SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 181 September 2014

Workers and war

A Land Fit For Heroes: war & the working class 1914-18

People’s History Museum, Manchester • Free entrance

Runs to March 2015

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

A Land Fit For Heroes is a small exhibition in the People’s History Museum, Manchester, funded by the TUC and Usdaw shop workers’ union, to show the experiences of workers during the first world war. It shows the horrors of the xenophobia whipped up during the war – a large poster advertising the Anti-German Union features John Bull grappling with a many-headed snake. A photograph shows a mob outside a shop, with the words ‘We Are Russians’ inscribed on the windows, to try to protect it from attack.

The signage makes great play of the fact that many trade union leaders supported the war. There are some letters on display from John Ward, a Liberal MP and trade union leader who joined the counter-revolutionary ‘white’ army, under Admiral Kolchak, to fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Conversely, there is only a limited section about those who opposed the war. A banner is displayed from the No More War Movement, founded by Independent Labour Party member and Labour Leader editor, Fenner Brockway. There is no mention of the National Shop Stewards Movement that developed during the war. Indeed, the only reference to industrial action is a 1918 photo of striking print workers who were evicted from their homes. No reference is even made to Usdaw’s predecessor, the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE), whose members in Coalburn, Scotland, were on strike for the whole of 1914.

The impact of the war on women workers, however, is not overlooked. A letter hints at the profiteering by employers who only paid women youth rates for their work. Most of the commentary though is devoted to the role of the suffragettes, with photos of Emmeline Pankhurst leading marches demanding war work for women. It hints that this was the main driver of improvements in the position of women in society. Nonetheless, the exhibition points out: "The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act gave returning men priority of employment over women. By 1921 the number of women employed was less than in 1911". Propaganda posters encouraging women to re-enter domestic service are displayed, as well as a poster imploring the ruling class: ‘Don’t keep more servants than you really need’.

Prominence is also given to those Labour MPs who joined the wartime coalition government, such as Labour Party leader, Arthur Henderson. The exhibition states bluntly: "This helped persuade a previously sceptical population that Labour could be trusted as a party of government". Many Labour MPs who had opposed the war lost their seats in the 1918 ‘coupon’ or ‘khaki’ elections. What is often not mentioned however (including by this exhibition), was that a number of Labour seats had been in two-seat constituencies, all of which were abolished alongside the extension of the voting franchise to men over 21 and women over 30.

Many of the pieces on display are of interest, but the narrowness of the context they are put in makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the real lessons for today. Disappointingly, for example, the exhibition neglects the wider context of the war. It makes no mention of the Second International’s pledge, prior to the war, to organise mass strikes to stop war coming about. Perhaps this is to be expected given the Usdaw leadership’s opposition to any such militant action, and its links to the Labour Party establishment. Nevertheless, the exhibition still provides a glimpse into the way the war affected the lives of many workers and their families.

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