The Badgers of Slad

The paintings of badgers on the posts at Slad,
Are beguiling and deceptive in their art,
Seemingly comic and anthropomorphic,
Each one contributes to a tragic tale,
Summarised in that curt and cruel word: cull.
They look like Tommies facing execution,
Tied to their posts at dawn’s first red-streaked light:
What passing-bells for those who die for cattle?

‘Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.’

The paintings of badgers on the posts at Slad,
Are beguiling and deceptive in their art,
Seemingly comic and anthropomorphic,
Each one contributes to a tragic tale,
Summarised in that curt and cruel word: cull.
They look like Tommies facing execution,
Tied to their posts at dawn’s first red-streaked light:
What passing-bells for those who die for cattle?

‘Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.’

read more

Edward Thomas and the Snake’s Head Fritillary

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town –
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet’,
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town -
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet',
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

read more

Echo Chambers – Archibald and Dorothy

Echo Chamber: Voices of Conscience – a sound and photography exhibition marking 100 years of conscientious objection – owes its inspirational existence to Fiona Meadley, Dom Thomas and Ruth Davey. The exhibition includes information submitted by living relatives of Conscientious Objectors from WW1: it was a privilege to contribute to this history, with our performance of the story of Dorothy and Archibald.
The link: http://radicalstroud.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Archie-And-Dorothy.m4a takes you to a recording made of Dorothy and Archibald , featuring the voices of Rachel Simpson and Stuart Butler, as they read the words of Alice Butler and Stuart, during the Stroud Book Festival in November 2016.

Echo Chamber: Voices of Conscience - a sound and photography exhibition marking 100 years of conscientious objection – owes its inspirational existence to Fiona Meadley, Dom Thomas and Ruth Davey. The exhibition includes information submitted by living relatives of Conscientious Objectors from WW1: it was a privilege to contribute to this history, with our performance of the story of Dorothy and Archibald.
The link: http://radicalstroud.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Archie-And-Dorothy.m4a takes you to a recording made of Dorothy and Archibald , featuring the voices of Rachel Simpson and Stuart Butler, as they read the words of Alice Butler and Stuart, during the Stroud Book Festival in November 2016. read more

1916-1926: from the Somme to the General Strike

The British Army at the start of the Great War
Was essentially ‘Wellingtonian’:
A predominantly country-set set of officers,
A predominantly rural army of men,
Battalions and companies of men and officers,
With a reverence for tradition and locality,
Be it the BEF or the Territorials:
‘I daresay it is snobbish to say so, but the fact remains that men will follow a gentleman much more readily than they will an officer whose social position is not so well assured.’
Kitchener’s recruits changed that, of course,
And then with conscription, by the end of the war,
5 million industrial workers had joined the army –
‘More than 10% of the … workforce joined up in the first two months of war’;
Two and a half million men had volunteered by 1916
And a further 2 million men indicated
That they would willingly countenance conscription;
This patriotism still meant some cultural problems, however:
Trade unionism, for example;
But, in the main, military discipline did its job:
From saluting right through to executions …
Although when trouble did break out, as at Etaples,
Then the old class antagonisms came to the surface –
As with General Haig:
‘Men of this stamp are not content with remaining quiet,
they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances…’;
But class prejudice was of little consequence
When placed alongside racial prejudice –
When colonial support workers went on strike in France,
Summary public shootings were the response.

So, after this contextualization,
I, do make Oath, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me.
So help me God.

So now on to the Somme:

