgow. The National Administrative Council of Shop Stewards, which in January 1920 was to affiliate to the Third International, met and demanded the immediate implementation of the 40-hour week. A general strike was inherent in the situation. And at exactly the same time the most serious mutiny of soldiers was taking place in Calais.

Following the arrest of a single soldier "for making a seditious speech" thousands of soldiers from different camps in the Calais area struck and elected delegates to the ‘Calais Area Soldiers and Sailors Association’, the embryo of a Soviet in all but name. One of the participants in the strike, Alf Killick, in a pamphlet published by Militant in 1978 [the predecessor of the Socialist Party], described how "in the manner of organisation we were greatly influenced by the Soviet method… each hut or group of tents to the same number, elected a delegate to the camp committee, and these committees then likewise elected delegates to the central area committee... We issued the daily orders instead of camp officers, and in the Valdelievre camp occupied the headquarters’ offices".

The Army Command responded by sending the 5th Army Corps under General Byng to suppress the revolt. In the War Office records it was reported that two whole divisions of the 5th Army, three Guards machine-gun battalions and four battalions of the 1st and 3rd Army had to be deployed at Calais, St Omer, Etaples, Le Havre, Rouen, Abbeville and Cherbourg to deal with the situation. However, as Alf Killick recalls, "the first thing the men of the 5th Army did on arriving was to ask us for information as to how we did it and for advice on organisation. They followed our advice and joined the revolt... A really revolutionary situation was developing for which we were not really prepared. We felt, however, that we could not go much further unless we had evidence of support from the workers at home".

Labour leaders isolate soldiers

But there was no revolutionary movement strong enough to grasp the opportunities presented by the situation. The small revolutionary groups that existed at the time, the forerunners of the Communist Party such as the Socialist Labour Party, the Workers’ Socialist Federation and the British Socialist Party, of which Rothstein was a member, were too weak and, in particular, without a strong influence or standing in the established workers’ organisations, the Labour Party and the official structures of the trade unions. Their past failures to build support for Marxism within the Labour Party and the unions weakened their ability to challenge the right-wing Labour leaders and decisively intervene in events. Their weakness left the field clear for the labour and trade union leaders, while verbally opposing the government, to use their authority to stabilise the situation for the capitalists.

Faced with an all-out strike of London electricians the government changed the wartime Defence of the Realm Act regulations to make it an offence for workers to cause power cuts. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers’ Executive bowed to the government’s pressure and suspended the Glasgow, Belfast and London District Committees. The UK Federation of Shipbuilding, Engineering and Allied Trades National Negotiating Body instructed all shipbuilding workers to return to work. With these body blows aimed at the strikes, the Glasgow workers went back on 11th February and the Belfast workers a week later.

In relation to the soldiers’ strikes Alf Killick describes the attitude of the Labour leaders in his comment on the role of the Labour paper, the Weekly Herald. "It was a strange coincidence that parallel with our strike a general strike was taking place on the Clyde... unfortunately there was no communication between the two centres of revolt. The only communication we had was with the Weekly Herald, and they were too scared to give any publicity to what was happening across the Channel".

Unfortunately there is no hint of this wider perspective in Rothstein’s book. He makes no mention whatsoever of the strikes in Belfast and Glasgow and, while he reports the bare facts of the Calais mutiny, he fails to draw out the revolutionary implications of the movement – his only reference to Alf Killick’s memoirs is a disparaging footnote saying that they add "no more than the 1929 account of Calais".

Rothstein’s omissions

With these vital omissions Rothstein underplays the revolutionary potential of the soldiers’ strikes against the turbulent background provided by the situation in British society, and in consequence lends support to the idea that ‘anti-war pressure’ alone is sufficient to cause a "decisive change in foreign policy", above all in questions of war and peace. This is in essence the argument of the ‘Communist’ Party who separate the struggle against war from the struggle for socialism, maintaining that the ‘public opinion’ of all classes can force the ruling class, despite their class interests, to politely disarm. Rothstein, a founding member of the British Communist Party, who from 1921-44 was the Chief London Correspondent of the Moscow News Agency Tass, is a supporter of the pro-Moscow wing of the CP.

Of course the plans of the British ruling class for war in Russia were paralysed by the events of 1919. But this was a by-product of the pre-revolutionary situation that faced British capitalism at the end of world war one. This could not be a permanent state of affairs – either the workers would take power or the movement would subside and the capitalists would regain full control of society, including the army. The capitalists’ fear of revolution resolves nothing if the result of a pre-revolutionary situation, because of the lack of a sufficiently strong revolutionary leadership, leaves the ruling class in power.

In fact, resting on the Labour Party and trade union leaders, the British capitalists were able to ride out the storm of the immediate post-war period – and subsequently use the army to repress mass movements in Ireland, India and the rest of the British empire. And, just 21 years after the revolt of the German sailors and soldiers overthrew the Kaiser and thereby brought about a ‘decisive change’ in the foreign policy of German imperialism – namely, the end of the war – after the catastrophic defeat of the German workers with the victory of Hitler, the German capitalists found themselves free from the ‘pressure’ of the workers to embroil their capitalist rivals in a new and terrible second world war with the slaughter of millions throughout the world.

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