A Retrospective on The Soldiers’ Strikes of 1919 by Andrew Rothstein

At home: shortages, queues, rationing,
Price rises, profiteering, ‘hard faced men’ who
‘Looked as if they had done very well out of the war’;
16,000 days spent on strike between 1916 and 18,
A ‘Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council for Great Britain’
Formed in June 1917 while government plans
To aid the Whites in the nascent Russian Civil War,
Led to the ‘Hands off Russia!’ campaign.

This intensified in early 1919,
With a strike of 10,000 troops at Folkestone:
‘The war is over, we won’t fight in Russia, we mean to go home.’
2,000 troops struck at Dover and this was followed all over Kent,
Including the 3rd Gloucestershire Regiment at Maidstone;
Troops commandeered lorries in London,
Demanding a meeting with the prime minister,
Soldiers were breaking camp throughout the capital,
Singing, ‘Britons never shall be slaves’ and
‘Tell Me, the Old, Old Story’.

A similar story unfolded in Sussex,
With a telegram to P.M. Lloyd George:
‘That we demand the instant demobilisaton of all men here …’.
Meanwhile, mutineers took over Southampton Docks
Whilst national censorship could not prevent some Hampshire snippets:
‘Spokesmen … were put under arrest … the arrest
led to the remainder of the battalion demanding
their release and forcing the guard-room.’
The red flag was flown in Bristol,
Mutinies broke out at naval dockyards across the West and Wales,
The local Swansea paper reported a miners’ meeting:
‘ A strong resolution was passed protesting against Britain interfering in the domestic affairs of Russia and [demanding] that all British troops now in Russia should be withdrawn immediately.’
Camps in Wiltshire and on Salisbury Plain saw something different:
If troops volunteered to serve in Russia,
Then pay would rocket from 15 shillings a week to 24 a day,
Plus a separation allowance for married men,
But aerodromes were occupied all over the county,
With protests against Russia and the speed of demobilisation.

Despite censorship, a similar litany was written
Across the East, North, Scotland and Ireland:
Felixstowe, Bedford, Kettering, Harlaxton, Leeds,
Manchester, Blackpool, Belfast, Cramlington,
Edinburgh, Leith, Stirling, Rosyth and Cromarty.

And overseas: 20,000 troops out on strike at Calais,
Mass protests at Boulogne and Etaples,
As Winston Churchill wondered that,
‘ We might have to build up the German army …
get Germany on her legs again for fear of the spread of Bolshevism.’
Over in Russia, the Yorkshires were refusing to move near Archangel:
‘We are drawing terribly near the end of our tether as an efficient fighting force’,
The 13th battalion of the Yorkshire Light Infantry set up a soviet there,
And two sergeants each received 15 years imprisonment.
But even the press at home began to change its tune about Russia,
As did the War Cabinet, with worries that war there
Could lead to Bolshevism at home and in Europe:
‘We are sitting on a mine that might go off at any minute’,
And, ‘Discipline is a thing of the past’ …

An Old Contemptible wrote of his last leave:
‘On 7th February I arrived at Victoria Station and was told no boats were running for a few days … But there were thousands … stranded in London with no money. They mutinied and tried to set fire … and wreck the station … They fixed bayonets and said we will go to Buckingham Palace …’
And what was the effect of all this lawless direct action?
Well, firstly, demobilization between November and December 1918,
Had been running at a laggardly 37,000 a week,
After the mutinies and strikes, a million were demobilized in 1919.
Secondly, as regards intervention in Russia,
Lloyd George spoke in the Commons in April 1919,
Asserting that sending the troops out to Russia
Would invite Bolshevism in at home:
Such plans were now dead in the water,
All thanks to those men who wanted to get back
To their homes, hearths, families and jobs.

Domestic motivations can have historic consequences.