‘Pals’ Battalions, on the whistle, lads. Steady pace in straight lines.
Into the remembrance of statistics’:
‘How many officers and men went over the top on July 1st 1916?’
‘150,000, sir.’
‘What weight did the men carry?”
’66 lbs: rifle, grenades, ammo, rations, cape, helmet, gas masks (two), goggles, sandbags (empty, four), field dressing, pick/shovel, water bottle, mess tin, sir.’
‘And our casualties?’
’19,000 dead and 38,000 wounded. Highest figures ever in a single day, sir.’
‘Good man. Correct again. And was that it?’
‘No, sir: another five months of bloody attrition, sir, and another 420,000 casualties. ’
‘How long was the front?”
‘Eighteen miles, sir; but listen to this account of the 1st of July from Captain Gerald Brenan, M.C., sir. It gives a flavour of the battle.’
‘The battle opened a little after sunrise on 1 July 1916, with a bombardment that shook the air with its roar and sent up the earth on the German trenches in gigantic fountains. It seemed as though no human being could live through that. Then our men climbed by short ladders onto the parapet and began to move forward shoulder to shoulder, one behind the other, across the rough ground. They moved slowly because each of them carried a weight of 66 pounds. Then the German barrage fell on our trenches and their machine-guns began to rattle furiously. Clouds of blue and grey smoke from the bursting shells, mixing with a light ground mist, hid the general view, but in the gaps I could see little ant-like figures, some of them keeping on in a broken line, others falling, crawling, lying still. Each of them carried on his backs a tin triangle to assist in their identification by our artillery, and the early morning sun shone on these triangles and made them glitter. But as the hours passed I could not see that any of them had reached the German front line and later I knew why: our bombardment had not penetrated the deep dugouts the Germans had excavated in the chalk and their machine-gunners had come out and were mowing our men down …
The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, the heat of that scorching summer day grew and grew, but though I was never able to get any coherent picture, the failure of our assault on Serre gradually became obvious. Those three or four hundred yards of rough ground that lay in front of our front lines were thickly sprinkled with silver triangles, only a few of which still moved, while the German parapet was bare and still the pounding of our front trenches went on …
After fifty-six hours spent in shell-holes, sleeping among and even pillowed by dead comrades, without water, without food, having to defend themselves the whole time, a few of the more determined had managed to creep or fight their way back through the German lines to tell their tale.’
‘ Now here’s the last two stanzas from a poem by Second-Lieutenant Robert Ernest Vernede, 3rd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, sir: it’s a poem about three selfless and quietly heroic sergeants who were killed, sir.’
‘Those sergeants I lost at Delville
On a night that was cruel and black,
They gave their lives for England’s sake,
They never will come back.

What of the hundreds in whose hearts
Thoughts no less splendid burn? …
I wonder what England will do for them
If ever they return?’

‘A few more statistics please, my good man. Death by our own hands – by the war’s end, how many of our men were executed by firing squad?’
‘346, I think, sir.’
‘Do you have any reports in my valise that we could share?’
‘Course, sir. Certainly sir. Here we are; three cases of privates.’
“The man has a very bad character both in civil life and in the army. He is probably useless as a soldier. For the above reasons I feel it my duty to recommend that the sentence be carried out. I am quite aware that the general worthlessness of the man is inclined to influence above decision, but I have given due weight to this point and see no reason to allow it to alter my opinion. I do not think it affects my judgment.”
“This man was not a man who gave much trouble neither was he in any way a man whom one would pick out as a good man. He is considered by his Platoon Commander to be of poor intellect, and I consider that he is a typical slum product of a low level intelligence…”
“The …Battalion … contains a proportion of rough characters and lately there has been a certain amount of insubordination especially when orders are issued for heavy work in the trenches. I am reluctantly compelled to state that I think an example is necessary in the interests of discipline of the Brigade.”
‘Is that enough, sir?’
‘Anything on NCO’s?’
‘Course, sir. Here we are again, happy as can be, all good friends and jolly good company.’
“As an NCO he is a failure, being too familiar with his subordinates, and surly and morose to his superiors … Chief cause of complaint is that NCOs will not assert themselves as they come from the same class of men as those in the ranks and think too much of their position after the war when they will all be in the workshops again.”
‘Were most men executed for funk? Cowardice?’
‘No, sir. Desertion. Here’s the views of two different generals, sir.’
“‘I consider the extreme penalty should be inflicted because: (a) the man has already deserted once on active service (b) he has no intention of fighting for his country (c) is quite worthless, as a soldier or in any other capacity and is better removed from the world.”
“He was no rotter deserving to die like that. He was merely fragile. He had volunteered to fight for his country … at the dictates of his own young heart. He failed. And for that failure he was condemned to die …”
‘What did the young man say?’
‘He said, sir, “What will my mother say?”’
‘You’re going on a walk today, aren’t you?”
‘Yes sir, Bristol, sir; we’re meeting at Temple Meads and then walking around St Philips and the Dings; we’re remembering the days of the Triple Industrial Alliance before the war. And remembering Alfred Jefferies who lived in St Philips and was executed for desertion on November 1st 1916: firing squad at dawn, sir. His brother Arthur was killed in 1916 too, at the Somme, sir. A bad year for the family, sir.’
‘Cheer me up, old chap, for God’s sake. Sing me a song or something.’
‘Course sir, certainly sir.’
“If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are
If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.”

‘Before I finish, sir, one last thought. I’ve often reminisced about the old days sir, and one thing’s stuck in my mind but it’s rarely mentioned, sir. You know how people talk about the sacrifices and heroism at the Somme and so on, sir. But I’ve often thought what if those men had lived? Then we wouldn’t have lost the General Strike ten years later, sir. Just a thought sir – but worth thinking about.’

‘I’d like to finish, now, sir, if I may, with the last two stanzas of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Aftermath, from March 1919. Thank you, sir, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.’

“Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized you and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?”

‘Just think, sir, those boys might have won the General Strike, sir. And I wouldn’t be calling you sir, sir. Would I?’

The Unknown Army: Mutinies In The British Army In World War One

By Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill

The authors make the introductory point that the early 20th century British army was still almost Wellingtonian, despite some reforms: ‘I daresay it is snobbish to say so, but the fact remains that men will follow a gentleman much more readily than they will an officer whose social position is not so well assured.’ Furthermore, the majority of the army came from rural areas; the urban working class was in an extreme minority; the battalion was the basic unit of the army and drilling was seen as important as preparation for war .The battalion had something of a family atmosphere: 800 or so men, organised into companies, with a local attachment and a reverence for tradition.

Kitchener’s recruits meant the end, of course, of this BEF and Territorial Army tradition. By the end of the war, 5 million industrial workers had joined the army – ‘Nor were they unwillingly dragged in. More than 10% of the industrial workforce joined up in the first two months of war…’ Two and a half million men had volunteered by 1916 and a further 2 million men indicated that they would willingly countenance conscription.

This patriotism still meant some cultural problems, however: trade unionism, for example. But, in the main, military discipline did its job: from saluting right through to executions. But when trouble did break out, as at Etaples, then the old class antagonisms came to the surface – as with General Haig: ‘Men of this stamp are not content with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances…’ But class prejudice was of little consequence when placed alongside racial prejudice – when colonial support workers went on strike in France, summary public shootings were the response.

The top brass military and domestic fears of 1917 and early 1918 were son forgotten when the late summer and autumn 1918 Allied advance occurred, but the armistice only led to demands for speedy demobilization – and the strikes and mutinies of 1919. And that leads to the question of whether there is any substance to the claim that revolution could have been a possibility in 1919, rather than 1918. The essential question underpinning this is whether the army strikes and mutinies could be defined as political, or merely, as it were, ‘economic’ in the sense that they involved disputes over hours, wages and a quicker return to civvy street: conditions of service rather than capitalism.

So where did these actions take place and what impact did they have:

Calais (‘we had a real hard-core of trade unionists and Socialists’), Dunkirk (‘practically all downed tools’) and Boulogne were affected; the disruption of supplies from these areas to the entire British army brought concessions from top brass and the strikes soon ended. Even though the left was to say the least, in a minority in these affairs, this did not stop General Sir Julian Byng from asserting that the strike ‘had its origins in Bolshevism.’

Then there was also action at Le Havre (riots, destruction and looting), Etaples (vandalism and insubordination) and then in January 1919, in Folkestone, 10,000 soldiers marched through the town to voice their resentment. A Soldiers’ Union was formed and a compromise was reached about demobilisation.

January 1919 saw further direct action with servicemen marching on Whitehall; Bristol and Maidstone saw unrest too: ‘I well remember the regiment going on strike and marching through the streets of Maidstone protesting about the very poor rations we were receiving.’ Shoreham in Sussex saw a mutiny over demobilisation too and when a general officer spoke in ‘his Oxford accent … “I have been sent here from the War Office to talk to you men,” that was as far as he got when some old warrior in the audience got up and shouted in his cockney accent, “Don’t you believe it cock it’s us that are going to talk to you,” which they then proceeded to do.’

There was action in the Middle East over ‘food and leave and…discipline; and…demobilization.’ A meeting in Kanatara gives a flavour of the time: ‘As the chairman rose to address the crowd, one soldier in the audience…suggested we should start by singing the National Anthem, to which suggestion the chairman gave his assent. The Crowd at once began to sing that well know soldiers’ song Take me back to dear old blighty. This at once put the meeting off to a very good start.’

And when demobilization took place, what was it like? Here is another flavour of the time:

‘Well, we arrived at Marseilles…the Stationmaster said he hadn’t any trains for us, so there was a whole row of cattle trucks…we brushed the manure out with our army caps and got in and stayed there till they found an engine. We were 2 or 3 days going across France… At last we reached Boulogne… The cross-channel Boat Maid of Orleans was in dock…so we all got on…after it seemed hours trying to get us off the Boat they decided to sail… We reached Dover at last. We all got on a train what was going to Charing-Cross, more trouble… At last they decided as there was so many of us they would have to take us to London…a colonel asked us to forget what had happened. I ask you…’